Pope John Paul I Beatified

(Two days ago, Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, was beatified by Pope Francis. As many know, he is my favorite pope. Sadly, few know of him now. Back in1978, nearly everyone did know him, and loved him. I had a unique encounter, I believe, with his holiness. The story below was written by me a number of years ago, and I would like to share it with all you.)

I have never written about my experience with Pope John Paul I, and my special devotion to him. I have though told the story in conversation with family and friends numerous times.

I was in Oslo, Norway when I saw a newspaper with Pope Paul VI’s picture on the front page. The Norwegian word for “dead” was printed next to it.  I asked a passerby what it said, and he told me the pope had died.  So rather than going to Bergen and seeing the fiords as I had planned, I hopped the next train to Rome.  It was a long ride, much of it on my feet or sleeping on the floors and the train was very crowded. 

As the conclave of August, 1978 began, I was back in my room on the Janiculum Hill only about a 15 minute walk from St. Peter’s. I knew that there would probably be a couple of votes that first day, and I was able to surmise fairly accurately when the smoke would come billowing out of the makeshift chimney on the Sistine Chapel.  So I imposed upon the “Suore tedesche” (the German Sisters) who lived literally a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s to allow me to sit on the roof of their home, drinking limonata and having a clear view of the piazza below. None of us really expected the conclave to end the first day, but I was wary enough not to be absent from anything going on at the time. The smoke was an unusual color the times we saw it, so I wasn’t sure whether I should run to the piazza or not, but I did. There really weren’t all that many people in the piazza that day. When the loggia doors opened and the tapestry was unfurled over the balcony, we finally  knew a new pope had been elected. He was announced to be Albino Luciani, who was an unknown to me at that moment.  His name of Giovanni Paolo Primo was a complete surprise too. Yes, it was announced as Ioannes Paulus Primus, so I am pretty sure that was the exact name he had chosen for himself, not simply Giovanni Paolo.

I remember being somewhat disappointed. The names we were bantering about in the days previous were other names. Then the new pope came out and gave his first blessing. His voice was so weak, fragile, almost feminine.Again, I was disappointed. I was actually afraid. I thought, “We need a strong man!” The final disappointment that afternoon was that he didn’t address us in the crowd. He just smiled and waved stiffly. He appeared so fragile, retreating back into the basilica.

I lingered in the piazza afterward, not really knowing if something more would happen. Sure enough, it wasn’t long and a couple of paperboys walked in, carrying bundles of Extra editions of the Osservatore Romano with Luciani’s face on the front page.  The cost was to have been 200 lire, but those poor boys were literally engulfed by people, reaching and grabbing for a copy.  The boys dropped their loads and ran away, and I had a free copy. (I still have it in storage to this day.) It is obvious the publisher did not anticipate a Luciani election. The eight to ten pages of the edition contains only a few columns about Luciani; the rest is general stuff about the papacy.

I went back to my room, knowing I was privileged to have been in a witness to all of this, but strangely disappointed too. The piazza hadn’t been filled; the pope’s voice was fragile; he was an unknown to most of us; the smoke was deceptive; and the conclave was so short.

Little did I know what was to come.

The day after Luciani’s election was a Sunday, so as was my custom, I hiked down to St. Peter’s for the noon Angelus and to hear the new pope speak.  I was standing in the crowd as he began that famous, and it would seem, extemporaneous discourse which began, “Ieri mattina, io sono andato alla Sistina a votare, tranquillamente. Mai avrei imaginato che cose stava per succedere!” For the first time, I was anything but disappointed in our new Holy Father. You couldn’t help but like him. He spoke like a father to his children. He spoke simply, honestly, and personally. Anyone who knew Italian, regardless of age, could understand him and we got a glimpse into his heart. And his voice….. still rather high in pitch, but with a strength not heard before. Whereas the day before he seemed deferential to Msgr. Noe on others around him in the loggia, that day he was asserting himself. (Watch the video of this talk, and how he was focused on the crowd, not the men around him.)

I was happy. He conveyed happiness.

The next few days were busy getting ready to go to Mannheim, Germany and the U.S. Army base there. I had made a commitment to Lt. Colonel Joseph Graves, who was the post chaplain, that I would assist him throughout the month of  September. I was to report by September 1, and had every intention to do so.

