Honoring the 33-Day Pontificate of John Paul I

Author: Francesco Taffarel

Honoring the 33-Day Pontificate of John Paul I: 26 August - 28 September 1978

Francesco Taffarel

In his own words: what was and might have been

As Bishop of the Diocese of Vittorio Veneto, Albino Luciani attended all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council and expressed his pastoral concern that its teaching would become an ecclesial reality. An explicit reference to this concern can be found in every one of his Homilies, Conferences and Interventions.

'Notes on the Council'

In April 1962, Luciani wrote "Notes on the Council". This is how he began: "Not all the spectators at a soccer match understand and enjoy it in the same way. One person may know the rules of the game, the precise tasks of the goalkeeper, wings and backs, the centre forward, the tricks and moves: that person will appreciate the successful ploys, technique and courage of the tactics and kicks, he will be intelligently enthusiastic.

"On the other hand, someone who does not know about it will not enjoy the game much or will get the wrong end of the stick....

"The Ecumenical Council that is to open in six months time is a sort of special game. The players will be more than 2,000 Bishops; the "umpire", in a certain sense, will be the Pope; the whole world is the stadium; and all of us — via radio and television — will be among the spectators.

"If we want to understand and enjoy the event... it is necessary to learn what it is and what its objectives are.... The Council is not a parliament. The residential Bishops represent their Dioceses at the Council, yet they do not receive their authority from the Diocese but from God and are accountable to him alone.

"At the Council there will be discussions, disagreements, free speech and a final vote.... At the Ecumenical Council, as St. Augustine would have said, 'non vincit nisi veritas', truth only wins if the Pope upholds it. The Council is not gathering in opposition to anyone; it is not a Council of defence or fear, it has no political ends whatsoever.

"The features of the Catholic Church were established by the Lord once and for all and cannot be tampered with. However, it is possible to modify her superstructures: what was not introduced by Christ but by Popes, Councils or the faithful themselves yesterday, can be removed or altered today or in the future.... One could say: 'The Church which emerges from the Council is the same Church as in the past but she has been renewed'.

"It will never be possible, on the other hand, to say: 'We have a new Church, different from the Church of the past'.

"The soul of the Council, the actor who plays the lead, is the Holy Spirit who will be present with his invisible assistance at the sessions.... The Church gathered as a Council should be regarded as someone on a journey.... She will be told: 'Walk! Walk on your own two legs but keep your eyes open! You are not dispensed from work, study or research. All that you are guaranteed is that you will not stumble, you will not stray off course nor will you lack light and enthusiasm on your journey'.

"It so happened in a heated dispute at the Council of Trent that one Bishop grabbed another by the beard! And at the First Vatican Council Bishop Strossmayer, eloquent and extremely forceful, incessantly demanded the floor and having got it, dominated it so long and so vehemently that he provoked protests from the Assembly. This did happen and could still happen, for as Pius IX good-naturedly said, every Council has had three 'periods': in the first, the devil did his best to deceive everyone; in the second, men created confusion; and in the third, the Holy Spirit put everything right!

"The principal visible figure at an Ecumenical Council is the Pope. He alone can convoke it, preside at it and confirm and promulgate its decrees.

"But it should not be concluded that the Bishops who surround the Pope are merely consultors or counsellors. That same Lord who wanted the primacy of the Pope in the Church also desired the authority of the Bishops; he wanted full responsibility for the Christian flock to be in the hands of both the Pope and the Bishops, although to a different degree.

"The faithful often think the Bishop is an official in a Diocese, a representative of the Pope. Rather, the Bishop is indeed appointed by the Pope but once he has been appointed, he is God's representative in his Diocese and the Pope's little brother. Therefore, when the Bishops go to the Ecumenical Council they will decide and judge 'cum Petro et sub Petro'. For this reason they are 'witnesses to faith', for they testify that this is what the Apostles, whose successors they are, believed, and what the Diocese they govern believes; 'Doctors of the faith', because they are members of the teaching Church, of the Council, of the Christian People".

