Pope Francis’ secretary of state is also president of the Vatican John Paul I Foundation and of the same Italian region as the “Smiling Pope”. He shares his memories and insights in this fascinating interview about the newly beatified pope.
The first part of this interview is here.
Because of his extremely short pontificate, wedged between these two “giants” of the Church who were Paul VI and John-Paul II, John-Paul I is often misunderstood nowadays. People often talk about the “smiling pope” and his unexpected death. What are the main lessons that you draw from these 33 days of pontificate?
Cardinal Parolin: His principal teaching was that of the Council. He was a man of the Council and tried, precisely, to translate the teaching of the Council into the pastoral life of the Church of which he was pastor.
On a personal level, his great teaching was that of evangelical simplicity. A simplicity strongly rooted in his humility. I remember what Pope Benedict XVI said: “Humility can be considered his spiritual testament. Humility is the fundamental virtue that the Lord taught us, which makes us pleasing to God and also facilitates our relations with our neighbour, humility which does not mean inferiority but recognizing that all the gifts we have received come from God.
Finally, he had this way of living the Gospel integrally, of getting to the bottom of the Gospel, without inconsistencies, without divisions in what he thought, said, taught and practiced.
John Paul I is currently the last Italian pope, the last of a string of 44 popes all from the peninsula, that is to say more than 450 years of history during which the apostolic succession was transmitted within the “Boot”. After him, the pontiffs were chosen outside Italy, with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and now, with Pope Francis, outside Europe. We often comment on the importance of this internationalization for the universal Church, but more rarely on its effects for the particular Church in Italy. How do you perceive, as an Italian, this evolution?
Cardinal Parolin: I think these changes perhaps at first perhaps aroused some wonder, some surprise after centuries of Italian popes. But I think it happened spontaneously, and it caused no negative reaction, no rejection. It was in the nature of things that little by little the Church, and the Roman Curia, would open up to internationalization. It was one of the great commitments of Paul VI, and it was logical that at the end there would be a non-Italian pope. I think that in the concept of universality of the Church, this is not a problem. We are happy that clearly the Holy Spirit is going to look for the Successor of Peter everywhere in the world!
After John Paul I, the election of John Paul II was nevertheless a highlight: for the first time in centuries, a bishop of Rome was not Italian.
Cardinal Parolin: Yes, but—please, I don’t want to praise the Italians! — I think that this universal openness is somewhat in the Italian spirit. And maybe, I don’t know, that the Lord chose Rome as the center of his Church, supposed to be catholic and therefore universal, has a meaning… Think of the resignation of Benedict XVI, which was a shock. But these are maturing things, and we know that in the end the story is guided by the Spirit of God. In fact, both on a personal level and on a general level, I did not perceive any difficulty in accepting these changes.
On the contrary, one could have the impression that today the Italians “adopt” the pope, wherever he comes from, and appropriate him.
Cardinal Parolin: Yes, it’s true. We have seen the reception given to John Paul II, a figure who had already appeared at the first conclave in 1978. It is something very beautiful.
The pontificate of John Paul I comes after a period of great changes in the Church, also of tensions, which will encourage the successive pontiffs to work for unity. In this context, what do you think are the qualities of John Paul I that won over the cardinal electors?
Cardinal Parolin: I think it’s very clear. The cardinals saw in him a pastor very close to the people. This recalls the theme of closeness of which Pope Francis speaks so much. They saw a pastor who went to the essentials of the faith, but who was also very attentive to social dynamics, to people’s difficulties.
They saw a pastor who went to the essentials of the faith, but who was also very attentive to social dynamics, to people’s difficulties.
Several scholars of John Paul I, including Stefania Falasca, compare the 263rd pope to Francis. Do you think there is something of the personality of Pope Luciani in the current pontiff?
Cardinal Parolin: Each pope has his own characteristics. It is always dangerous, in my opinion, to make comparisons because we know that each pope is called to his office by the Holy Spirit through the election of cardinals and that each pope responds to the current needs of the Church. I still think there are similarities. Stefania Falasca said that before the election of Pope Francis, she visited him as part of her thesis on Illustrissimi. He showed that he was very familiar with the writings of Cardinal Luciani.
They have affinities. Pope Francis is also very attentive to simplicity. He also has great communication skills and Luciani was an excellent communicator. They also share the desire to perpetuate the legacy of the Second Vatican Council. I would see in this last point their fundamental affinity.
An affinity that can be found in the Urbi et Orbi message delivered by John Paul I on August 27, 1978, when he described his six vows for the Church: the continuation of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, the maintenance of discipline within the Church, evangelization, ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and peace. With this speech, did he set a course for his successors?
Cardinal Parolin: Yes, this is the line that all the pontiffs followed. This was particularly important for Albino Luciani because he was the immediate successor of Paul VI, who had closed the Council and started the phase of its implementation. A phase he thought would be easier and which turned out to be more complex. The very choice of the name of John Paul, the two popes of the council: John XXIII made him a bishop and Paul VI a cardinal, but the choice of this name was above all linked to the continuation of the Council. And in this speech, he gave indications for his successor. And I believe that both John Paul II and Pope Francis took up these six programmatic points to program in depth and force the decisions of the Council.
… the choice of this name was mainly linked to the continuation of the Council.
With his sudden death, didn’t Pope John Paul I also remind us that the hierarchical direction of the Church is not entrusted to supermen but to leaders who know fragility? And does it not therefore show in another light the sense of hierarchy in the Catholic Church?
Cardinal Parolin: This tells us that it is the Lord who guides his Church, in a way that is sometimes mysterious, even incomprehensible to us! I remember the surprise. I was at the seminary, after morning mass. We were told that the pope was dead. “But what does it mean he’s dead?” He died a month ago! Nevertheless, it was unfortunately true.
But of course, this means that the pope is a man and that he has all the limits of our humanity, and therefore of health. It also means that if you stay for a short time, you leave indelible traces. Let’s say that the importance of John Paul I in the history of the Church is inversely proportional to the time he spent at the head of the Church. Even with little time, we can do a lot and be men of the Gospel, men who try to live their ministry to the very depths.