Our house received a message from Msgr. Virgilio Noe, the master of ceremonies for papal events. He wanted four Americans to serve as acolytes for what at the time we thought would be the Mass in which Luciani would be enthroned and given the tiara. Other colleges throughout the city were being asked to volunteer a man or two also. This caused quite a stir among us. Who would go? We eventually put our names in a hat and drew out 4 slips of paper. My name was on one of them.

The date for the Mass was September 3rd. I knew I was going to be late for the Army. I called Fr. Graves and told him I wouldn’t be showing up until September 5. He was not pleased. You don’t not show up on time for an Army assignment. It is called being AWOL if you are an enlisted man. I wasn’t though, so I pled my case knowing that regardless of his reaction, I was going to serve this pope’s Mass. I more or less told him so, and he agreed to pick me up at the train station on the 5th. He never brought it up to me again.

I had to go out and buy a black clerical shirt. In the 70s, seminarians seldom wore the collar until ordination to the diaconate. It is different now, as it seems to be the house dress at the North American College. But I knew that if I were to have anything to do with a Vatican ceremony, the Roman collar is needed. It gets you into the confines of the Vatican walls.  The Swiss Guards will salute as you enter, not stop and question you. And I wanted to make a good impression on Msgr. Noe, who was clearly in charge of the arrangements for the Mass.

The day for rehearsal came. The four of us Americans hustled on down to St. Peter’s and reported to the location to which we were instructed to present ourselves. Msgr. Noe took us out to the front of the basilica, off to the right as you face the entrance. I was surprised at the informality of the practice.  Noe was not the most affable man, at least not outwardly. He first asked if we spoke Italian, to which we all responded emphatically, “Si!” Then he sized us up from head to toe, silently. He then walked up to me and said, “Padre, Lei e’ il piu alto. Allora, portera’ la croce.” (You are the tallest; you will bear the cross.) “Carry the cross?” I thought. “My God, I am going to be next to him, the Pope, as he is crowned,” because we still assumed that John Paul would accept the papal tiara and it was the custom in previous enthronements for the acolyte bearing the cross to accompany the pope during that segment of the ceremony. It was, I was told, done from the main loggia of the basilica, right above the main doors.

Noe then took us into the basilica and we walked through the entrance procession that was to occur. I would lead the entire column of priests, bishops, cardinals and finally the Pope. I was to be the first out of the basilica and into the light of the outdoor Mass. 

Noe showed me my route.  “Walk slowly, make good angled turns, process directly to the altar constructed out from the main doors, place the cross in the base located at the left side of the altar, then descend down the steps to the far end of the first row of chairs and walk slowly between the first and second rows which will be empty as the bishops will follow later and occupy them. Don’t pay obvious attention to the heads of state that would be seated to the right in front of you.  You will be walking within inches of their faces. When you get to the end of the row, nearest the basilica, proceed across the back of the altar and occupy your chair to the right. All of this was will occur before the bishops descend to reverence the altar; the priests will precede them and be moving to the right to take their seats.”

“Easy enough”, I thought. “But what about the tiara?” 

It dawned on me something different was going to happen. He never mentioned the tiara.

When I got back to my room, I was told that the new Pope had elected to not be crowned or enthroned.

He was to be installed.

September 3, 1978 arrived. I went again to St. Peter’s and entered through the main doors. Back then, there was no visible security save a few Swiss Guards standing around. 

Inside the basilica that day were tables set up with vestments arranged for all the clergy who were to participate in the Pope’s installation. Men from all over the world were milling about. Short men, tall men, men from Africa, men from Europe, men from the Mideast and the Far East. I had already met the American cardinals and bishops present in Rome for the event, as they were roomed at the North American College and had given a press conference on our front lawn. The one person that still stands out in my memory, and I can still see him clearly in my mind’s eye, was the archbishop of Hanoi, North Vietnam. I believe his name was Archbishop Joseph Marie Trinh-nhu-Khuê. He was short of stature; perhaps 4 foot 10 inches tall. I had to ask who he was and was told he somehow was given permission from the Communist government to attend. He was very old, and he had a priest attending him. I couldn’t help but be struck by the universality of the Church so evidently displayed that day in that place.

