the smiling pope

John Paul I

Welcome to Throwback Thursday on catholic dialogue! I’ve been revisiting some past posts, and thought I would share them with you. Here’s one on ‘the smiling pope’, written on August 27, 2012. 

Where were you when you heard the news of the death of Pope John Paul I? I was just beginning a year’s live-in experience at our local Benedictine monastery. Then, as now, I woke to the news from the clock radio by my bed. Stunned by the announcement, I left my room to tell the first sister I saw. She immediately wrote the news on the black-board to inform the community on the way to morning prayers.

Albino Luciani was elected pope on August 26, 1978. He took the dual name of John Paul as a sign of deep respect for his two predecessors. He died suddenly, in his sleep, on September 28, 1978; though conspiracy theories still circulate.

John Paul I was known as ‘the smiling pope’, and the above pictures show why. If the eyes are the window to the soul, then one can only presume that his soul was of the warm, gentle kind. He looks like a man you would want as a dinner guest; pleasant, easy-going, and good humored.

We are taught not to judge a book by its cover. Yet, often the book cover intentionally points us to its contents. It’s called marketing. Certain graphics, colors, and even font styles are known to appeal to a specific audience. In the Catholic Church, our choice of clothing and worship style is often an intentional sign pointing others to a political or ideological statement.

What does it tell you when priests, bishops and popes choose the highest and most ornate mitres, the finest silks and linens, the most delicate lace, the most exquisite footwear? What does it tell you when they choose simple liturgical garb and choose not to be the focus of all eyes?

Even more than the clothes on your back, your face can shout out to the world whether you are a person of optimistic joy or pessimistic misery. Some people have the gift of a smiling face with eyes that shine out their hope to all they meet.

Veronica Scarisbrick, at Vatican Radio, put together a 10 minute audio feature on John Paul I titled John Paul I: no coronation, no tiara, no fanfare… The feature includes the pope’s own voice, and comments from the late Cardinal John Patrick Foley, Cardinal William Wakefield Baum and Cardinal Prosper Grech.

We had John Paul I for a very short time; too short to really know what kind of pope he would have been. But, it is easy to make a judgment based on his simplicity and warmth, his humility and choice to fore-go the traditional, ornate papal coronation ceremony. And, yes, there is his smile. We can only wonder what our church would be like today if he did not leave us so quickly.