Persevering presence

On 11 October 1962 Bishop Luciani was at St. Peter's Basilica for the opening of the Second Vatican Council and he stayed in Rome until 8 December 1962. He returned on 17 June 1963 for the funeral of Pope John XXIII, who had ordained him a Bishop on 27 December 1958.

He was present at the opening and closing of the second session with Pope Paul VI. On 14 September 1964 he took part in the third session of the Council and attended it until its closure on 21 November 1964; and on 14 September 1965 he was there for the opening of the fourth session until the Council's closure on 8 December 1965.

Bishop Luciani would stay in Rome and fill his days with study, seeking to understand the vast horizons unfolding before him.

In his Diocese he promoted various courses of renewal. He sent "Letters" from Rome, telling people about the Council and making it known. In these Letters he always took the trouble to point out and explain the important ecclesial themes of the session.

Desiring holiness

For the Women's Youth Congress, Bishop Luciani wrote on 1 October 1963: "Tell the young women it is not only those in Heaven and in pictures on the walls of churches and houses who are saints, but also all the faithful who love the Lord with a strong commitment. One is not a follower of Christ if one abandons holiness or, at least, desists from desiring it and thinking of it.

"Every young Catholic woman should seriously attempt the flight to holiness: some will do it like doves, rising in small flutters; others, with determination, will soar to the heights like eagles, but all should aspire to it....

"On Sundays, at the important liturgies in St. Peter's, in the same place I had last year, I was pleased to see before me once again the marble figure of St. Teresa. The Saint still holds in her left hand the open book; her pen poised in her right hand, her eyes are still raised to Heaven in rapture. However, one guesses from her attitude that as soon as the vision passes she will lose not a moment, not a word, and her pen will quickly fill the next pages of the half-written book, to recount her ecstasies, the foundation of convents, the praise of God.

"This is what is precious for us: as a young woman, St. Teresa grasped the pen to write a novel; she alternated beautiful apostolic impulses with silly girlish things; even at the convent she was prone to highs and lows for some years; the flight of the eagle came later; first came the fluttering of the dove and, on certain occasions, the simple flapping of a poor little chick....

"There is only one holiness, consisting above all of love of God, of Christian virtues... practised in different tones and styles. Two sisters are princesses: the first sister gave up her clothes, her jewels and all she had and entered a convent; the second one married, became queen and wore beautiful clothes and valuable jewels to please her husband, but in her heart of hearts she did not care a straw for them. Both sisters lived poverty but in different ways.

"Moreover, it would be rash to claim that if the mother of a family is to be a saint she must first go half way to becoming a Religious, inspired by the rules, dress and schedule of the cloister and becoming, as it were, a sort of subspecies of nun; indeed, 'a nun who never made it' or 'a nun in disguise...'.

"When I heard that the cause of beatification of the parents of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus had been introduced, I said to myself: 'At last, a double cause!'. St. Louis IX of France is a saint without his Marguerite, St. Monica without her Patricius; Zélie Guérin, on the other hand, will become a saint with Louis Martin, her husband, and Teresa, her daughter.

"In a certain way, it will be a repetition of the gracious miracle worked in Burgundy for Bl. Hilary and Bl. Quieta in the fifth century. They were a married couple. They had several children, including St. John of Réóme. Hilary died first and was buried in the family tomb in the church. When Quieta died, the tomb was opened and the wife was laid next to her husband. At that moment, however, the husband's right arm came to life and affectionately encircled his wife. On sight of this, those present acclaimed the husband and wife and decreed them Saints, seeing this miracle as a sign of God's approval of expressions of affection of conjugal love".

The Church

"The Church", Luciani wrote, is "the edifice built by Christ, the house of God, the temple and tabernacle of God, his people, his flock, his vineyard, his field, his city, the pillar of truth and, lastly, the Bride of Christ....

"I gazed around the Basilica. Here she was, before my eyes in this immense flower-bed of 2,000 mitres and thousands of the faithful; here she was, the radiant, varying Queen of nations, races and tongues, beloved and praised by Christ, his Betrothed whom he won with his own blood".

