Pope Francis has written a preface to a new collection of Pope John Paul I’s papal documents, entitled The Magisterium: Text and Documents from the Pontificate, published by the John Paul I Foundation and Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV) San Paolo. The book, which comes ahead of the beatification of the man known as the “Smiling Pope” later this year, includes the short-reigned pontiff’s notes and reflections, homilies, speeches letters, and General Audience and Angelus remarks. Born Albino Luciani in Italy in 1912, Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly 34 days after taking office in 1978.
Francis’s preface to the collection of Pope Luciani’s writings (available in Italian here and in Spanish here) consists of three paragraphs which include a thumbnail sketch of his predecessor, a summary of the highlights of his brief pontificate, and closes with extended quotations from a homily in honor of John Paul I delivered by the former Archbishop of San Salvador, St. Oscar Romero after the pope’s death. In the preface, Francis summarizes and directly quotes from Romero’s homily, which characterizes the significance, not only of John Paul, but of the modern papacy and the post-conciliar Church.
In addition to citing the usual types of sources—scripture, Church fathers, and other popes and magisterial sources—in his papal documents, it is not unusual for Francis to reference a wide variety of unconventional sources from all over the world. In his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’, Francis cited various national episcopal conferences, including the Bolivian, Dominican, Mexican, Portuguese, Japanese and South African bishops (among others). He also cited individuals such as the German intellectual Romano Guardini and the South Americans Juan Carlos Scannone and Marcelo Perine. Still, it is striking to see a sitting pope summarize the Magisterium of a previous pontiff through the prism of bishop from a tiny third-world country. But these quotes reveal a striking harmony among the three men: Francis, Romero and Luciani.
In the preface, Francis first quotes Romero’s description of John Paul’s ministry as “the brief but dense response that God himself gives to today’s world.” The language carries a subtext that speaks of the Second Vatican Council, which is the Church’s response to the modern world and today’s ever-changing society. As the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word, Gaudium Et Spes, states, “the council yearns to explain to everyone how it conceives of the presence and activity of the Church in the world of today.”
Romero has been called a martyr of the Council, because his prophetic denunciations were rooted in recognitions of social justice in the Council, so his words testify to the subtle message that John Paul I was also a man of the Council (as if he needed it). After all, Luciani took the names of the two Council pontiffs, John XXIII and Paul VI, to style himself “John Paul I.” In the preface, Francis notes that John Paul highlighted the rights of workers to just wages in his inaugural homily and, though he did not have time to bring about substantive reforms, he ushered in great informality in his papal style that is very similar to Pope Francis. (Luciani dispensed with the papal coronation and reportedly tried to abolish the sedia gestatoria—the portable throne on which the pope was carried—but his aides resisted him.)
The next passage Pope Francis quotes from Romero’s homily is about the Roman Church’s hierarchy, which Romero says, is a ministry of service: “The church is not an end in herself, and much less is the hierarchy an end in itself. The hierarchy exists for the church, and the church exists for the world.” The hierarchy, says Romero, is “for the purpose of serving God’s kingdom and the entire world.” Of course, the hierarchy includes the pope and the bishops in communion with him. Implicit in Romero’s formulation is Francis’s frequent insistence on “shepherds with the smell of the sheep,” as well as the guidelines set forth in Pastores Gregis, (The Shepherds of the Flock), the John Paul II post-synodal apostolic exhortation that followed the October 2001 Synodal Assembly in which then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio served as relator general. Pastores Gregis called for the episcopate to be collegial, to be missionary, to practice poverty, to respect popular piety, to be attentive to priests and young people, to recognize the synodal and ecumenical dimensions of the Church, and to promote justice and peace.
Of course, all of these values resonate in the current pontificate, but the seeds of the Francis’s priorities were already latent in Luciani’s brief time as pope. Francis remarks that John Paul “cast a prophetic gaze upon the wounds and ills of the world, showing to what extent peace is desired by the heart of the Church.” Throughout his papacy, Francis has called for the Church to reflect “the tenderness of God,” it is fitting, therefore, that in Italian John Paul was sometimes called “the Smile of God” (il sorriso di Dio).
In the preface, Francis points to John Paul’s support for the Camp David peace talks carried out by Jimmy Carter with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Of course, the list of accomplishments is short, given John Paul’s truncated pontificate. But Romero’s homily appears to project how far the Church’s post-conciliar selfless commitment to the service of justice and peace could go—which we see fulfilled in Romero’s life and death. The Salvadoran archbishop is himself part of the hierarchy, but he is also the first post-conciliar bishop-martyr.
Finally, Francis quotes Romero regarding the modern papacy. Although the Petrine ministry rests on the “fragile shoulders” of a man, says Romero, it is “the rock that gives consistency” and unity to the Church because “the pope is sustained by the immortal, holy, divine One who is eternal life: Christ, our Lord.” Romero acknowledges the ‘fragility’ of a man who died 34 days after taking office, but his frailty and shortcomings are irrelevant because the Church is attracted to the great force behind the pope, which is the great authority of Christ, who created the papacy. In 1978, the deaths of two popes seemed to highlight the “fragility” of the papacy, just as it seemed like death had gotten the upper hand when Romero was cut down at the altar. But human fragility is the clay with which God molds greatness—starting with St. Peter.
These past weeks, when we have seen Pope Francis for the first time in a wheelchair, we are vividly reminded of the human fragility of the pope. But St. Oscar Romero’s message that the force of Christ is behind the pope is a great subtle rebuke to those that condemn the pope for his perceived failings and disregard the unseen source of his authority, which is not his theological expertise or doctrinal precision. Romero was subsequently remembered as having had run-ins with popes (specifically, St. John Paul II), but Romero showed great, reverent loyalty to the pope even when, beneath the surface, there were evident strains.
Francis’s reflection on the legacy of John Paul I, and his use of the prism of St. Oscar Romero for the exercise, tells us as much about Francis as it does about John Paul I—a pope of the Second Vatican Council, and a forerunner of Francis’ attempted reforms.
Image: Pope John Paul I: Vatican Media, St. Oscar Romero, Pope Francis: © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)