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Four weeks and a few precious crumbs

· Cardinal Albino Luciani was elected Pope on 26 August 1978 ·

Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice — elected in 24 hours on 26 August 1978, the second day of the Conclave — chose the name John Paul, combining the names of John XXIII and Paul VI. God was to call Luciani to himself a only few weeks later, on 28 September. Outstanding among the events of Pope John Paul i’s full and unforgettable September were his most beautiful Wednesday General Audience catecheses. In them he seemed in a certain way to continue his Catechetica in briciole [Crumbs of the Catechism]

In this work, published in December 1949, the young priest recommended to the catechists, enthusiasm, conviction, love and not only knowledge but also and above all the ability to be a communicator. Some 30 years later, as soon as he was elected Pope, following in the tracks of his Predecessor, he wished to make his Audiences, as he said on 6 September, into “a real catechesis adapted to the modern world” by a Pope catechist.

Virtually transforming those encounters attended by many into four stages of rapprochement to the heart of Christianity, at his first General Audience he summoned an altar boy to his side. The “catechist should not only be concerned with acting and speaking, but above all with making students act and speak” ( Catechetica , nn. 4, 6). The following week, drawing from Trilussa, St Paul and St Augustine, he effectively described the emotional and existential expression of the Act of Faith as the “surrender to God, but transforming one’s life” — knowing that God has “so much tenderness for us, even more tenderness than a mother has for her children”. On 20 September, as an international congress held in Freiburg had been discussing “the future of hope”, John Paul treated hope as he had assimilated it from the iucunditas of Thomas Aquinas and the hilaritas of Augustine. Lastly, on 27 September, taking up textually the Act of Love that his mother had taught him when he was a small bocia (“little boy” in Venetian dialect), he spoke of love, which not only lives on in the memory and mind like any fact learned but also attracts one every time one thinks of it, making one “[rush] with one's heart towards the object loved”.

All four General Audiences were characterized by a tangible atmosphere of brotherliness, with citations not only from the Fathers and theologians, but also of thinkers and men of letters. At his second General Audience he referred to Ozanam and Lacordaire; at the third, Saint-Beuve and the non-Catholic Scot, Andrew Carnegie; the fourth time it was to an unnamed teacher of the philosophy class he had attended, as well as to Jules Verne.

These were episodes of direct contact, as it were, with his brothers in the episcopate and with a great many lay people. They were family moments, perceived as though the Lord were present, in the most tender manner, as when a child stands before his mother: “like a child before his mother; one believes in one's mother; I believe in the Lord”.

On 13 September Pope Luciani was also to recall his earthly mother in the Act of Faith in order to illustrate the special relationship of trust that is established with God even before the relationship with his truth. “My mother used to tell me when I was a boy: ‘When you were little, you were very ill. I had to take you from one doctor to another and watch over you the entire night; do you believe me?’. How could I have said: ‘I don't believe you, Mamma?’. Of course I believe, I believe what you tell me, but I believe especially in you”. One could almost say the Audiences took place in a family context which was repeated only four times (as many Wednesdays as there were).

The first time, John Paul — who on 13 September was to introduce himself as “the poor Pope” when speaking of faith — chose not by chance to evoke a certain atmosphere of a family of families in order to portray the Church herself. He began by mentioning “cardinals and bishops, my brothers in the episcopate. I am only their elder brother”. However, he then wished to open a direct dialogue on the topic of reciprocal care in the family and among the generations, by speaking directly with James, one of the Maltese altar boys who had been serving for a month in St Peter’s.

A true family style requires care, reciprocal attention especially in moments of need, offering food, water or medicine. Nevertheless “heat and food are not enough, there is the heart; we must think of the heart too”. At his first General Audience he recalled the atmosphere of and reasons for family life: the family “is particularly touching because the family is something great”. To the participants in a congress on organ transplants — verifying brain death prior to organ removal and related experimentation on human beings for the future benefit of other sick people were subjects already in hot debate — the Pontiff reaffirmed that we must “never transform man into an object of experiment”, especially when he is failing or ill, as can happen in the season of old age.

Eight days later, taking up the “seven lamps of sanctification” of which Pope John XXIII had spoken, Pope John Paul i described the dynamism of faith as a conversation and exchange between the Lord and each one of us and in particular between Jesus and the Church. On that occasion he took up the ancient theology of Christ the Head and of the Church his Body, the same theology which — between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries — had enabled James of Viterbo to write his first “separate treatise on the Church”, rethinking in Christological terms the theory of power.

He could thus represent the reality of the Church as a familial body, in which people love and do not betray each other despite the presence of almost inevitable faults. “If there are, and there are, defects and shortcomings, our affection for the Church must never fail”. Next came the second lamp, which for Pope John was hope. The Pope introduced this theme with a few words from the Divine Comedy in which can be found a sort of examination by Dante of the three theological virtues.

Hope is treated with that characteristic catechetical method of question and answer, often with anecdotes from life, praising the virtue of trust and abandonment; also in difficulties and in failures, in fact, hope stays firm, steadfast. The Pope shows a great “sympathy for hope”, as a counter-tendency to a certain contemporary culture which had been sparked by what Nietzsche called “virtue of the weak” or by Marxism on “alienation”.

In his last catechesis, Pope John Paul i commented on the main assertions of the Act of Love : “I love you above all things” was thus defined by the Pope as the banner of Christian maximalism. “Above everything else”, he explained that, “love of God, though prevalent, is not exclusive”, for God is not jealous; further, “For your sake I love my neighbour” gave place to a most beautiful opening, as well as to justice, charity in act, namely the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual ones. “Forgive offences received”, implies an attitude which almost takes precedence over worship itself. Lastly, “Oh Lord, may I love you more and more”, expresses an even more intense and perfect journey than that of scientific and technological progress.

In this Year of Faith, after the Encyclical Lumen Fidei which concludes Ratzinger’s trilogy on the theological virtues, the comparison with Pope Luciani’s catecheses makes it possible — as his Catechetica in bricciole (cf. 4, 20) already theorized — to see these virtues made “living and speaking” by a Pope of whom it is truly possible to say with the Book of Wisdom (4:13): consummatus in brevi explevit tempora multa [In a short time, he fulfilled long years].




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 17, 2020