On October 13, Pope Francis gave his approval for the beatification of Pope John Paul I, who is best known for having one of the shortest pontificates in history: just 33 days. We have to look back to 1605 to find a shorter pontificate, the 27-day papacy of Leo XI. Pope Francis, in contrast, has now reigned for more than 8 years. There are, however, many similarities between the two men.
Both popes took a papal name which hadn’t been used before. In fact, they are the only two popes in over a millennium who have done this. John Paul I took his name to honor the preceding popes and signal his desire to continue the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, and Francis took his name to honor the great saint of Assisi, who was known for his love of Creation and of the poor. Prior to John Paul I, the last time a pope was the first of his name was Pope Lando, who served as pope for about six months from 913 to 914.
A Rejection of Pomp
John Paul I opted for a simple installation Mass, dispensing with much of the traditional pomp of a papal coronation. Among other changes to the ceremony, he was the first pope who refused to be crowned with the tiara. (Pope St. Paul VI was crowned, but after his coronation he placed the tiara on the altar, and then had it auctioned off to benefit the poor. By refusing a coronation, John Paul I set a precedent for the popes who would follow him.) Similarly, Pope Francis declined to wear the mozzetta and gold pectoral cross, and received the congratulations of the cardinals while standing instead of while seated on the Papal throne. This preference for simplicity continued, most notably with his decision to live at the Domus Sanctae Marthae instead of in the Apostolic Palace.
The speeches of both Popes display a more colloquial, familiar style, which sometimes annoys those who prefer greater theological precision and formality. Like Francis, he could also be provocative. In one of his few addresses as Pope, John Paul I said:
We are the objects of undying love on the part of God. We know: he has always his eyes open on us, even when it seems to be dark. He is our father; even more he is our mother. He does not want to hurt us, He wants only to do good to us, to all of us. If children are ill, they have additional claim to be loved by their mother. And we too, if by chance we are sick with badness, on the wrong track, have yet another claim to be loved by the Lord.
Pope Francis has also spoken about the motherly aspect of God:
In that parable the father’s manner of conduct somehow recalls the spirit of a mother. It is especially mothers who excuse their children, who protect them, who do not suspend empathy for them, who continue to love them, even when they would no longer deserve anything. …
God seeks you, even if you do not seek him. God loves you, even if you have forgotten about him. God glimpses beauty in you, even if you think you have squandered all your talents in vain. God is not only a father; he is like a mother who never stops loving her little child. On the other hand, there is a ‘gestation’ that lasts forever, well beyond the nine months of the physical one; it is a gestation that engenders an infinite cycle of love.
For a Christian, praying is simply saying ‘Abba’; it is saying ‘Dad’, saying ‘Papa’, saying ‘Father’ but with a child’s trust.
John Paul I developed a “six point plan” which he intended to guide his pontificate. According to this article by Vatican News, he planned 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 and to encourage world peace and social justice.”
It is no exaggeration to say that some of these are also the priorities for Pope Francis. Like John Paul I, he has called for a renewed preaching of the Gospel message. In Evangelii Gaudium, he writes:
We cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. … John Paul II asked us to recognize that “there must be no lessening of the impetus to preach the Gospel” to those who are far from Christ, “because this is the first task of the Church.”… What would happen if we were to take these words seriously?
Pope Francis has said that he was greatly influenced by the Second Vatican Council. He has also frequently felt called to defend the Council’s vision, as when he said “This is magisterium: the Council is the magisterium of the Church. Either you are with the Church and therefore you follow the Council, and if you do not follow the Council or you interpret it in your own way, as you wish, you are not with the Church. We must be demanding and strict on this point.” His controversial motu proprio Traditionis Custodes was just such a “demanding” document; it clarified that the liturgical reform mandated by Vatican II is the way forward for the Church. Traditionis Custodes also exemplifies the attachment Francis has to unity in the Church, and his determination to keep the liturgy from becoming a tool of division.
