The Smiling Pope

By Fr. Joseph Neiman

          In the early evening of Saturday, August 26th, 1978, hundreds of thousands of people rejoiced to see the white smoke emanating from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. Shortly thereafter (7:18pm), Pericle Cardinal Felici stepped out on the balcony above the main doors of St. Peter’s Basilica and announced: “Habemus papam” (“We have a pope”) and announced his name: Cardinal Albino Luciani, who took the name of Pope John Paul I.

          The announcement of the name, John Paul I, was the first time a pope had used a double name and signaled to Vatican observers that he would continue the goals of his predecessors, Pope John XIII and Pope Paul VI.

          Collectors of papal postcards will have a challenge to find cards with his portrait, although there are a few. Unlike his successor, Pope John Paul II, whose image is imprinted on hundreds of stamps and postcards, Albino Luciani’s tenure as pope lasted only 33 days. While he was pope for only a month, Pope John Paul I’s term was not the shortest. Pope Stephen II was pope only one day in 752AD. At least eight other popes served less days than Luciani. 

          Vatican observers report that shortly before 5am on Friday morning, September 29th, Sister Vincenza brought coffee to the Pope’s study as usual only to find less than a half hour later that it had not been touched. Since she had served Albino Luciani long before he became pope, she was concerned because he never overslept. Entering his bedroom, she discovered the Pope dead in his bed. By 7:30am the news had been announced on Vatican radio and spread throughout the world.

          The “smiling pope,” as he had been called, was believed by Vatican watchers to have had an agenda for change that would shake up papal traditions. It began when he refused to have the usual coronation ceremony, but chose instead a simple Mass where he walked up the aisle rather than be carried in on the sedia gestatoria, the formal chair used by previous popes.

Other personal habits and customs broke with papal protocol also and raised the eyebrows of some Vatican insiders. It was said he was committed to serving the poor and ridding the Vatican of some financial practices and connections with Freemasonry. Even with his short tenure, there are many who believe he should be canonized a saint and are circulating such petitions.

          Albino Luciani was born October 17, 1912 in Forno d’Agordo, son of Giovanni and Bortola Luciani. He was ordained a priest in 1935 and served in various parochial ministries before being consecrated a bishop in 1958 and appointed to the see of Vittorio Veneto by Pope John XXIII. He was present at the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, and was named Patriarch of Venice by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Pope Paul named him a cardinal in 1973, an important fact as only cardinals elect a new pope.

          When a pope dies, as Paul VI did on August 6, 1978, the cardinals are called to Rome to enter a conclave (Latin: cum-clavis “locked room”) where they work in secret to elect a new pope. Since it is done in secret, few details are known about the election of Albino Luciani, except that he had little experience with the Vatican Curia, the administration that runs the Roman Catholic Church under the leadership of the pope.

            Whatever changes Pope John Paul I would have brought to the Roman Catholic Church is now a matter of speculation. Some believe they would be substantive, others believe they would continue the traditions. One area of speculation was whether he would have changed the church’s teaching against birth control, which Paul VI had promulgated, contrary to the advice of many including it seems Cardinal Albino Luciani. It is also said that he was about to investigate the relationship of the Vatican Bank to Banco Ambrosiano and Immobiliare.

The pope’s short tenure and his possible vision to make radical changes have led to some speculate that he was in fact murdered by those whose lives would be greatly altered by his decisions. Time magazine noted:

“In an earlier age so untimely a death might have stirred deep suspicions: “If this were the time of the Borgias,” said a young teacher in Rome, “there’d be talk that John Paul was poisoned.”” 

          Investigative reporter, David Yallop, alleges in his book, In God’s Name,” that Pope John Paul I was indeed murdered. He notes inconsistencies in the reporting of his death, and many other circumstances that led him to the conclusion that Albino Luciani was killed. He alleges that he was murdered by the people who would profit from the pope’s short term of service. He names six men and says that “it is equally clear that all of them stood to gain in a variety of ways if Pope John Paul I should suddenly die.” The idea of the plot for his death is portrayed in part in Francis Ford Coppola’s film, The Godfather Part III.

          It would be easy to dismiss Yallop’s book as an anti-Catholic attack of which there are many were it not for his record as an investigative reporter. His first book, To Encourage The Others, led the government of Britain to reopen a murder case after twenty years. Another book, Beyond Reasonable Doubt,” led to the release from prison of a man sentenced for a double murder in New Zealand.

          Vatican officials deny any such plot. This might be expected, but a serious book by John Cornwell, A Thief in the Night, investigating the allegations does not reach conclusive proof. He is a Roman Catholic award-winning writer who is not above research that leads to embarrassing facts, as seen in his book, Hitler’s Pope, about the life and service of Pope Pius XII.

          A series of stamps were issued by the Vatican postal authority (Scott 641-644) which portray John Paul I close-up with his trademark smile, seated on the papal throne, walking in the Vatican gardens, and giving his blessing to the crowd assembled for an audience. Two of the postcards found have similar pictures and may have been made from the same photographs taken, it seems by Foto Felici. These show the pope in the traditional white cassock. Some of the other cards, printed by Multigraf Industria Grafica Editrice in Venice show Luciani wearing a red shoulder cape and could possibly have been taken when he was Patriarch of Venice, although there is one card by them that does picture him in the papal white cassock.

          Collectors interested in papal postcards will need to search the holdings of many dealers to find the few that portray Pope John Paul I, and finding them becomes more than just collecting a card when the background of the person pictured is known, particularly when there are unanswered questions surrounding his death and a current movement underway for his canonization as a saint.   


[Fr. Joseph Neiman is an Episcopal priest, rector of St. Mark’s Church in Paw Paw, Michigan, and editor of The Western Michigan Episcopalian, the newspaper for the Diocese of Western Michigan. He collects stamps and postcards with religious themes.]


[The article was published in The Postcard Collector for October 2003, page 32ff.]