And to the diocesan chaplain of the Italian Women's Catholic Action, the future Pope John Paul I wrote on 12 September 1964: "The Church has been journeying for centuries, yet day after day she produces new people, people reborn to a new and extraordinary life as children of God and brothers of Jesus Christ.

"These good ladies should be among the first to carry out the magnificent programme Paul VI outlined in his first Encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam. Becoming aware means looking at Our Lord and asking him: 'How do you want us? How did you imagine the Church when you were talking about her to the Apostles?'. The Lord replies: 'The Church is alive. She is a living, mysterious body of which I am the Head and you are the members. In her, you and I, closely knit, make one'.

"The Church is a mystery in the sense that she cannot be understood or seen. Much is only glimpsed for the time being, but we will understand and examine this more deeply later....

"The Church is a truth which does not only ask to be learned but also to be lived, tried out, savoured... it is not enough to understand her: we must sample her flavour, letting ourselves be electrified and impelled by her towards a good life.

"Renewal is the second word. The Church which exists today faces, as in a mirror, the Church that was in Christ's mind. What will she discover? That her fundamental substance and structures are intact, because the Holy Spirit has watched over them. On the other hand, there may be blemishes and defects in the members or in the secondary structures added by people down the centuries.

"This is where our work comes in: to renew, change and rejuvenate! The Pope's last word is 'dialogue'.

"If I feel that it is my extraordinary good fortune to be in the Church, I must feel impelled to communicate this good fortune to others. My view must be: it is not enough for me to save my own soul, I must help others, as many as possible, to save theirs!... I will not presume anything on my own but will place great trust in God, who in some cases uses lay people even more than priests to do good, and women even more than men".

The family

In his letter to the Chaplain of the Men's Catholic Action (14 October 1963), Luciani wrote: "On Sunday evening I also participated in the Beatification of John Nepomucene Neumann, a Bohemian who became Bishop of Philadelphia in the United States more than a 100 years ago. Looking up, I saw his portrait in the so-called 'gloria' by Bernini. St. Peter's Basilica was illuminated even by day and packed with people, and I thought to myself: 'Would he be up there if he had had a different father?'.

"When he was a 60-year old Bishop, the Blessed recalled: 'As a boy, I told a lie, blaming my sister for a mistake which was all my own fault. My father gave me such a look and spoke gravely to me: I have never forgotten his words; those words still mortify me and that lie was the last I ever told'.

"The Blessed's father accompanied his words and punishments with his good example. Up every day at 5 a.m., in winter as well as summer, that father worked tirelessly as the manager of his own small hosiery factory. But before work came prayer, in fervent recollection, and every evening there was the recitation of the Rosary. He intoned it as head of the family, the bishop, as it were, of his own home, and he had it followed by reading from the lives of the saints while his wife, maid and six children sat round the table.

"He frequently gave alms to the poor and woe betide anyone at home who criticized people. 'Let us think of our own shortcomings', he would say, and cut short any pettiness. Bl. Neumann attained holiness with the special graces that the Lord granted him and with his own strenuous efforts; but he acquired the desire, the urge and the seeds of holiness in this home, in the warm atmosphere of God's love and piety that his father had known how to create".

The laity

And on 23 October 1965 he wrote to the Young People of Catholic Action: "Prior to the Council, this is what was said to young people in particular: 'Dear boys, priests are few, they cannot reach everyone. Be good boys, give them a helping hand, replace them if necessary!..'.

"In the main, the Council tended to say something different: 'Dear young people, although priests are numerous and good they are not skilled in all areas: it is up to you to do certain things and only you can do them well! And if it is true that in some sectors you can only act if priests call upon you or make you responsible, in certain other areas you can and must act alone as people who are baptized and confirmed in accordance with Christ's instructions!'...

"Souls are not only helped by preaching, prayer and the administration of the sacraments, but also by an example of Christian daily life, by a profession exercised well, a post held decorously, by application to study; not only by a professional, deliberate apostolate, but also by an indirect apostolate that proposes good almost without one realizing it. To express these concepts the Council Fathers in the Hall often used words such as these: the 'witness', 'service' or the 'task' of lay people!".

