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John Paul I - Debate In Death

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John Paul IAlbino 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 1973.

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.

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