The Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani, wrote a series of letters from 1971 to 1975 to various historical and imaginary figures. They were later published as Illustrissimi (To the Illustrious Ones). Shortly afterward, he was elected Pope. Though he served just a month, John Paul I, “the smiling pope,” is fondly remembered for his warmth and his gentle and wry sense of humor.
Those traits are especially evident in the Pope’s whimsical and surprising letter to the character of Pinocchio. Yes, the future shepherd of the Catholic Church wrote a letter to the wooden puppet who became a real boy.
“I recognized myself”
The letter may disconcert readers who only know about Pinocchio from the sanitized version of the story – especially when the Pope refers to the moment when Pinocchio crushes the Talking Cricket with a hammer. Bet you don’t remember that moment from the Disney cartoon!
John Paul I says that when he read the book at age 7 “I recognized myself.” He too was always “greedy” for candy and impulsively threw himself into snowball fights that ended in “blows and punches” — which he would avoid talking about at home because he didn’t want to get punished.
Pinocchio, of course, has remained a boy, though now he speaks no longer from “the pages of a book, but from the television screen.” John Paul I explains to Pinocchio that he, instead, has grown old and has a different perspective on life from when he and the puppet-turned-boy first met.
The perilous adventure of adolescence
Since Pinocchio became a real boy, he will not be able to postpone growing up forever, however. Whether he wants to or not, he will soon be thrust into an adventure far more perilous than any danger he faced as a puppet: the experience of adolescence. When that day comes, Pinocchio will abandon the things of youth and, for a time, feel detached from others and lost. “Not yet a man, you will feel misunderstood and virtually rejected by adults.”
Once Pinocchio’s nose grew exceedingly long whenever he told a lie. Soon, even if he always tells the truth, he will find his limbs growing too long, his voice becoming “unfamiliar,” and will suddenly feel a desperate urge to fit in. Even more alarming is what will happen to Pinocchio’s heart, because one day it will swell with melancholy and deep feelings; he will spot a pretty girl “in seventh or eighth grade” and get a “crush.”
Then one day “between 17 and 20,” Pinocchio will probably face the greatest challenge of all: a crisis of faith.
You will breathe, in fact, antireligious objections the way you breathe the air at school, in the factory, at the movies, etc. If your faith is a pile of good grain, there will be a whole army of mice to attack it. If it is a suit of clothing, a hundred hands will try to rip it off you. If it is a house, a pickax will want to dismantle it, piece by piece. You must defend yourself; today, you preserve only as much faith as you defend.
What it means to be a “real” person
Further trials await Pinocchio in the coming years, the same trials that John Paul I once faced and that all people do. The letter is delightfully ironic; though taking the form of an admonition, it is really a deep reflection on the beauty and challenge of what it means to be a “real” person. By becoming a real boy Pinocchio has taken on the burden of humanity, but also opened himself up to the problems of meaning, purpose, and love.
Unlike when he was just a character in a book, there is no guarantee that Pinocchio’s story will turn out well. Once he had a Good Fairy to advise him; now he will have to listen to the wise educators in his life. Most importantly, like the rest of us, Pinocchio will be responsible to use his freedom well, to learn to sacrifice, and ultimately to love and respect the woman he eventually marries. (“Unless you become a monk!” the Pope adds with a final wink. “But I don’t see that vocation in you!”)
As we celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, it is good to take a moment to ponder what it means to be human. Reading this wonderful, humorous, heartfelt letter to the fictional puppet who became a boy can also fill us with wonder and gratitude for the fact that God became a man.