Pope John Paul I

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John Paul I
Name Albino Luciani
Papacy began August 26, 1978
Papacy ended September 28, 1978
Predecessor Paul VI
Successor John Paul II
Born October 17, 1912
Place of birth Canale d'Agordo, Italy
Died September 28, 1978
Place of death Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Pope John Paul I (in Latin Ioannes Paulus PP. I), born Albino Luciani (October 17, 1912September 28, 1978), reigned as pope and as sovereign of Vatican City from August 26, 1978 to September 28, 1978. His 33-day papacy was one of the shortest reigns in papal history, resulting in the Year of Three Popes. Having died before he could make a legacy as a pope, he is best remembered for his friendliness and humility, drawing comparisons with "Good Pope John", the widely popular Pope John XXIII.

He was the first pope to choose a double name and did so to honor his two immediate predecessors, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. He was also the first (and so far only) pope to use "the first" in his regnal name.



Personal background and papal election

Luciani was born in the Forno de Canale (now called Canale d'Agordo) in the Belluno province, region of Veneto northern Italy.

Luciani pictured in a coin.
Luciani pictured in a coin.

He was educated in the minor and major seminaries of the diocese of Belluno and ordained a priest of the Roman Catholic Church on July 7, 1935. Luciani later received a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He served as his diocese's seminary vice rector from 1937 to 1947, also teaching students in the areas of dogmatic and moral theology, canon law and sacred art.

In 1948, he was named pro-vicar general, and in 1958, vicar general of that diocese, before being made bishop of Vittorio Veneto in 1958 by Pope John XXIII. As a bishop, he participated in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). On December 15, 1969, he was appointed patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul VI and took possession of the archdiocese on February 3, 1970. Pope Paul raised him to the cardinalate in the consistory of March 5, 1973.

John Paul described himself as quiet, unassuming, and modest, with a warm sense of humor. In his notable Angelus of August 27, delivered on the first day of his papacy, he impressed the world with his natural friendliness.

The August 1978 Conclave

Arms of John Paul I
Arms of John Paul I

Luciani was elected on the third ballot of the 1978 Papal Conclave. He chose the regnal name of John Paul, the first double name in the history of the papacy, explaining in his famous Angelus that he took it as a thankful honour to his two predecessors: John XXIII, whom he had subsequently succeeded in Venice, had named him a bishop, and Paul VI had named him Patriarch and a cardinal.

Obeservers have suggested that his selection was linked to the rumored divisions between rival camps within the College of Cardinals:

Outside the Italians, now themselves a lessening influence within the increasingly internationalist College of Cardinals, were figures like Karol Cardinal Wojtyła. Luciani later claimed to his private secretary, Father John Magee, that he had sat facing the next pope. (Some reports claim he called the man "the foreigner".) In 1980, having become Papal Master of Ceremonies, Magee out of curiosity checked the seating plans in the Sistine Chapel for the August 1978 conclave, which were kept in a file in his office. It showed that the man opposite Luciani was indeed Wojtyła. He immediately told Wojtyła, later Pope John Paul II, of his predecessor's prediction.

Over the days following the conclave, cardinals effectively declared that with general great joy they had elected "God's candidate". Cardinal Pironio stated that, "We were witnesses of a moral miracle." And later, Mother Teresa commented: "He has been the greatest gift of God, a sunray of God's love shining in the darkness of the world."

Long conclave predicted

Pope John Paul I on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. John Paul's warmth and smile earned comparisons with his hero Pope John XXIII.
Pope John Paul I on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica. John Paul's warmth and smile earned comparisons with his hero Pope John XXIII.

Many, including the cardinals, expected a long conclave, deadlocked between the camps. Luciani was an easy compromise. He was a pastor more in the spirit of Vatican II than an austere intellectual, a man with little autocratic pretensions and so less unwelcome to some than Giovanni Cardinal Benelli. And for Italian cardinals, determined not to "lose" the papacy to a non-Italian for the first time in centuries and faced with other controversial Italian candidates, Luciani was an Italian with no baggage. He had no enemies created through a high profile career in the Curia, made no controversial or radical statements or sermons and was just a smiling gentleman, a pastor.

