Albino Luciani was born on October 17, 1912, in what is now
Canale d'Agordo, in the diocese of Belluno in the Dolomite Alps of Northern
Italy. His father, a confirmed socialist who did not oppose his son's vocation
to the priesthood, was a migrant worker and then a glassblower in Venice. The
family, like those of Pius X and John XXIII, was always poor, and Albino knew
from personal experience the hardships suffered by the modern urban proletariat.
He was the first pope chosen from their ranks.
After studies in the local seminary and Rome, he was ordained
on July 7, 1935. He was assigned at once to teach theology in the seminary, of
which he was made vice-rector, and by 1947 he became vicar general of Belluno.
In December 1958 John XXIII made him Bishop of Vittorio Veneto, near Venice, and
as a special mark of friendship consecrated him himself in St. Peter's in Rome.
Paul VI made him Patriarch of Venice in December 1969, and Cardinal in March
In his years in Belluno, Vittorio Veneto, and Venice, Cardinal
Luciani shunned the limelight so successfully that if he had died a week before
his election as pope it would hardly have been noticed outside his home
territory. He was helped by his unimpressive appearance and bearing, his lack of
eloquence, and his absorption in the inner life of the Church. He kept out of
the public controversies of the day unless, like communism and divorce, they
affected the interests of religion. His field of special interest was
catechetics, and he was a born teacher. He had a hobby that is rare among
Italian ecclesiastics: English literature, with special attention to Mark Twain.
He was not an accomplished linguist, and his first and last trip outside Italy
was to Brazil in 1977. His health was always indifferent, but he compensated for
it by careful use of his time.
The conclave of August 1978 was the largest ever, and one of
the shortest. There were 114 eligible voters, including 27 Italians, but 111
were able to attend. The world was surprised by the conclave's duration--it
ended on the third ballot on the first day of voting--and even more by its
choice. In the worldwide speculation that preceded it, few thought of the
Patriarch of Venice, though two of the six popes elected in this century came
from that beautiful city. The new Pope, the first who ever used a double name,
chose the names of his two immediate predecessors as a sign of continuity. He
had never been in the diplomatic service of the Church, nor had he served in the
central headquarters in Rome. The conclave sought and found a pastoral pope. The
wisdom of its choice was proved by his instant rapport with people everywhere
and by the sorrow caused by his sudden and wholly unexpected death on September
28, 1978. He had not had time even to outline the program of his pontificate.
Excerpted from "Popes
Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.