January 2023 - Blessed John Paul I and the challenge of catechesis

On Sunday, September 4, Pope Francis declared Abino Luciani, Pope John I, “blessed,” the next step toward his canonization as saint. Luciani (1912-1978) was born of poor parents in the northern Italian town of Forno di Canale. He is the first pope to have taken two names, those of his immediate predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI, the popes of the Second Vatican Council, both now saints. His reign was the briefest in modern history, just 33 days, dying in his sleep in the Vatican palace on September 28, 1978.

At his inauguration as pope, usually called a “coronation,” Luciani declined the triple-crown papal tiara, preferring the miter and pallium of a bishop. He quickly became known as the “smiling pope” for his affable manner and approachableness.

“With a smile, Pope John Paul managed to communicate the goodness of the Lord,” Pope Francis said during the beatification Mass. “He embodied the poverty of the disciple, which is not only detachment from material goods but also victory over the temptation to put oneself at the center, to seek one’s own glory.”

Neither a theologian of the stature of Pope Benedict XVI nor a trained philosopher like John Paul II, Luciani in his time as bishop, first in Vittorio Veneto and later as patriarch of Venice, devoted himself to catechetics. St. John Paul II wrote of his predecessor that his “zeal and gifts as a catechist amazed us all.”

Catechetics has become a new focus of the Church under the leadership of Pope Francis. In his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel, 2013) and in the ongoing reorganization of the Roman curia, Pope Francis wishes to express a new urgency in the communication of the faith to a very different world. To this great project, in just a brief time, Pope John Paul I made an invaluable contribution.

John Paul I is the author of only two works: Catechetica in briciole (Catechism in Crumbs), written in 1949 to explain the catechism in simple terms, and Illustrissimi (The Famous), which was published as a book after his death.

Illustrissimi is composed of 21 fictional letters to famous people, saints as well as literary people, authors like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and J. K Chesterton, and fictional characters as wide-ranging as Figaro and Pinocchio. These letters, always positive and cheerful, appeared monthly in a Catholic magazine, and his choices reflected his own reading as a young person but especially his intention to bring the Church into fruitful dialogue with contemporary life, linking what is human with the divine. He explains this project in a letter to Charles Dickens.

Dear Dickens,

I am a bishop who has been given the odd task of writing a letter to some eminent person every month for the Messaggero di S. Antonio.

I was pushed for a time, around Christmas, and didn’t know whom to choose.  And then I saw an advertisement in a newspaper for your famous Christmas books and thought to myself, ‘I’ll write to him. I read his books as a boy and really loved them; they were filled with love for the poor and a sense for the need for social reform, they were warm and imaginative and human.’ So here I am, bothering you.

(Albino Luciani, Illustrissimi, Herefordshire, U.K. 2001. 15)

The book’s letter to Pinocchio begins:

Dear Pinocchio,

I was seven when I read your adventures for the first time. You can’t possibly imagine how much I enjoyed them and how often I read them again. In you as a child, I recognized something of myself, and in your surroundings, I saw my own. (Ibid. 93)

The Pinocchio most of us know is the Walt Disney 1940 film version. The original Pinocchio is the creation of Carlo Collodi whose collection of stories was published in Italian in 1883. In the original, Pinocchio’s life was all rough and tumble. While in the Disney film his nose famously grows in size when he is dishonest, in the original story, it is merely a symbol of the cruelty and chaos of his life. Disney’s version transforms Pinocchio into an ordinary boy. Collodi himself got tired of writing these stories, and under popular pressure, resumed them, making Pinocchio more like an ordinary young man. It is this second part of the story that is of interest in Illustrissimi.

Like nearly all youngsters between the ages of seventeen and twenty, on your way to autonomy, you may strike against a hard rock — the problem of faith. In fact, you’ll breathe in anti-religious objections as you breathe the air at school, in the factory, in the cinemas, and everywhere else. If you think of your faith as a heap of corn, then, a whole army of rats will attack it. If it’s a garment, hundreds of hands will try and tear it off you. If it’s a house, a pickaxe will try and demolish it, bit by bit. You must defend it: today, only the faith that is defended survives. (Ibid. 97)

Luciani offers two specific pieces of advice regarding faith: respect every certainty, for example, that Christ exists and that the apostles witnessed him die and rise and maintain a sense of mystery because we just don’t know everything about everything.

In Illustrissimi and in his whole approach to catechetics, it seems to me that Luciani draws inspiration from the inaugural encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam, issued in August 1964. In it, Pope Paul calls for “dialogue” as the way in which the Church is to be present in the world of today. Dialogue is to be the specific way of the Church as an art, a style of ministering to a world that requires “listening before speaking, listening with love, persistence and reverence.” In this way, he called for a shift in attitude from world denying to world affirming (Ecclesiam suam, 69).

I was living in Rome in 1978, the year of three popes: Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II. As rector of the North American College, I accompanied our first-year theologians to what was to be Pope John Paul I’s final public audience on the Wednesday before his death the following weekend.

In his audience talks, Pope John Paul I devoted himself to the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity; that day it was charity. As was his custom, the pope invited an elementary school student to come forward and stand next to his chair, so they could have a conversation. To make the point that we all must aspire to the greatest of all virtues, charity, he asked the young man what grade he was in. Then the pope commented, “You must be anxious to graduate to the next grade in your school.” The boy answered that he was not anxious at all to move to the next grade because he loved the teacher he had. Having been sabotaged, Pope John Paul improvised another way to explain his message.

During the beatification Mass, Pope Francis said that Blessed John Paul I was someone who wasn’t afraid to live his faith to the fullest. Quoting the new Blessed, Pope Francis said that if you want to kiss Jesus crucified, ‘you cannot help bending over the cross and letting yourself be pricked by a few thorns of the crown on the Lord’s head.’ The pope added, “[O]ur new Blessed lived that way: in the joy of the Gospel, without compromises, loving to the very end.”

Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, S.T.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Portland and the author of eight books.