Pope John Paul I

Pope John Paul I

November 11, 2013

VATICAN CITY – "May God forgive you for what you have done," the new pope told the cardinals who elevated him to the highest office in the Catholic Church.

Later, he recounted the critical moments of voting in the Sistine Chapel: "As soon as the danger for me had begun, the two colleagues who were beside me whispered words of encouragement."

With such disarming shows of informality, the new pope almost instantly earned a global reputation for humility.

Although Pope Francis made very similar remarks after his election in March, it was actually his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who spoke these phrases in September 1978, thus introducing a new, down-to-earth style into the papacy.

Interest in Pope John Paul I, remembered for his winsome grin and death after only 33 days in office, has been rising since Pope Francis' election. That makes A Passionate Adventure (Tau Cross), a newly published compilation of essays and speeches by the "smiling pope," of contemporary relevance.

Since most of Pope John Paul I's writings have still not been translated into English, misconceptions are widespread about the man Time magazine called the "September Pope."

According to Lori Pieper, the book's editor and translator, John Paul I was neither a conservative nor a progressive.

Some have argued that then-Cardinal Albino Luciani implicitly criticized Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae, which condemned artificial birth control, by failing to speak in support of it.

Pieper says this is not true.

"He adhered to the moral teaching of the Church and he would not have changed the Church's teaching on birth control," she said. "He recognized how contentious it was," yet "always defended the pope on this."

Pieper said John Paul I also "got a lot of flak" for saying that God was more like a mother than a father.

"During one of his first audiences, he said that 'before God we should feel like a child before his mother,'" and on another occasion, he said that God "was like a father but even more like a mother," Pieper said.

"Everybody was talking about it as if he were like a feminist, like we are getting rid of a male God, but that was not his point," Pieper said. "He did say that just as a way of saying this is the way God is more like a mother, in tenderness and mercy."

Among the pope's most significant actions was his rejection of some of the "royal trappings" of office, Pieper said. He was not crowned, never wore the tiara and did his best to get away from the ceremonial throne used to carry the pope in processions.

Pieper argues that had the first non-Italian pope in 500 years, Blessed John Paul II from Poland, been the first to depart from such traditions, "it wouldn't have gone over so well."