Luciani, The Humble Pope

Muslims "have the right to build a mosque" and “If you don't want your children to become Muslim you need to teach them the catechism better." These were the words of Albino Luciani as he explained the decree on religious freedom at the end of the Council.

A few months before being nominated Patriarch of Venice, the future pope opened up the possibility of a validation of common law marriages in order, he believed, to avoid the introduction of divorce in Italy.

These are just some of the stories in 'John Paul I', the biography of Pope Luciani written by Marco Roncalli (St.Paul, number of pages 734, 34 Euro). Thanks to new testimonies and documents that have never been published before, the author manages to contest the established stereotype of Luciani as a conservative pope.

The words Luciani pronounced in November 1964 to explain the Conciliar declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, seem to still be relevant today:

"Non-Catholics have the right to profess their religion and I must respect their right : I must do so as  a private individual, as a priest, as a bishop, as a State."

"Some bishops got scared," Luciani said "...there are four thousand Muslims in Rome, they have the right to build a mosque for themselves. There is nothing to say, we must let them do it. If you don't want your children to become Buddhists or Muslims you must teach them the catechism better, make sure they are really convinced of their Catholic faith."

In Thoughts to the family, a collection put together in 1969, the then Bishop of the Italian city of Vittorio Veneto carefully opened up to "common law marriages" as a "lesser evil" that might prevent the introduction of divorce.

Luciani explained that such unions should not be equalled to marriage, but added: "there are, indisputably, pathological family situations, painful cases. Some suggest divorce as a remedy, but it would actually exacerbate the problems. Can't we look at another remedy aside from divorce? Once the legitimate institution of the family is protected and kept safe couldn't we after careful consideration recognize some civil status to common law unions?"

This same sensitivity, in the months leading up to Paul VI's Encyclical ‘Humanae Vitae’, whose teachings Luciani would promptly embrace,  led the bishop to be "moderately liberal" in regards to the birth-control pill, so long as it was to be used "for the right" purpose, in other words "to give birth to the number of children one could comfortably bring up and educate."

To the objection that the pill went against natural laws he replied: "Nature wants us to be heavier than air, however we do well to travel by plane." This example, explained Fr. Taffarel, who had been Luciani's secretary in Vittorio Veneto, means this: the plane overcomes gravity to fly and therefore violates natural laws, but no one accuses the pilots of sin. So he wondered, can one win over nature without sinning?

The book, after the papal election on the 26th of August 1978, states that John Paul I tried to go get out of his predicament. “I don’t know how I could accept. The following day I already regretted it, but it was too late” reads a letter written by the Pope, the content of which has been revealed by the former president of Azione Cattolica (Catholic Action) Mario Agnes.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the testimony of the Xaverian missionary Gabriele Ferrari who meeting patriarch Luciani on the 2nd of May 1978 was told “I have not been feeling well for some time”. “When he said this, he touched his chest with the hand and added: “For a long time I have had a great pain here.”

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