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 The Word From Rome

August 29, 2003
Vol. 3, No. 1

global perspective


"That was his gift, to put complex things in a way that a little girl could understand."

Fr. Diego Lorenzi,
speaking of John Paul I


Fr. Diego Lorenzi, John Paul I's closest collaborator, on the late pope’s 25th anniversary;  A note from Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger; More on Europe’s new constitution


While the media focuses on the upcoming anniversary of John Paul II’s election Oct. 16, it’s easy to forget that 2003 also marks 25 years from the election, brief pontificate, and death of his predecessor, John Paul I.  “The Smiling Pope,” as he came to be known, reigned just 33 days, from Aug. 26 to Sept. 28, 1978. 

To mark the occasion, I sat down over two days, Aug. 26 and 27, with the man who was the late pope’s closest collaborator, Fr. Diego Lorenzi. He had been Cardinal Albino Luciani’s private secretary in Venice for two years, and then spent the 33 days of his pontificate by his side.

A member of the Don Orione Fathers, Lorenzi today lives and works in Mestre, outside Venice. I met him in Rome, where he had come for John Paul II’s General Audience on Aug. 27, in which the pope recalled his predecessor as a man of “humility and optimism.”

I wrote a news story for NCR based on our interview, in which Lorenzi firmly rejects the conspiracy theories and amateur psychoanalysis that has long surrounded the death of the pope. John Paul I was not murdered, Lorenzi insisted, and he did not collapse under the weight of a burden that he could not bear.

Instead, he died of natural causes -- a heart attack. He did not desire death, Lorenzi said, but neither did he shrink from it. The burning desire of his life, like Moses, was to see God face to face, and he was ready to depart when the time came.

“He used to say sometimes, ‘Every now and then I ask the Lord to call me to himself,’” Lorenzi said.

My story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of NCR. In the meantime, I’ll offer here some of the other material from that interview.

* * *

I started out by asking Lorenzi if he remembered the address to journalists that Papa Luciani, as the Italians call him, made on Sept. 1, 1978. Lorenzi did, reciting exactly the lines I had in mind.

John Paul I referred to a famous Italian newspaper editor during the Franco-Prussian War.  “He gave this directive to his reporters: ‘The public isn’t interested in what Napoleon III said to Wilhelm of Prussia. They want to know if he wore gray or red socks, and whether he smoked.’ Likewise, I have the impression that sometimes journalists get stuck on secondary matters when it comes to the Church.”

I told Lorenzi I wanted to begin with some “color of his socks”-type questions. I was easing him into things, since I know Lorenzi does not like to pick over his memories of those days. He smiled, and agreed to field whatever I had in mind.

Was he shocked when Luciani was chosen?

In fact, when Cardinal Pericle Felici announced from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Square on the afternoon of Aug. 26 that his cardinal had been elected pope, Lorenzi was one of the few people in Rome not taken by surprise. At about 11 a.m. the day before, Lorenzi had predicted to Luciani, “By this time tomorrow, you will have a nice pile of votes.”

His logic? “They will elect the holiest man.”

Luciani, as Lorenzi tells the story, replied, “It’s difficult to measure the holiness of a man.” But he said that if he were to be elected, he would refuse.

Obviously, things shook out otherwise.

A few days later, Lorenzi asked the pope what had changed his mind. “It would have been a farce,” Luciani replied. He meant that the conclave would have had to start all over again, and the cardinals would have been demoralized and resentful. Also, Luciani was moved by what he interpreted as God’s will.

For Lorenzi, the result turned his life upside down. In an instant, he was now one of the most powerful men in the Catholic church, the pope’s most trusted aide. The evening of Aug. 26, for the first time, Lorenzi made his way into the Vatican in this new capacity.

He, like Luciani, was a stranger to this world and didn’t quite know what to do.