On women

On 19 October 1964, the Bishop wrote to the chaplains of the Women's Union of Catholic Action and the Female Youth of Catholic Action: "Women at the Council, too! On 14 September, as I was leaving St. Peter's Basilica... I saw a small group of Sisters by the door... among them I recognized the Superior General so I went up to her, greeted her and asked: 'What is going on? Has Mother General now become an uditrice of the Council?'.

"'Oh no!', she answered. But now that she has been included in the list of Auditores she ought to say, 'Oh yes!'. So the Reverend Mother will come to the General Congregations and will act as an uditrice with a small number of Sisters, married and unmarried women who are all directors of national or international women's associations.... They will be asked to give their opinions to the conciliar Commissions.... I am certain that they will do so adhering to the needs of our time.

"Religious today do not lack the courage, enterprise and broad outlook of Teresa of Avila and Frances Xavier Cabrini, and the Lord will breathe on these lay directors at least a little of the Spirit that motivated Catherine of Sienna, Anne Sophie Swetehine and Armida Barelli.

"In summoning uditrici to the Council, Paul VI intended to honour the human and Christian role of women and to stress the extent to which the Church relies on the magnificent apostolic energy that fills female organizations.

"The Pope was implicitly saying, I am not calling you to the Council to be part of the 'teaching Church' to which, by Christ's will, only Bishops belong, but so that Catholic women across the world, Religious or lay women, married or unmarried, may feel the honour, duty and urgent need 'to be a conscious, lively and active Church'. And also so that those who look at the Council may have a visible image of the 'People of God', one, universal, varied and with various tasks.

"It is true that only a few men in it can say: I am a Bishop, I am a priest! But all the women can turn to Christ and say to him: 'One of us was your Mother!".

Holy Mass

In his Letter to the Clergy, Messa nuovamentalitá nuova, dated 14 February 1965, Bishop Luciani wrote: "[B]ecause of seminary formation and the influence of our environment, so far — in the liturgy — we have been too individualistic.

"Mass? It was my Mass; I tried to prepare myself devoutly and to celebrate it with recollection: it took pride of place among my devotional practices; it was celebrated by me for my faithful, rather than by my faithful with me; my faithful were over there, in the church, destined to receive and not to play the lead. Henceforth, it is necessary... to say more convincingly: meum ac vestrum sacrificium....

"Yes, even the simple faithful are priests; their priesthood does not serve to transubstantiate but to offer.... [T]he faithful in a certain sense are priests and as such have the right and duty to play their part in Mass which we must not usurp....

"We have been too technical or overly formalistic. In Les Trois Messes Basses, Daudet jokingly describes the sins of the Abbe Berlanguére, who, trying to celebrate in a hurry, frantically kneels, rises, sketches signs of the cross, genuflects and cuts short all his gestures... he mumbles the Latin... he does not finish the Reading, skims through the Gospel, mentions the Creed without going into it, hails the Preface from afar... hastening [grammatical] cases by leaps and bounds into the depths of hell.

"The new (or rather renewed) rites are not only something to be carried out properly; they are signs that lead us to understand certain mysterious truths better and bring us certain help from God....

"And I will teach... how to feel and how to experience the two great moments of Mass. I will show the throne, the lectern and the ambo with the Lectionary, and I will say: it is here that the first part of the Book takes place!... Remember: When God speaks, we must listen to him with respect and answer.... On the other hand, the Eucharistic Liturgy takes place at the altar. Its centre is the moment when Christ's Body and Blood are present on the altar.

"At the Council it was said: make a Liturgy that the people today can understand, a Liturgy that moves them! A few beloved habits will have to be relinquished and a few venerable traditions abandoned, but the result will be a possibility of adapting better to the various situations and circumstances!".

Post-conciliar period

When he left Vittorio Veneto for the Patriarchate of Venice in 1970, Patriarch Luciani recognized: "The Council had to be implemented, first in me and then in the priests and faithful... it had produced only drafts and outlines...".

