The Life of Albino Luciani
Albino Luciani was born on October 17, 1912, in Canale D’Agordo, a little village in the Dolomite mountains in northern Italy. He was the child of a poor family.
Because of the bad economic situation in the area, both his parents had been forced to leave Italy to look for work elsewhere very early in their lives. Albino’s father, Giovanni, became a stonemason and worked in Germany, Switzerland, and for a time in Argentina. Albino’s mother, Bortola Tancon, had left school at the age of fourteen to work and help her family. She working in the kitchen at the hospital of Sts. John and Paul in Venice in 1911, when she met Giovanni, then a widower with two daughters. He had joined a socialist labor union in Germany, and though he left the Church in his youth, his devout wife brought him back to the faith.
When I visited Italy in 1985 to research my biography of John Paul I, my first stop was at the Luciani home in Canale D’Agordo, where I met Edoardo Luciani, Albino’s brother, and his wife Antonietta. They showed me the little room where Albino was born, which back then was heated only by a brick oven.
Albino suffered from hunger during his childhood, especially when the village was invaded by Austrian troops during the First World War. He and his sister even had to go and beg for food. “Our family had very, very little money,” Edoardo recalled in an interview, “but . . . all of us always had smiles on our lips and we knew the most joyous and carefree childhood. My father, when he was working at home, used to whistle from morning till night.”
The family’s example of faith was also important to Albino. Many years later, he wrote that in his childhood he felt that “the Catholic Church not only is something great, but also something that makes the poor and the little ones great, honoring and uplifting them.”
Albino was restless and always on the go as a child; he also got into more than a little mischief at school. At the age of ten, however, deeply struck by a holy Capuchin friar who came to preach the Lenten sermons in his village, he decided he wanted to become a priest. He wrote to ask permission from his father who was then working in France. Giovanni answered yes, and added ‘I hope that when you become a priest you will be one the side of the workers, for Christ himself would have been on their side.’ All his life, Albino was to follow his father’s advice.
Albino distinguished himself in his studies at the seminary. After his ordination in July 1935, he served the parish in his native village and then in the nearby town of Agordo, where he also taught religion classes to the young men in the technical mining institute. The area was very poor, and Don Albino aided the miners who were out of work, and the rest of the poor population as best he could; he became known for his charity, even though he had little himself. Edoardo told me: “One woman came to see my mother and she cried as she described what Albino was doing for her in Agordo.”
In 1937 Don Albino was appointed vice-rector of the diocesan seminary in Belluno and taught courses in theology, patristics and canon law, as well as in Sacred Art, another of his favorite subjects. The priests who were his pupils remember his humility, especially remarkable since he had a really brilliant intellect, and the clarity and simplicity with which he explained even complex ideas. He loved intellectual studies and had an astounding memory; he could recite verbatim long passages from books he had read.
Don Albino longed to continue his studies, and his bishop, Giosue Cattarossi, and the rector of the seminary were happy at the prospet of having him earn his doctorate in theology; Belluno was a small diocese with a small seminary, but they felt its professors should all have advanced degrees and enjoy the same prestige as other institutions. But because of the lack of a qualified priest to replace him, they couldn’t let Don Albino leave his teaching duties to attend classes at one of the great pontifical universities in Rome.The problem was finally solved when the the Gregorian, the Jesuit university, agreed to let Don Albino earn his doctorate there without having to attend classes. So he started his university studies on his own. In October 1942, he passed the exams for his licentiate (roughly equivalent to a master’s degree), which was awarded magna cum laude.The progress of Don Albino’s studies was interrupted by the Nazi invasion of Northern Italy in 1943. Mgr. Ausilio da Rif of Belluno recalled for me how Don Albino helped his family financially after the Germans had destroyed his home. Luciani also showed real courage in teaching his students to reject Fascist and Nazi ideology and helping members of the Resistance.
During the 1940s and 1950s, Don Albino, who had dreamed in his childhood of becoming a writer, also wrote many articles for the diocesan paper in Belluno. He was a learned man, but from his parish priest in Canale, he had learned to use simple words everyone could understand.
Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice, knew and admired Luciani. In October 1958 Roncalli was elected Pope John XXIII; very shortly after his election he appointed Luciani bishop of Vittorio Veneto, and consecrated him himself in St. Peter’s Basilica on December 27, 1958.
In his first sermon in his new diocese on Jan 11, 1959, Luciani told his people: “I would like to be a bishop who is a teacher and a servant.” Even then, he anticipated one of the great themes of the Second Vatican Council: that the Church should be at the service of the world.
Luciani delighted the people by his fascinating sermons, which often contained very simple stories, but were full of wisdom.
Luciani took part in all four sessions of the Council in Rome, beginning in 1962. He took the Council’s teachings enthusiastically back to his people.