Even before the conclave began, journalists covering it for Vatican Radio noted increasing mention of his name, often from cardinals who barely knew him but wanted to find out more; not least, "What is the state of the man's health?" Had they known just how precarious his health was (his feet were so swollen he could not wear the shoes bought for him for the conclave) they might have looked elsewhere for Paul VI's successor. But they did not. Hence, to his own horror and disbelief, he was elected to the papacy.

Vincent Browne's claim

Pope John Paul I received the simpler Papal Inauguration instead of the traditional Papal Coronation, held in September 1978. He is seen here with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI
Pope John Paul I received the simpler Papal Inauguration instead of the traditional Papal Coronation, held in September 1978. He is seen here with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI

The belief that Luciani's election was a decision not made until during the conclave was challenged by senior Irish journalist Vincent Browne, who in 2005 revealed that he had been told by a senior Vatican source, whom he declined to name, that a number of cardinals had already decided informally amongst themselves to elect Luciani pope (though Luciani himself was unaware of it) during the interregnum period between Pope Paul VI's death and the conclave. The source told him to expect a quick election. Browne recounted discussing this with sociologist and priest Father Andrew M. Greeley, who dismissed the claim, the idea of a short conclave and Luciani's chances of election. Their discussion was cut short by the crowd reacting to the traditional white smoke issuing from the Sistine Chapel's chimney, the conclusion of what indeed had turned out to be an abnormally short conclave. To Greeley's visible astonishment Luciani was announced as the new pope.

The smiling pope

Styles of
Pope John Paul I
Reference style His Holiness
Spoken style Your Holiness
Religious style Holy Father
Posthumous style Servant of God

After his election, John Paul quickly made several decisions that would "humanise" the office of pope, admitting publicly he had turned scarlet when Paul VI had named him the patriarch of Venice. He was the first modern pope to speak in the singular form, using I instead of we, though the official records of his speeches were often rewritten in more formal style by traditionalist aides, who reinstated the royal we in press releases and in L'Osservatore Romano. He was the first to refuse the sedia gestatoria until Vatican pressure convinced him of its need, in order to allow the faithful to see him. Vatican officials tactfully did not mention to him that his awkward flat-footed walk, which they felt was "unregal" and ungainly, also embarrassed them.

John Paul was the first pope to admit that the prospect of the papacy had daunted him to the point that other cardinals had to encourage him to accept it. In fact, he was reported to have told them in the Conclave, "May God forgive you for what you have done on my behalf", with the smile that became his trademark; he also strongly suggested to his aides and staff that he believed he was unfit to be pope. Though Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo explicitly required that John Paul be crowned, he controversially refused to have the millennium-old traditional Papal Coronation and wear the Papal Tiara.[1] He instead chose to have a simplified Papal Inauguration Mass. John Paul I used as his motto (Humilitas). Through his actions, John Paul emphasized the servant role of the pope that is expressed in the Latin phrase Servus Servorum Dei (The Servant of the Servants of God).

Pope John Paul I being carried on the Sedia GestatoriaInitially he declined to use it. The Vatican convinced him that without it the crowds could not see him.
Pope John Paul I being carried on the Sedia Gestatoria
Initially he declined to use it. The Vatican convinced him that without it the crowds could not see him.

New Pope, new rules

As a theologian, he was regarded as being on the conservative side. He was a public defender of Pope Paul VI's 1968 Humanæ Vitæ [2], an encyclical on sexual mores which restated the Catholic Church's opposition to artificial birth control in the age of the contraceptive pill, [3] [4]. In private, however, some speculate that he expressed reservations to Paul VI. He raised considerable worry within the Vatican when he met with representatives of the United Nations to discuss the issue of overpopulation in the Third World, an issue which was particularly controversial because of the Catholic Church's stance against artificial birth control. Some critics of Pope Paul's Humanæ Vitæ expressed the hope that the new pontiff would somehow reverse this traditional teaching.