He entered at the gates by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and was stopped when he reached the zone that had been sealed off for the conclave. There he bumped into Marquis Giulio Sacchetti, an Italian layman and noble who at the time was the governor of Vatican City, and thus the man who held the keys to the conclave. Sacchetti let Lorenzi pass. He reached the Apostolic Palace and took the elevator up.

As soon as he stepped off, he bumped into Archbishop Ernesto Civardi, the secretary of the conclave. Civardi joked: “You realize you are excommunicated,” referring to the ancient ban on entering the precincts of the conclave. Lorenzi shot back: “If I am, the pope will restore me to the Communion of Saints.”

It was his first experience of Vatican banter.

Lorenzi was ushered into a grand sala where the pope was meeting alone with the Secretary of State, French Cardinal Jean Villot. Luciani caught his eye, stood up, and said: “Your predictions have been proven accurate. Go now, and we’ll see each other tomorrow.”

On Sunday, Aug. 27, Lorenzi stood in St. Peter’s Square and listened to Luciani give his first Angelus address.

Luciani explained why he took the names of his two predecessors, John and Paul. He said he didn’t have the wisdom of heart of “Good Pope John,” nor the preparation and culture of Pope Paul, but he now stood in their place. He asked the crowd to help him with their prayers.

His smiling, humble style immediately won hearts.

At the end, Lorenzi said, a little girl who had been sitting on her father’s shoulders next to him said: “Papa, I understood everything!” Lorenzi gazed up at the pope and smiled, offering a thumbs-up.

“That was his gift, to put complex things in a way that a little girl could understand,” he said.

Lorenzi then returned to the Apostolic Palace, and was led to the papal apartments. Most doors were still sealed off, with a piece of cloth across the entrance held up on either side by wax seals. He began helping Luciani settle in.

That night, Lorenzi said, the entire papal household consisted of himself, Luciani, and two nuns from Venice. When the dinner hour rolled around, one of the nuns brought bad news: there was absolutely nothing in the papal kitchen. Paul VI had been at Castel Gandolfo when he died, so the refrigerator in the apartment had been emptied.

Obviously, ordering pizza or going to a nearby trattoria was out of the question. Hence one of the sisters scuttled across St. Peter’s Square to the nearby convent of the Sisters of the Child Mary, to scrounge some left-overs. She came back with minestrone, cheese, bread and a bit of wine.

“We had a very Franciscan supper,” Lorenzi joked.

* * *

The simplicity didn’t last long. Indeed, one of the most interesting elements of Lorenzi’s tale is how quickly the “machinery” of the Vatican took over, creating a momentum that was difficult for anybody, including the pope himself, to stop.

Immediately, Lorenzi said, two Italian laymen, brothers named Grossi, were called to work in the papal household. Paolo Grossi had been in service with John XXIII when he was in Venice, and both brothers could speak the Venetian dialect. Then Angelo Gugel was appointed the pope’s butler. (He still serves John Paul II in that capacity). Gugel had previously been an agent of the Vigilanza, the Vatican police.

Next, Irish Msgr. John Magee, who had been secretary to Paul VI, was called back to help Lorenzi learn the ropes. Since Lorenzi speaks fluent English, he and Magee spoke most often in that language.

At this point I stopped Lorenzi and asked who was making all these decisions.

“They,” he said, smiling. “The Secretariat of State.”

In the world of the Vatican, the Secretariat of State has, since the days of Pope Paul VI, been the master department of the Roman Curia, keeping tabs on all the others and making sure the ecclesiastical trains run on time.

Was John Paul I even consulted?

“I imagine so, but I’m sure he just said yes,” Lorenzi explained. “Look, we barely had time to look around. Our suitcases had arrived from Venice, but we hadn’t even had time to unpack them. None of us by that stage had any idea what we were in for.”

Once Magee arrived, Lorenzi said, someone from the Secretariat of State explained that one week Lorenzi would stand by the pope when he gave his public addresses, the next week Magee would do the honors, so they would rotate. Lorenzi was smart enough to see what was going on; “they” didn’t want him to grow too powerful, too fast, by being publicly flagged as the pope’s right-hand man. There’s always a natural rivalry between the Secretary of State and the man who has the pope’s ear, his private secretary. (One sees this dynamic today between Cardinal Angelo Sodano and Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz). Early on with John Paul I, State was determined to keep the upper hand.

