Pope Francis' secretary of state is also president of the John Paul I Vatican Foundation and from the same Italian region as the "Smiling Pope." He shares his memories and insights in this fascinating interview about the newly beatified pope.
You can get Aleteia inspiration and news in your inbox. Our specially curated newsletter is sent each morning. The best part? It's free.
Part one of this interview is here.
Due to his extremely short pontificate, wedged between those two “giants” of the Church who were Paul VI and John Paul II, John Paul I is often poorly known nowadays. People often speak of the “smiling pope,” and of his unexpected death. What are the great teachings you draw from those 33 days of pontificate?
Cardinal Parolin: His main 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 that was 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 neighbor—humility that 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 going to the substance 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 originating from the peninsula—that is to say, more than 450 years of history during which the apostolic succession was passed on 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, as an Italian, perceive this evolution?
Cardinal Parolin: I think that these changes perhaps at first may have aroused precisely some wonder, some surprise after centuries of Italian popes. But I think it happened spontaneously, though, and it didn’t provoke any negative reaction, no rejection. It was the nature of things that little by little the Church, and the Roman Curia, would open up to internationalization. This was one of Paul VI’s great commitments, and it was logical that in the end there would be a non-Italian pope. I think within the concept of universality of the Church, this does not cause any problem. We’re 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, despite everything, a powerful moment: For the first time in centuries, a bishop of Rome was not Italian.
Cardinal Parolin: Yes, but—for goodness sake, I do not want to praise the Italians!—I think this universal openness is a little bit in the Italian spirit. And maybe, I don’t know, the fact that the Lord chose Rome as the center of his Church, which was supposed to be Catholic and therefore universal, has a meaning… Think of the resignation of Benedict XVI, which was a shock. But these are things that mature, and we know that in the end history is guided by the Spirit of God. Actually, 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 Italians today “adopt” the pope, wherever he is from, and make him their own.
Cardinal Parolin: Yes, it’s true. We’ve seen the reception given to John Paul II, a figure who had already emerged at the first conclave in 1978. It is something very beautiful.
The pontificate of John Paul I came after a period of great changes in the Church, also of tensions, which would encourage the successive pontiffs to work for unity. In this context, what do you think were the qualities of John Paul I that seduced the cardinal electors?
Cardinal Parolin: I think this is very clear. The cardinals saw in him a pastor who was very close to the people. This recalls the theme of closeness that Pope Francis talks about so much. They saw a pastor who went to the essentials of the faith, but was also very attentive to social dynamics, to people’s difficulties.
They saw a pastor who went to the essentials of the faith, but 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’s something of Pope Luciani’s personality in the current pontiff?
Cardinal Parolin: Every pope has his own characteristics. It’s 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 do think there are similarities, though. Stefania Falasca said that before Pope Francis was elected, she had visited him as part of her thesis on Illustrissimi. He showed that he was very familiar with Cardinal Luciani’s writings.
They have affinities. Pope Francis is also very attentive to simplicity. He also has great communication skills, and Luciani was a great communicator. They also share a desire to carry on 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 wishes for the Church: the continued implementation of the Second Vatican Council, the preservation 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 have followed. This was especially 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 that he thought would be easier and that turned out to be more complex. The very choice of the name 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 mainly related 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 have taken up these six programmatic points to program with depth and force the decisions of the Council.
… the choice of this name was mainly related to the continuation of the Council.
With his sudden death, does not Pope John Paul I also come to remind us that the hierarchical direction of the Church is not entrusted to supermen but to leaders who experience fragility? And therefore does it not show in another light the meaning of hierarchy in the Catholic Church?
Cardinal Parolin: This tells us that it is the Lord who guides his Church, in a manner 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 do you mean he died? He died a month ago!” Nonetheless, it was unfortunately true.
But of course, it means that the pope is a man and has all the limits of our humanity, and therefore of health. This also means that if one stays a short time, one leaves indelible marks. Let’s say that the importance of John Paul I in the history of the Church is inversely proportional to the time he was at the head of the Church. Even with little time one can do a lot, and be men of the Gospel, men who try to live their ministry to its very depths.