John Paul, however, died without issuing any such reversal. His successor's continued support of Humanæ Vitæ [5] [6] has led some to concoct conspiracy theories that John Paul I was murdered over this teaching. [7]

John Paul I intended to prepare an encyclical in order to confirm the lines of the Second Vatican Council ("an extraordinary long-range historical event and of growth for the Church", he said) and to enforce the Church's discipline in the life of priests and the faithful. In discipline, he was a reformist, instead, and was the author of initiatives such as the devolution of one per cent of each church's entries for the poor churches in the Third World. The visit of Jorge Rafael Videla, president of the Argentine junta, to the Vatican caused considerable controversy.

The tension among those in the Vatican aware of his original document to Pope Paul on contraception exploded when the pope expressed a certain consideration for contraception. He did so after his meeting with the United Nations delegation, resulting in notable editing of his speeches on the pages of L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper.

John Paul may have impressed people by his personal warmth, but within the Vatican he was seen as an intellectual lightweight not up to the responsibilities of the papacy. In the words of John Cornwell, "they treated him with condescension"; one senior cleric discussing Luciani said "they have elected Peter Sellers". Critics contrasted his sermons mentioning Pinocchio to the learned intellectual discourses of Pius XII or Paul VI. Visitors spoke of his isolation and loneliness, and the fact that he was the first pope in decades not to have had either a diplomatic (such as Pius XI and John XXIII) or Curial career (such as Pius XII and Paul VI).

Pope John Paul was accused of being unable to handle the endless supply of documentation that was sent to him by Jean-Marie Cardinal Villot, the Cardinal Secretary of State. Villot contrasted John Paul I's look of panic when faced with problems against John Paul II's calm. Some insiders, including the Secretary of State and the pope's private secretary, John Magee, questioned his ability to do the job. Magee gave a revealing account of the incident where the pope allowed a large loose-leaf top secret document to fall from his roof garden and blow over the Vatican rooftops. (The Vatican's fire service was called to retrieve the hundreds of pages.) He spoke of finding John Paul I crying; he had to send the pope to bed, where he later found him lying in a foetal position saying the Rosary.

Luciani himself had severe doubts as to his suitability for the papacy, predicting that his reign would be short and "the foreigner" would succeed him. He repeatedly asked people, concerning his election by the College of Cardinals, "Why did they pick me?"


John Paul I lying in state.
John Paul I lying in state.

John Paul's quick death, only 33 days after his election, caused worldwide shock. The official cause of death specified by the Vatican was a myocardial infarction, a common heart attack. However, a certain degree of uncertainty accompanies this diagnosis because no autopsy was performed.

The Vatican's handling of several events surrounding the death provoked further concern. It claimed a papal secretary discovered that the Pope had died, whereas in fact a nun who had come to bring him some coffee found him in the Papal Household. It claimed he had been reading Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ, yet his copy of that book was still in Venice. It lied about the time of death, and conflicting stories were told as to his health. It was hinted that his ill health was due to heavy smoking; in fact he never smoked. The impact of such misinformation was shown in a headline of the Irish Independent newspaper, "THIRTY-THREE BRAVE DAYS" conveying the image of a weak and ill man physically unable to withstand the pressures of the papacy, and who was in effect killed by it.

The Pope's body was embalmed within one day of his death. Wild rumours spread. One rumour claimed that a visiting prelate had recently died from drinking "poisoned coffee" prepared for the pope. A visiting prelate actually had died some days earlier, but there was no evidence of poison. Another unsubstantiated rumour described the Pope's plans to dismiss senior Vatican officials over allegations of corruption. The suddenness of his embalming raised suspicions that it had been done to prevent a post-mortem examination. However the Vatican insisted that a papal post-mortem was prohibited under Vatican law. However a source (Augostino Chigi in his diary) reports a post-mortem was carried out on the remains of Pope Pius VIII in 1830.