He once told a reporter that one of the most important moments at the Council for him had been hearing a layman describe the great gap in wealth between the industrialized nations and the Third World. He showed his love for the people in the poor countries by lending a number of priests from his own diocese to the missions in Brazil and Africa, and visiting his diocesan mission in Africa in 1966.
In the 1960’s he had hoped the Pope would decide that some form of artificial birth control might be allowed. But when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae in 1968, Luciani wrote to the people of his diocese, asking them to join him in a “sincere adherence to the papal teaching.”
Luciani was appointed Patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul VI in 1969. The period of serious dissent against Church teaching was already beginning, and had affected a number of younger priests and students who accepted the fashionalble ideas of liberation theology. As practiced by Catholics in Italy, this meant using Marxist analysis to not only call for a revolution in society, but to declare the hierarchy a class enemy. Luciani was widely criticized because of his insistence on obedience to Church teaching and to the Pope. In this he had always led by his example.
Even though he was met with outright opposition by some priests, Luciani was greatly loved by the common people of Venice because of his simplicity. He often put his bishop’s pectoral cross and the scarlet zucchetto in his pocket, and walked through the narrow streets or calle, talking with people. When he had to travel across the Grand Canal, he would take the steamboat bus or vaporetto with the rest of the people, rather than a private motor launch.
Luciani received his cardinal’s hat from Pope Paul VI at the concistory in March 1973.
Luciani was deeply concerned about problems of the workers, and set up a special diocesan commission to help them with their problems, saying: “Workers suffer when their Catholic brothers and sisters refuse to recognize that capitalism has serious faults and who, very superficially, call every worker who fights for the recognition of his rights a ‘Communist’.” Msgr. Mario Senigaglia, who was Luciani’s secretary at the time, told me that Luciani had often intervened personally in labor disputes, and his efforts once kept a factory from closing, saving many workers’ jobs.
Above all, Luciani was a man of prayer. He said, “I speak alone with God and Our Lady, I prefer to feel like a child rather than an adult. The miter, the skullcap and the ring disappear; I send the adult on vacation and the bishop too, with the staid, serious and dignified behavior that go along with them, in order to abandon myself to the spontaneous tenderness that a child has for his father and mother.”
At the 1971 Synod of Bishops, he suggested that dioceses in the industrialized countries should send 1% of all their income to the Third World, to be given “not as alms, but something that is owed. Owed to compensate for the injustices that our consumer-oriented world is committing towards the ‘world on the way to development’ and to in some way make reparation for social sin, of which we must become aware.” He said that in making people aware of the problem of poverty in much of the world, little means, like using the confessional and the catechism, were as important as the big ones. In 1976, Luciani sold the expensive gold pectoral cross that had been given to him by John XXIII, and another offered to Venice by Paul VI and used the proceeds to aid a home for handicapped children. From then on, he wore a very simple metal and blue enamel crucifix around his neck.
Luciani became very well known among the cardinals in Europe and the Third World. African cardinals Bernardin Gantin and Hyacinthe Thiandoum visited him in Venice, and he met with Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider and the Brazilian bishop’s conference in Brazil in 1975, where he also visited the colonies of poor Italian emigrants.
When Pope Paul VI died in August 1978, the cardinals wanted a man who would carry on the reforms of Vatican II and the social concerns of Popes John and Paul, and teach authentic doctrine as well. They chose Luciani. He was elected by an overwhelming majority of the cardinals on the first day of the conclave. He amazed the world at his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s to give his blessing by his smile, which radiated the love of God. He took the first double papal name in history, and was the first Pope qualified to put a “First” in front of his name in a thousand years.
He broke another millennium-long tradition by beginning his reign not with the imposition of the traditional triple tiara, but with a simple Mass and clothing in the pallium, the band of lambs’ wool that is the symbol of a shepherd.
For four unforgettable weeks, he gave the world his enchanting catechesis on humility faith, hope and love. On September 23, taking possession of his cathedral of St. John Lateran, he told the people of Rome: “The poor, as St. Lawrence said, are the real treasures of the Church, and so they should be helped, by those who can do so, to have more and to be more.” The whole world loved his evangelical style. Then on September 28, 1978, he died suddenly in the night and left the Church plunged into grief.
Humility was the keyword of Papa Luciani’s life. In his first sermon to the people of Venice, he said: “God sometimes loves to write great things not on bronze or marble, but actually on dust, so that if the writing remains, not wiped out or dispersed by the wind, it will be clear that the merit belongs completely and solely to God. I am the dust.”
I learned that Luciani’s humility led him to complete dependence on God. Thus he accomplished great things even though he was a rather timid person. This has helped many people who feel timid in the face of difficult challenges in life. Antonietta Luciani told me that the family had received an enormous number of letters from all over the world saying just this: “They said that Papa Luciani had given them courage, made them more serene.” Edoardo added that even though his brother’s humility made people think he must be weak, his faith had made him a strong and determined person,
We can all learn from this man, who showed how great things can be accomplished by the most humble means, with the help of God.