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The Smile of God

Albino Luciani, the ‘Smiling Pope’ was also known as the ‘September Pope’ and throughout Italy as ‘Papa Luciani’. He understood his vocation to be about winning and attracting people to the gospel of joy with his innate happiness and infectious smile.

His smile wasn’t that of a grinning cat or a superficial ‘Facebook Smile’, no, his joy came from a deep oasis within him of real joy and genuine happiness bestowing on us all the smile of God.

Pope John Paul I ‘talked the talk and walked the walk’ of the hymn ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine’. He was christened the ‘Pope of the Smile’. The late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, spoke poignantly after his death: ‘This smile was not a mask, behind which a person can hide himself, nor was it a studied gesture to obtain something, but the expression, unconscious and natural, of a soul transparent and luminous to its very depths. Yes, it is not a question of a gift received from nature, but rather something acquired from Jesus Christ, living at an ever deeper level.’ Pope Benedict considered Albino Luciani to be a saint and prayed every day for his canonisation. His cause was opened and he was declared a servant of God by his successor, John Paul II, on 23 November 2003, the first step on the road to sainthood. Pope Francis confirmed his heroic virtue on 8 November 2017 and named him as Venerable. Pope Francis presided over the beatification on 4 September 2022.

Francis de Sales was one of the exemplars of holiness John Paul I was devoted to. Paul Spackman in his book God’s Candidate comments that Albino Luciani was given a children’s version of the Saint’s Introduction to the Divine Life. It doubtless appealed to his love of nature and joy of being with people, as many of St Francis’ analogies are drawn from both worlds. He was also an avid reader with a passion for ministry and an accurate observer of people’s actions and reactions. Luciani’s motto was ‘Always seek to say easy things and to say difficult things in an easy way.’ As Madame de Chantal observes of St Francis, ‘He illustrated points of doctrine with such apt stories and helpful comparisons that his lessons were of the greatest practical use; everyone had something concrete to remember.’ In his Letters to famous historical and literary characters known as Illustrissimi, Albino Luciani dedicates one to St Francis De Sales, the ‘gentlest of saints’. He notes his interest in literature and the arts as well as his range of pastoral ministry: ‘As priest, missionary and bishop you gave your time whereby we would not put in champagne when told it needed petrol or jam for oil!! The point is clearly made that the best ways to look after our God-given bodies are self-evident. On another occasion, whilst making a comparison between illness and health, he urged us to ‘inject each other with love’ to combat the violence of society. Saint John Paul II wrote of him that his ‘zeal and gifts as a catechist amazed us all…’He gave an example of catechesis at once popular and concentrated on the essential, one made up of simple words and actions that were able to touch the heart’ (Catechesis Tradendae, 6).

What encouraged John Paul I to place this approach at the centre of his life was, in part, the knowledge that St Francis de Sales had taken similar risks. In his Introduction to the Devout Life he directs attention to the activities of a barber or hairdresser to reflect on the effect of being defamed in public. He observes that a person can come back from this experience just like facial or scalp hair will grow back when cut unless it has been removed by its roots. Shows of ostentation to win people’s admiration by riding fine horses or wearing grand hats were pointless, because they only brought glory to the animal or milliner! Finally, Francis counsels us not to concentrate on the ‘sugar plums’ of life and neglect the God of all consolations.

Whilst John Paul I does not directly use St Francis’ analogies, he imbibes his skill of getting people to look at the familiar with fresh vision by using memorable images. Compare the following text first from St Francis and then John Paul I on being self-righteous ourselves when judging others. St Francis writes: ‘When the peacock spreads its tail for display, in raising up its beautiful feathers it is ruffled up over all the rest of its body, and exposes its ugly parts to view on either side…’ . Luciani was also aware of Francis’ well known comparison between a spider’s subtle spoiling of the honey of bees and the effects of venial sins on our souls. It is not surprising, therefore, that, as Pope, John Paul references St Francis in his Addresses and Homilies. One of the world-wide ambassadorial tributes spoke of his ‘candour’. Certainly it took enormous courage to liken human development to the proper maintenance of a car. He recounted once the reply of the British Hyde Park Preacher Vincent McNabb to a man who was criticising the sinfulness of certain Church members, both clergy and lay alike. McNabb responded by saying ‘there is something in what you say, but have you noticed that your own shirt is greasy and needs washing?’ John Paul goes on to remark: ‘You see The Catholic Church too has extraordinary soap: the gospel, the sacraments, prayer…we are not saints because we have not used this soap enough…Let us try to improve the Church by becoming better ourselves.’ Madame de Chantal records that St Francis was always conscious of his own faults and acknowledged them ‘frankly and openly’. In his General Audience Address on Hope dated 20th September, 1978, John Paul I quotes St Francis de Sales, who refers to ‘our dear imperfections’. They are dear, the Pope explains, because although ‘God detests failings because they are failings, on the other hand…they give to him an opportunity to show his mercy, and…us an opportunity to remain humble…and sympathize with our neighbour’s failings.’

He also, with great openness, discusses the temptation of a ‘restlessness of spirit’ within any vocation of life to ‘make us suppose that others are better off than we are’, referring once more to the writings of St Francis. The Pope concludes with the challenge, ‘But are we not working for the Lord?’

St Mother Teresa of Calcutta uses both light and fire when speaking of Gian Paolo: ‘He has been the most beautiful gift of God. A ray of sunshine of God’s love that shines upon the darkness of the world. He was like the hope of eternal happiness. A burning flame of God’s love.’

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