Pope John Paul I's tomb under St. Peter's Basilica
Pope John Paul I's tomb under St. Peter's Basilica

Conspiracy theories

The discrepancies in the Vatican's account of the events surrounding John Paul I's death—its "inaccurate" statements about who found the body, what he had been reading, when he had been found and whether a post-mortem could be carried out—produced a number of conspiracy theories, many associated with the Vatican Bank. Even fiction focused on the bizarre death of the pope: the movie The Godfather Part III featured a major plotline depicting the Vatican Bank involved in organized crime, with various intrigues resulting in the assassination of a pope openly named in the movie as "John Paul I".

In addition, Vatican health-care had been notoriously poor for some of his predecessors. Pope Pius XII was "treated" by Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, an unqualified "doctor" whose "remedies" left the pope with constant hiccups and rotting teeth, and who attempted unsuccessfully to sell photographs of the Pope on his deathbed to a magazine. Pope Paul VI's poor health care is generally agreed to have sped the approach of his death. There is no evidence to suggest that the standard of Vatican health care had improved by Pope John Paul I's 33-day reign. Nor, given his apparent lack of heart problems (as attested to by his own doctor, who flatly contradicted the rumours that came from the Vatican in the aftermath of the pope's death) was there any apparent immediate requirement for a review of medical services. In contrast, John Paul I's successor, Pope John Paul II, always had access to excellent medical services, a fact which saved his life after the assassination attempt made upon him in 1981.

It is possible that Pope John Paul died either naturally or as a result of an accidental overdose of low blood pressure medication. Even the apparently suspicious quick embalming could have a logical explanation. The bodies of two of his immediate predecessors, Pope Pius XII and Pope Paul VI, had undergone rapid decay; in Pius's case, due to a disastrous embalming at the hands of his "doctor" Galeazzi-Lisi that sped up the process rather than slowing it down. (The stench of Pope Pius's rapidly decaying corpse led some of the Swiss Guards, who provided a ceremonial guard of honour during his lying in state, to vomit and faint; the body turned purple and the pope's nose broke off.) Given the fact that Pope John Paul died in September, a period of high temperatures in Rome, it was perhaps understandable that Vatican officials might have wanted to ensure a similar disaster did not occur again.

The claim that papal rules prevented post-mortems could have an innocent explanation: having embalmed the pope's body to avoid rapid decay, a mythical "rule" could have been dreamt up to justify the action. It has, however, at one stage been claimed that close friends of the late Pope, to their embarrassment, were ordered away from his corpse while some form of inspection, perhaps even a post-mortem, occurred. If that is true, then the fact that no results were subsequently released might suggest that some evidence had been found that John Paul's death was not due simply to natural causes, but due either to murder or an accidental overdose that the Vatican might not wish to make public.

David Yallop's book

David Yallop's controversial book In God's Name proposed the theory that the pope was in "potential danger" because of alleged corruption in the Istituto per le Opere Religiose (IOR, Institute of Religious Works, the Vatican's most powerful financial institution, commonly known as the Vatican Bank). This corruption supposedly involved the bank's head, Paul Marcinkus, along with Roberto Calvi of the Banco Ambrosiano, as well as freemasonry and the mafia. Yallop also offers as suspects Archbishop John Patrick Cody of Chicago, whom he believes Luciani was about to force into retirement, and Cardinal Villot, because of his theological differences with the new pope.

Yallop's book exposed many of the "inaccurate" statements issued by the Vatican in the days after John Paul's death and received international attention, including demands from some senior churchmen for an inquiry into the death itself. Its theories, however, have not been widely accepted and were severely undermined in the eyes of some by John Cornwell's subsequent book (see below), which proposes a 'benign' conspiracy to account for the discrepancies in the official version of the Pope's death. After decades of ongoing controversy, it has recently been reported that the investigation about the death of John Paul I would be reopened.

John Cornwell's conclusions

British historian and journalist John Cornwell, in his book A Thief in The Night, examines Yallop’s points of suspicion and challenges each one.

