My Reflections of Blessed John Paul II in Light of John Paul I

My time in Rome during the pontificate of John Paul II was brief. I left Rome in December, 1978, shortly after he was elected. I was privileged, though, to have been able to be in the Piazza di San Pietro throughout the conclave, to have seen the white smoke signaling his election, listened to the first words publicly spoken by him, and finally to have been in the crowd of faithful during his installation Mass.

The thing that stood out so much – other than the immediate surprise of his Polish nativity – was his youth and vigor. Yes, his youth and vigor. He literally abounded with strength and energy during those months. Like his predecessor, he made an immediate connection with the people. He became one of us, first by acknowledging he was speaking “your” language (Italian) then catching himself and saying “our” language, second by telling us we could correct him (his grammar), then finally by literally running toward the faithful massed around the altar during his installation. His flight to the crowds caught the Swiss Guard and I am sure all his security detail by complete surprise. He ran toward us. His whole pontificate was an approachment of we the people.

I think most of us standing there that day, watching him bolt to the crowd, expected John Paul II to be an image of John Paul I…. perhaps a completion of what would have been should Luciani have had a longer life. It was only natural, I suppose, given he took Luciani’s name, came out of obscurity (at least to the common person at that time), our ongoing grief and shock over Luciani’s untimely death, and the desire we all had that the Church enter a new era of renewal.

Frankly, it was the perception of many that Wojtyla would be a “liberal” pope. What we got confused was the terms. Wojtyla was a pastoral pope (as no doubt Luciani was) but he was very orthodox (which Luciani was also, despite what may be some ill founded mythology about him). Wojtyla’s pastoralism extended even into his persistence in canonizing saints…. more than any other pope in history. He found sainthood in the common person, in many lay men and women, and he raised them to be honored by the universal Church. I don’t think we can call John Paul II a “liberal” in terms of his philosophy or theology — at least not in the contemporary meaning of the word “liberal” — but he was a man liberal in his use of the papacy for the common good of so many.

Some might protest that Luciani could never have been able to have written so masterfully the encyclicals Wojtyla wrote.  I am not convinced of that. Luciani probably would not have written as many, given the age difference, but I suspect a Luciani encyclical would been every bit as rich as Wojtyla’s. Perhaps Luciani would have focused on other themes, but one of the biggest myths surrounding Luciani was he was a intellectual lightweight.

It is my hunch that in fact, we saw lived out in John Paul II the pontificate of John Paul I. I suspect that if Luciani would have been pope for twenty years, the crowds would have as forcefully, if not more so, shouted out at his funeral, Santo Subito!!

We can only guess, I suppose, but to have been graced with Papa Wojtyla was to have seen the face of Papa Luciani, only in Polish form…..


About Deacon Bob

Moderator: Deacon Bob Yerhot of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.
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