The importance of dialogue is also a key theme of the current pontificate, as shown by the emphasis Francis places on synodal consultation. Francis has also written about dialogue, particularly in Let Us Dream. He reminds us that we can’t allow disagreements to create division, but must rather “pitch camp together, waiting for the sky to clear.” At the same time, like John Paul I, he rejects a “watering down” of Catholic teaching. Francis has emphasized that dialogue is not about compromising on principles or ignoring disagreements, but rather on seeking the inspiration of the Holy Spirit while working through the disagreement or conflict. He writes:
The bad spirit can also deny the tension between two poles in a contraposition, opting instead for a kind of static coexistence. This is the danger of relativism or false irenicism, an attitude of “peace at any price” in which the goal is to avoid conflict altogether. In this case, there can be no solution, because the tension has been denied, and abandoned.
A Concern for Social Justice
One of the most striking similarities between the two Popes is their shared concern for peace and justice. Before his election, Pope John Paul I wrote Illustrissimi, a humorous book of letters to famous and literary characters … including such diverse characters as Mark Twain, the bear of St. Romedius, and Pinocchio! In his letter to Charles Dickens, the future pope reflects on social and environmental issues. He writes:
At first it was illegal for workers to unite in defense of their rights; later it was tolerated that they should, and after still it was recognized by law. In the old days . . [t]he employer had a knife up his sleeve, and ‘free bargaining’ ruled, without check. ‘If two employers want a workman, his wages will go up. If two workers are looking for an employer, their wages will drop.’ This was the law, it was said, and it would lead automatically to the balance of forces. Whereas in fact it led to abuses of capitalism, which was, and in certain cases still is, a wicked system…
Even in the rich nations there are plenty of pockets of poverty and insecurity. Many workers are unemployed or uncertain of their jobs. They are not always protected properly against accidents. Often they feel that they are treated merely as a means of production, not as a central part of it.
Then, too, the frantic rush to grow rich, and the exaggerated, crazy use of unnecessary things, has used up necessities: clean air and pure water, silence, inner peace, rest… .
He goes on to write about the principles that must guide us through these difficulties:
Solidarity: we are a single boat full of people who have now been brought together, but in a stormy sea. If we want to avoid serious clashes, this is the rule: all for one and one for all; press on with what unites us, forget what divides us.
Trust in God: through your character, Marley’s Ghost, you said you wished the Wise Men’s star would light up the homes of the poor. Today the whole world is a home of the poor, and in such need of God!
These themes of peace and justice are beautifully taken up in Fratelli Tutti and Laudato Si. In particular, the following words of Fratelli Tutti seem to echo those of John Paul I in Illustrissimi:
Unless we recover the shared passion to create a community of belonging and solidarity worthy of our time, our energy and our resources, the global illusion that misled us will collapse and leave many in the grip of anguish and emptiness. Nor should we naively refuse to recognize that “obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction”.
Further on in the encyclical, speaking of free market economics, Pope Francis writes:
The marketplace, by itself, cannot resolve every problem, however much we are asked to believe this dogma of neoliberal faith. Whatever the challenge, this impoverished and repetitive school of thought always offers the same recipes. Neoliberalism simply reproduces itself by resorting to the magic theories of “spillover” or “trickle” – without using the name – as the only solution to societal problems… . The story did not end the way it was meant to, and the dogmatic formulae of prevailing economic theory proved not to be infallible. The fragility of world systems in the face of the pandemic has demonstrated that not everything can be resolved by market freedom. It has also shown that, in addition to recovering a sound political life that is not subject to the dictates of finance, “we must put human dignity back at the centre and on that pillar build the alternative social structures we need”. In some closed and monochrome economic approaches, for example, there seems to be no place for popular movements that unite the unemployed, temporary and informal workers and many others who do not easily find a place in existing structures.
In many ways, the pontificate of Pope Francis has developed and continued themes dear to his predecessors St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, even though the Pope’s many detractors try to obscure this fact. Alongside this more frequently discussed continuity, it might also be said that Francis has taken up and brought to fruition the unfinished pontificate of Pope John Paul I.
Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, pray for us. Bless your successor Francis, and the Church you led for so short a time.
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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.