Editor’s Note: Today’s beatification of Pope John Paul I came up on me quickly. Earlier this year, I planned to write an apologia in favor of his cause for canonization, in response to critics who say that too many popes are being made saints and too quickly. My planned essay (which I will hopefully complete prior to his canonization) will include a partial biography to help illustrate my belief that the life of Albino Luciani was that of a model bishop, and that his short papacy is almost incidental to his life of holiness. Indeed, as much of an impact his short papacy had on the Church (and it was noteworthy for several reasons), perhaps its lasting impact will have been to shine a light on this man’s life and his relationship with the people he served and his relationship with God.
Unlike many other recent popes, we do not have a large corpus of writing from Pope John Paul I. Perhaps his most notable work, Illustrissimi, or “To the Illustrious Ones,” is a collection of personal letters written between 1972 and 1975 from the future pope to a series of famous figures. Letters were addressed to writers such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and G. K. Chesterton; Saints like Francis de Sales, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Therese of Lisieux; and biblical figures like King David. Perhaps the most famous of these is his letter to Pinocchio, which I shared one week while filling in for Pedro on “Which Pope Said This?“
In honor of this blessed pope, here are excerpts from the final letter of this volume, written by the future Pope John Paul I, to Jesus.
I Write in Trepidation
I have received some criticism. “He is a bishop, a cardinal,” it has been said, “and he’s broken his arm writing in all directions, to Mark Twain, to Péguy, to Casella, to Penelope, to Dickens, to Marlowe, to Goldoni, and heavens knows how many others. But not one line to Jesus Christ!”
You know this. With You I try to maintain a constant conversation. But to translate it into letters is difficult: these are personal things. And besides, so little! And besides, what can I write to You, about You, after all the books that have been written on You?
And besides, there is already the Gospel. Just as lightning surpasses all fires and radium all metals; as the missile is faster than the arrow of the poor savage, so the Gospel surpasses all books.
Nevertheless, here is the letter. I write it in trepidation, in the condition of a poor deaf-mute, who makes an effort to be understood, or in the state of Jeremiah, who, sent to preach, said to You, filled with reluctance: “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.”
Pilate, in presenting You to the people, said: Here is the man! He thought he knew You, but he did not know even a scrap of Your heart, whose mercifulness You revealed a hundred times, in a hundred ways.
Your mother. On the Cross, You were unwilling to leave this world without finding her a second son who would look after her and You said to John: Behold thy mother.
The Apostles. You lived night and day with them, treating them like real friends, putting up with their faults. You instructed them with unfailing patience. The mother of two of them asks a privileged position for her sons, and You say: With me there are no honors, but rather sufferings. The others also want the first places, and You say: You must instead make yourselves small, sit down in the last place, serve!
At the Last Supper You put them on their guard. They will be afraid, they will run away! They protest, Peter first and most of all; but then, he denies You three times. You forgive Peter and three times You say to him: “Feed my sheep.”
As for the other Apostles, Your forgiveness shines brightest in Chapter 21 of John. They are out in a boat, and have been out all night long. You, the Resurrected One, are there on the shore of the lake, before dawn. You cook for them, serve them, lighting the fire, preparing the roast fish for them, the bread.
Sinners. The shepherd who rushes out to search for the lost sheep, rejoices in finding it, and celebrates when he brings it back to the fold: this is You. You are that good father who, at the return of the prodigal son, flings his arms around him, in a long embrace. A scene to be found on every page of the Gospel. In fact You approach sinners, men and women, You eat at their table, You invite Yourself, if they do not dare invite You. You really seem — this is my impression — to be more concerned with the sufferings that sin produces in the sinners than with the offense against God. Instilling the hope of pardon, You seem to say: You cannot even imagine the joy your conversion gives me!
At this spectacle of people rushing to a Crucifix for so many centuries and from every part of the world, a question arises: Was this only a great, beneficent man or was He a God? You Yourself gave the answer and anyone whose eyes are not veiled by prejudice but are eager for the light will accept it.
When Peter proclaimed: “You are Christ, the Son of the living God,” You not only accepted this confession, but also rewarded it. You have always claimed for Yourself that which the Jews considered reserved for God. To their scandal You forgave sins, You called Yourself master of the Sabbath, You taught with supreme authority, You declared Yourself the equal of the Father.
Several times they tried to stone You as a blasphemer, because You uttered the name of God. When they finally took You and brought You before the high priest, he asked You solemnly: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” You answered: “l am; and you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” You accepted death rather than retract and deny this divine essence of Yours. I have written, but I have never before been so dissatisfied with my writing. I feel as if I had left out the greater part of what could be said of You, that I have said badly what should have been said much better. There is one comfort, however: the important thing is not that one person should write about Christ, but that many should love and imitate Christ.
And fortunately — in spite of everything — this still happens.
John Paul I. 1978. Illustrissimi : Letters from Pope John Paul I. 1st American ed. Boston: Little Brown, 254-258.