He wrote, "Dear faithful, the Second Vatican Council is to be closed with a solemn celebration in St Peter's Basilica on 8 December 1965, Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It will be a question of thanking the Lord for the abundant help he has granted us....

"To have issued beautiful decrees in these four years does not suffice; it is now necessary to start putting them into practice, which will be a long and difficult process involving everyone, and first of all the Bishops.

"St. Charles, in applying to the Archdiocese of Milan the prescriptions of the Council of Trent, 'showed restfulness in effort and tranquillity in constant movement'.

"The Bishops should do something similar. There are the champions of an unauthorized radical reformism and those who are excessively conservative; the Bishops must walk out into their midst, slowing down those in a hurry and encouraging late-comers.

"Then come the priests, especially spiritual directors, 'labourers in Christ', the Pope called them. They too have hard work ahead of them which they will have to carry out, sometimes alone and often misunderstood. They all deserve our esteem and stand in need of our prayers.

"Men and women religious will also be involved, with the public and social witness they bear to Christ in their poor, chaste and prayerful life; and lastly, lay people, whose responsible collaboration in these times is vital in a work of such importance which has kindled so many hopes".

Five years later, he observed: "Five years have passed since the end of the Council that said: 'Christ is the light of all nations', and the baptized are the instrument for reflecting this light on the world. May the Church be reformed and purified and remember that she is not only the family of the saved but also of the savers!

"Let us recognize it: 'gradual rather than timid reforms' are taking place. The Church is really trying to be a 'Church for the world', which is seeking in various ways to shake off the imperial dust of past centuries that has settled on her mantle.

"Her Bishops are not saying: 'We have everything, it is we who provide everything, we manage on our own', but recognize humbly: 'We need our brother priests and lay people; and sometimes, in crucial battles, the most successful initiatives come from the front, that is, from lay people. And there is no cause to say that the Catholic Church is total light in a world of darkness. She is no more than a privileged place where God communicates light in a very special and reliable way'.

"A moderate process of de-Westernization is also under way. Paul VI said, `No one will evangelize Asia better than Asians.... The colour of Africans must be respected as an authentic value'.

"In the revised liturgy lay people have their own places and tasks that the priest may not usurp: the liturgical language is the language of the people and although limited, a concession to a lay initiative.

"Therefore, if the Diocese or parish can be compared to a boat, the simple faithful no longer board it merely as passengers but, while keeping to their own places, they are part of the crew and share in decisions about the route to take. But is this sufficient?

"To some, it seems, it is not. They say with Zeno of Elea, 'In the race between Achilles and the tortoise who is given a head start, Achilles can never win!'. For them, the Church is the tortoise that moves forward at a very slow pace. For these same people, the world is an Achilles who does not run but flies with wings, even with rockets. They clamour for more. They want it immediately, they get worked up about the 'structures' to be pulled down, they transfer to the Church contemporary political terminology and programmes.

"Both the time and the problems are very sensitive: it would be desirable to run faster, but this is often impossible.

Indeed, the weight of past history lies heavily on our shoulders: we are bound to respect our neighbour who, if unprepared, may take offence at the changes and we need to avoid the danger of divisions".

And he continued: "With regard to the 'structures', it is possible to remove, with due prudence, those introduced into the Church by men. On the other hand, it is not possible to touch — in their substance — those structures established by Christ, such as the Primacy of the Pope, the Episcopate, the Ministerial Priesthood.

"Then, the confusion that results from political problems is dangerous. There is no doubt that Christ revolutionized ideas but not with revolutionary methods, if it is true that he is the Lamb who went meekly to the Cross. Obedience will always remain a great Christian virtue.

"Authority should be exercised solely for the benefit of others with a style of service, but it will remain authority. We cannot deny that the problems and times are delicate. However, they must be solved with the good will of all and with trust in the Church's destiny.

"It was from Christ that the Church received her destiny of travail. And the net that catches both good and bad fish is the field where tares grow among the wheat; it is both holy and injured at the same time".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 August 2007, page 9

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