To allow for a cleanup of the evidence, Yallop’s murder theory requires that the pope’s body be found at 4:30 or 4:45 a.m., one hour earlier than official reports estimated. He bases this on an early story by the Italian news service ANSA that garbled the time and misrepresented the layout of the papal apartments. Yallop also claims to have had testimony from Sister Vincenza to this effect but refused to show Cornwell his transcripts.

John Paul I Giving The Blessing.
John Paul I Giving The Blessing.

Both papal secretaries and a confidante of the late Sister Vincenza insist that the body was discovered about 5:30 a.m. The nun noticed that the coffee she had left outside the pope’s bedroom door a few minutes earlier, as per his morning routine, had not been touched. She went through two sets of doors and parted a curtain to find John Paul dead on his bed with a light on and reading material in his hands. Magee was summoned first, then Lorenzi. They found rigor mortis already beginning to set in and tore the pope’s cassock while preparing his private laying-out. This supports the official estimate for time of death as 11 p.m. the previous evening. Yallop’s theory requires the pope to be freshly dead at 4:30 a.m. since digitalis administered the night before would have taken hours to work.

Yallop suggests a “secret” autopsy while John Paul was lying in state, but what he refers to was a simple retouching of the corpse. Yallop claims no death certificate was issued; Cornwell reproduces it.

Yallop also claims that the undertakers were summoned at 5 a.m. before the official finding of the body, but this is based on an incorrect news story taken from garbled secondhand information. The Vatican carpool log shows the embalmers were sent for at 5:15 p.m. The procedure began about 7 p.m.

Yallop questions the disappearance of incriminating personal effects, supposedly removed by Cardinal Villot. He thinks John Paul’s slippers and glasses might have been stained with vomit caused by the digitalis poisoning. But Cornwell finds that the pope’s sister took them. His last will was a brief document bequeathing his goods to a Venetian convent, not a spiritual testament (as claimed by Yallop).

Yallop’s one damning datum was a Swiss Guard’s observation of Marcinkus on foot lurking near the papal residence at an unusually early hour on the morning of the pope’s death. But the guardsman, Hans Roggen, told Cornwell that his testimony was taken deceptively and misrepresented. Marcinkus was a demonstrably early riser and had driven in at his usual time. And contrary to Yallop’s accusation, Roggen had not been asleep at his post.

Having demolished Yallop’s evidence, Cornwell offers his own explanation. After conferring with a cardiac specialist and a forensic medicine expert, he rules out heart attack, congestive heart failure, and aneurysm in favor of pulmonary embolism as the cause of John Paul’s death. If the pope’s body is exhumed someday, an autopsy could clarify the cause of death, but this would never be permitted.

Cornwell's research suggested that Luciani had indeed been in poor health, as confirmed by his niece, herself a medical doctor, and many senior Vatican figures. She suggested that Luciani suffered from swollen ankles and feet (a sign of poor circulation and excessive coagulability of the blood) such that he could not wear the shoes purchased for him at the time of his election. Curiously, a Vatican physician had not seen him nor had his prescriptions filled.

Cornwell concluded that John Paul I died of a pulmonary embolism (which was consistent with Luciani's past medical history—including a retinal embolism in 1976). Cornwell suggested that John Paul died at about 9.30 p.m., perhaps 10.00 p.m., at his desk and was found on the floor by the priest secretaries. These moved the body into the bed and placed it in what is truly an unusual position for a person who has died suddenly (sitting up, eyeglasses in place and papers in hand), with no indication whatsoever that he was experiencing a fatal attack. Cornwell's rationale is that the two secretaries were trying to cover-up the fact that the Pope had suffered two episodes of acute chest pain that are consistent with a diagnosis of an imminent pulmonary embolism, as well as a severe coughing fit.