I vested and was shown the processional cross. It was heavy. It also was old and the cross and corpus were loose. It tended to wiggle back and forth when I walked with it. “Can’t the Vatican afford a better one?” I thought. I don’t recall seeing Msgr. Noe that day; at least he paid no attention to me if he were there. There were several other men who were directing everyone, eventually forming a semblance of a double line. The basilica was rather dark; the light dim.

I stood at the head of the line, not being able to forget about how loose the cross felt attached to the pole on which it sat. “I hope it doesn’t fall off,” I thought.  After a considerable length of time, I was told it was time to start.

The doors opened onto the piazza. I stood there momentarily, stunned by the sight. Thousands of people in the piazza. The sun shining  brightly in the sky. The light was almost was blinding at first as my eyes struggled to adjust to the difference. I collected myself and began to walk into the light, just as I had practiced.

The cross held up. So did I.

I approached the altar, made a sharp left turn and placed the cross in the base. I made a decision on the spot to turn the cross slightly so the Pope would be able to see the corpus fully as he said Mass. Thus, it was put at a 45 degree angle. I descended the steps, went to the end of the empty chairs and began to walk between the first and second rows. To my immediate right were the King and Queen of Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark too I believe. Various other heads of state. I tried to not pay obvious attention, but I couldn’t help but realize that I would never again have a chance to be with so many so close to me.

When I arrived at the end of the row, I wanted to cross over to the opposite side of the altar to take my assigned seat, about 15 feet from the Pope’s chair. When I got to the end of the row, though, the bishops and others were steadily streaming toward the altar. “How am I to cross to the other side?” I wondered. I stood there paralyzed, knowing that cameras were rolling from all over filming this and I didn’t want to look as foolish as I was feeling at the moment.  I must have stood there 2 minutes when I heard an Italian whisper, “Che cosa stai facendo?” I noticed one of the men in cassock and surplus had leaned his head over next to mine.  I leaned my head over to his and said, “Devo andare lá” (I have to go over there.) gesturing ever so slightly with my head to my seat on the other side of the altar. “Non puoi farlo. Va dentro la basilica, vi passa, e poi prendi il tuo posto.” (You can’t do that. Go inside the basilica, pass through it and then take you place on the other side.)

And thus I did. I am convinced today that God wanted me to be in that predicament, for he was about to give me a papal experience I would never have had, should I have been able to follow the previous plan. An experience which I cannot forget.

I as inconspicuously as possible turned to my right and made a fairly large loop around the Swiss Guard, the cameramen and various others who were standing to the right of the basilica. I was able to enter into the section of St. Peter’s that precedes the Porta Sancta and wanted to speed into the beginnings of the interior of the basilica. After having escaped any area that I knew would be televised or filmed, I was intent on running, if necessary to the far door, out the other end of St. Peter’s and somehow get by the Swiss Guard and the scores of vested priests now seated in their places, and take up my post.

When, though, I entered the first area, before the Porta Sancta, I suddenly stopped. There was the pope. With mitre and crosier, he too had stopped. I could have run into him. 

He was smiling. There was a light all of a sudden, a bright light. In the darkness of the basilica, a light was penetrating the darkness and shining on the pope. The light came from the outside, from the crowd, from the Church gathered, waiting for him. It engulfed him. It was as if a spotlight had suddenly been switched on. He, again, was smiling, but the smile seemed one of acceptance if not reluctance…. perhaps not joy. After a minute or so, he bowed his head, moved his crosier forward one length and took a step toward the people assembled and waiting for him.

I was stunned and motionless. I suppose many will give a rational explanation, but I believe God was allowing me to see something no one else that day saw. It was just me, and him. No one else was there, save the two cardinals flanking him who were outside of the light.

I do not recall exactly what happened next.  I do remember him going out, giving me the opportunity of move across and eventually getting my chair.

The Mass of Installation began. My memory of all the rest is incomplete. I do recall Papa Luciani beginning his homily in Latin. I thought, “Will he take the Church back to the Latin?” His mitre was very tall and ornate, I remember, which reinforced in my mind that maybe Luciani would be a conservative pope. After a couple of minutes though, he switched to Italian, which I could understand for the most part. I sat there, looking and watching. Bishop after bishop, cardinal after cardinal came up, knelt before him and kissed his ring. It took a very long time, yet he seemed genuinely happy to see them. The choir kept up the refrain, “Tu es Petrus, et superam petram aedificabo, ecclesiam meam!” Over and over again. I recall the deacon for the Mass too.  A bearded man of an Eastern Rite Church, bringing the Book of the Gospels after proclaiming it to the people to the pope for him to reverence.  The deacon kissed the pope’s hands as he gave him the Gospels, and Luciani blessed us with it.

