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The Forgotten Pope

On September 29, 1978, thirty-three days into his papacy, Pope John Paul I was found dead, “lying in his bed, with a book opened beside him, and the reading light on.”.

According to the Vatican doctor, he died of a heart attack on the night of September 28, around 11 pm.

He is known to Italy, as “The Smiling Pope”. He was born Albino Luciani on October 17, 1912 in Forno di Canale (now Canale d’Agordo) in Belluno, a province of the Veneto region in Northern Italy. He was the son of Giovanni Luciani (c. 1872–1952), a bricklayer, and Bortola Tancon (c. 1879–1947).

Albino Luciani entered the minor seminary of Feltre in 1923, where his teachers found him to be “too lively”, and later went on to the major seminary of Belluno. On July 7, 1935, he was ordained a priest.

On December 15, 1958, Luciani was appointed Bishop of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII. He received his episcopal consecration on the following 27th of December from Pope John XXIII himself.

On December 15, 1969, he was appointed as the new Patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul VI and he took possession of his new archdiocese on February 3, 1970. Pope Paul VI elevated Luciani in the consistory of March 5, 1973.

On August 6, 1978, Pope Paul VI died ending a reign of fifteen years. The cardinals were summoned again in Rome to elect a successor on August 25, 1978. On August 26, 1978 the white smoke appeared on the Sistine Chapel. Pericle Felici, as the ranking Cardinal Deacon, then stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and delivered the Habemus Papam in Latin, announcing Luciani’s election. John Paul I then appeared on the balcony; shortly after his withdrawal, the crowd’s applause remained so loud that he was compelled to appear again.

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Pope John Paul I, appearing for the first time in the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on August 26, 1978

Before the papal conclave that elected him, he expressed his desire not to be elected, telling those close to him that he would decline the papacy if elected, but, upon the cardinals electing him, he felt an obligation to say “yes”.

He was the first pontiff to have a double name, choosing “John Paul” in honor of his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI. He explained that he was indebted to John XXIII and to Paul VI for naming him a bishop and then a cardinal respectively. In addition, he was the first pope to add the regnal number “I”, designating himself “the First”.

After his election, John Paul I, quickly made several decision that he would “humanise” the office of the Pope. He initially refused to use the sedia gestatoria until others convinced him of its need in order to allow himself to be seen by crowds. He was the last pope to use it. He was the first pope to refuse to be crowned. Instead of a coronation, he inaugurated his papacy with a “papal inauguration” where he received the papal pallium as the symbol of his position as Bishop of Rome.

After he became pope he had set six plans down which would dictate his pontificate:

  • To renew the church through the policies implemented by Vatican II.
  • To revise canon law.
  • To remind the church of its duty to preach the Gospel.
  • To promote church unity without watering down doctrine.
  • To promote dialogue.
  • To encourage world peace and social justice.
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The Tomb of Pope John Paul I in the Vatican Grottoes.

There are several conspiracy speculations related to his death. Many of these concern the serious corruption in the Vatican Bank possibly linked to freemasonry, which is forbidden by church law. None of the claims have been proven.

Some conspiracy theorists connect the death of Pope John Paul I in September 1978 with the image of the “bishop dressed in white” said to have been seen by Lucia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto during the visitations of Our Lady of Fátima in 1917. In a letter to a colleague, Pope John Paul I had said he was deeply moved by having met Lucia and vowed to perform the consecration of Russia in accordance with her vision.

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