They suggested in both cases that the doctors be summoned, but the Pope brushed them off. Cornwell claims that guilt drove them to want to make his death look sudden so that no blame would fall on them. (In addition it would be more respectful to Luciani's memory and the papacy's honour for it to be suggested that Luciani had died a dignified death sitting reading on his bed, rather than alone, crumpled in a fetal position on the ground.)

Both secretaries (one, John Magee, now the Irish Catholic bishop of Cloyne) deny it—but Cornwell's theory explains many of the strange circumstances without resorting to major conspiracies. This simplicity gives it a significant advantage over other explanations. It also explains strange comments by both men; Magee talked on the night of the Pope's death to the nuns in the Papal Household about the possibility of the Pope's death that night. The other secretary spoke of the pope's back and feet still being warm when he lifted him. Given the fact that, even if he died in bed, his corpse could not possibly have been warm by the time he was found (around 5.30 a.m., by which time rigor mortis had set in, resulting in the breaking of some bones in the late pope's body—his knee according to some accounts, his back to others—as it was forced into a suitable position for a lying-in-state). While the Vatican unofficially praised the book, others have criticised it, questioning its hypotheses and conclusions. The demands for the exhumation of the Pope's remains and the carrying out of a belated publicly acknowledged post-mortem have continued.

Legacy of Pope John Paul I

Pope John Paul I in a photograph during his short 33-day reign.
Pope John Paul I in a photograph during his short 33-day reign.

Pope John Paul I was not in office long enough to make any major practical changes within the Vatican or the Roman Catholic Church (except for his abandonment of the Papal Coronation). His impact was twofold: his image as a warm, gentle, kind man captivated the world. The media in particular fell under his spell. A writer himself, he was a skilled communicator. Whereas Pope Paul VI spoke as if he was delivering a doctoral thesis, John Paul I produced warmth, laughter, a 'feel good factor', and plenty of media-friendly sound bites. Secondly, the manner of his death raised many serious questions about the conduct of senior Vatican figures. Even those who believe that John Paul I died naturally admit that the Vatican in its handling of the death behaved with at best scant regard for the truth or accuracy. For others, the suspicion remains that the 'smiling pope', who charmed the world, died in a highly suspicious manner that has yet to be explained adequately.

He was regarded as a skilled communicator and writer, and has left behind some writings. His book Illustrissimi, written while he was a Cardinal, is a series of letters to a wide collection of historical and fictional persons. Among those still available are his letters to Jesus Christ, the Biblical King David, Figaro the Barber, Marie Theresa of Austria and Pinocchio. Others 'written to' included Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Christopher Marlowe.

A number of campaigns have been started to canonize Pope John Paul I. Miracles have been attributed to him. On June 10, 2003 the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints gave its permission for the opening of the beatification process of Pope John Paul I, Servant of God. The "diocesan phase" of this process began in Belluno on November 23, 2003.

John Paul II on his predecessor

Pope John Paul I greets the man who would succeed him, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.
Pope John Paul I greets the man who would succeed him, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

Karol Józef Wojtyła was elected to succeed John Paul I as Supreme Pontiff on Monday, 16 October 1978. The next day he celebrated Mass together with the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. After the mass, he delivered his first Urbi et Orbi (a traditional blessing) message, broadcast worldwide via radio. In it he pledged fidelity to the Second Vatican Council and paid tribute to his predecessor:

"What can we say of John Paul I? It seems to us that only yesterday he emerged from this assembly of ours to put on the papal robes—not a light weight. But what warmth of charity, nay, what 'an abundant outpouring of love'—which came forth from him in the few days of his ministry and which in his last Sunday address before the Angelus he desired should come upon the world. This is also confirmed by his wise instructions to the faithful who were present at his public audiences on faith, hope and love." (source: L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 26 October 1978, p.3)


  1. ^  Romano Pontifici Eligendo (1975) Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution on the election on the pontiff, Section 92.


Preceded by:
Giovanni Cardinal Urbani
Patriarch of Venice
1970 – 1978
Succeeded by:
Marco Cardinal Cé
Preceded by:
Paul VI
August – September 1978
Succeeded by:
John Paul II
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