As the Mass continued, the light began to diminish. It was getting dark. Those in charge switched on the spotlights ringing the piazza, but it was still rather dim. Those spotlights were not even a tenth of the brilliance of the light that I had seen surround the pope before he exited the basilica. It was getting difficult to see. I remember thinking, “How strange. Has the Mass gone longer than they anticipated? Had no one thought ahead about adequate illumination? Surely, they were aware of the time of sunset.”

At the end of the Mass, after processing out, I and many others were told to gather around for the pope would come to greet us. He did just that. He stood in the midst of us, obviously tired, exhausted looking actually, but smiling, and gave us his blessing. We applauded him warmly.  He quickly exited. That was to be the last time I saw him alive. (If you go to the Vatican’s website, click on Pope John Paul I’s history and then go to the page of photographs of him, you will find a picture of him blessing us after the Mass. A few weeks after his death, I went from photography shop to photography shop in Rome, sorting through loose photos they had taken that day.  I found two that I bought. One is of me, standing at the end of the row of empty chairs with my head cocked toward the priest who had his head leaned over to mine and saying, “What are you doing?” The photo was taken at that moment. The second is of me and other sitting in our chairs during the Mass.)

Finally, as a token of thanks from Msgr. Noe, we were allowed to enter behind the protective glass surrounding the Pietá and touch Mary’s hand and the body of Jesus. 

I went home that night, very tired and knowing I had to jump a train early the next day to Germany and the US Army.  Little did I know that within a month, I would be coming back for Luciani’s funeral.

My time as a civilian employee of the US Army was uneventful. I was stationed at the base at Wiesbaden and worked with the local Catholic chaplain there. I gave my first homily there, and my last in Wiesbaden was about Papa Luciani. I spoke of my having seen his election and installation.

One of the local American families telephoned me early on September 28, to inform me Luciani had died. As so many others, it was a complete surprise. Luckily, my time with the Army was only two days from completion, and the trip back to Rome was only a day’s travel by train, so I knew I was able to get back for his funeral. I had already seen Pope Paul VI lay in state at St. Peter’s and attended his funeral Mass, so I knew what it would all entail.

No irreverance is meant by this, but whoever prepared Paul VI’s body did a terrible job. His death occurred in August which meant his body lay in state for mourners during the hottest days of the year in Rome, days in which most citizens escaped the city for the cool of the mountains or the ocean. As I and others filed by Paul VI’s body, we could scarcely endure the stench. His body had changed to an ugly greenish color. I have no idea how the Swiss Guard were able to stand at attention for hours at length. I know at least one of them had to leave to keep from fainting. There were big fans blowing, trying to cool things a bit and disperse the stench.

As I was anticipating Papa Luciani’s funeral rites, I hoped things would be different. They were in fact better. He looked like Pope John Paul I.

I attended his funeral, this time in the crowd with the people. If I recall correctly, the weather wasn’t bad but it wasn’t the best either. The Mass was held in the Piazza di San Pietro, and well attended.

When I returned to my dorm, I remember Fr. Enrico Garzelli walking in to the refectory and making a simple comment on how our pope had been like a bright star in the sky that cheered us ever so briefly. I was later amazed when I read Cardinal John Wright’s eulogy of Luciani, and his use of the image of a comet shooting through the sky which stuns and amazes us for a brief period of time. I sometimes wonder if Cardinal Wright didn’t get his image from Garzelli’s comment that day. I believe Garzelli quickly wrote a song about Luciani which included this image, although I do not have a copy of it. We sang it at the college at Mass soon after, if my memory serves me right.

Since those days, Papa Luciani has been for me a saint whom I was privileged to have encountered. The only other one is Mother Teresa, whom I met twice in the early 1970s. Perhaps John Paul II will also someday be declared a saint. It is my fervent hope that Papa Luciani cause for canonization will quickly be concluded and his name added to the official roster of canonized saints of the Church.

Papa Luciani, pray for us.

About Deacon Bob

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