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The Gift of His Smile

On my most recent trip to Italy, I stopped for gelato at a little shop in Rome, and saw an interesting photograph hanging on the wall behind the cash register.
The photo was taken during the installation Mass that formally began the pontificate of John Paul I. The pope, in white vestments and golden miter was seated on a chair in St. Peter’s Square; kneeling before him and grasping his left hand was Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, who in little more than a
                                    month would become John Paul II.
The storekeeper sold me a copy of that photo for five euros. Before he slipped the picture into a plastic bag, he tapped the figure of John Paul I and earnestly said, “Questo era buono!”—This one was good!
John Paul I was to lead the church for only 33 days in 1978; we are now in the 35th anniversary of his papacy. That means that there are millions of people well into adult life who do not remember him.
And yet, John Paul I made a permanent mark on the Church, and on the papacy in particular, a mark that has been more visible than ever since the election of Pope Francis.
With John Paul I, the papacy took a major leap away from the formality that had characterized it for centuries.
From the moment he appeared on the loggia above the doors to St. Peter’s Basilica, his modest, accessible, and cheerful personality was clear.
He was already known in Italy for his ability to talk about the faith in terms that people could grasp; while he was archbishop of Venice, he wrote a magazine column consisting of letters to historic and literary figures including Mark Twain and Pinocchio.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later to be Benedict XVI, said that John Paul I “didn’t just tell us a story, he made us a gift of his smile; he allowed us to get a glimpse into the depth of the ‘human essence’ to guess something of paradise lost.’’ Italians immediately dubbed him “il papa del sorriso,” the pope of the smile.
From the loggia, he greeted the crowd by speaking to them in his native Italian.
He dispensed with the ages-old coronation and substituted an inaugural Mass.
He made a point of getting close to the people, and especially to children.
John Paul I foreshadowed Pope Francis’ optimism about human nature.
“People sometimes say,’’ he noted during an Angelus homily, “‘we are in a society that is all rotten, all dishonest.’ That is not true. There are still so many good people, so many honest people. Rather, what can be done to improve society? I would say: let each of us try to be good and to infect others with a goodness imbued with the meekness and love taught by Christ.’’
And John Paul I anticipated Francis by, on the one hand, upholding the moral teachings of the Church and, on the other hand, emphasizing the mercy of God.
“(W)e are the objects of undying love on the part of God,’’ he said during another Angelus. “We know: he has always his eyes open on us, even when it seems to be dark. He is our father; even more he is our mother. He does not want to hurt us, he wants only to do good to us, to all of us. If children are ill, they have additional claim to be loved by their mother. And we too, if by chance we are sick with badness, on the wrong track, have yet another claim to be loved by the Lord.’’
John Paul was with us only briefly — like a comet, it has been said — but while he was here, “Questo era buono!”
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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