Lorenzi was happy enough in this case to agree.

“What did it matter who handed him the pages of his talk?” he said. “I needed time to get my bearings.”

Magee and Lorenzi thus shared the most intimate access to Luciani. Magee lived in an apartment one floor above the pope, in the so-called soffittone. Lorenzi found this space too hot, however, and instead took a tiny room a few feet down the hall from the pope’s bedroom, with a window facing not St. Peter’s Square but the nearby Borgo Pio neighborhood.

Each morning, Lorenzi concelebrated Mass with the pope, then sat down to breakfast with John Paul and Magee. The pope would flip though a few Italian papers, and perhaps glance at a set of clippings from the world press prepared by the Secretariat of State.

During the mornings, Lorenzi passed time outside the papal apartments while appointments moved in and out. He was with the attendants of the ante-chamber, including a Polish priest named Juliusz Paetz. (Paetz subsequently became the archbishop of Poznan in Poland, then was forced to resign under the weight of accusations of sexual abuse of seminarians). He would lunch with the pope.

In the evenings, Lorenzi, Magee, and John Paul would eat a light supper served by Gugel and prepared by the Venetian nuns. Luciani would usually watch the headlines on the main Italian TV news, to see if anything caught his interest. If not, he’d switch it off.

What, I asked Lorenzi, caught the pope’s interest?
“Italian politics,” Lorenzi said. “And Formula One racing.”

 * * *

When Lorenzi wasn’t shadowing the pope, he spent most of his 33 days responding to the “special requests” that people direct to the pope’s secretary, hoping that he’ll act as a backdoor to papal favor.

For example, an Italian priest wrote to Lorenzi saying, “I have been a priest for many years, but now I would like to experience the ‘fullness of the priesthood.’ Could you help me become a bishop?”

Lorenzi said he spoke with the priest a couple of times, trying to help him see that there were other means of fulfillment. The man never did become a bishop.

A young priest wrote to say that he had been planning on leaving the priesthood, but he was so captivated by the new pope that he wanted to stay. The problem was that in the meantime he had gotten a girl “into trouble,” and wanted to know if Lorenzi could help him.

Lorenzi declined to say how that one worked out.

A sister in a convent in northern Italy wrote to beg for an exemption from the cloister to visit her dying mother. Lorenzi wrote back saying that she had to ask her superior.

A little girl in France wrote Lorenzi to ask for a picture of the new pope. He sent along two, explaining that if she lost one, she would have a spare. To his surprise, the girl wrote back immediately to thank him, then wrote again upon the death of the pope to say how much she would miss him.

“These are the beautiful things that happen sometimes with simple people,” Lorenzi said.

In addition to correspondence, Lorenzi said, some of his time was eaten up dealing with VIPs who would drop by to pay their respects. Often this meant a mid-level Italian politician looking to make connections, offering his “complete availability” for anything Lorenzi or the pope might need.

 * * *

Luciani’s episcopal motto was Humiltas, or “humility.” Lorenzi described this as the “scarlet thread” running through his life.

Lorenzi emphasized, however, that Luciani did not just wake up one morning “feeling” humble. He worked daily at being Christ-like … controlling his temper, not taking offense, being kind, forgetting his pride.

“Christ told us very few things to do,” Lorenzi said. “But one came with the washing of the feet. ‘If I as your master do this for you, so must you do it for others.’

This did not mean, however, that Luciani was weak.

“When the Catholic truth was at stake, he stood firm,” Lorenzi said. He pointed out that during Italy’s bruising 1974 referendum on divorce, Luciani publicly rebuked a group of liberal Venetian priests who had come out in favor of legalization.

“Some of these priests broke contact with him because of it,” Lorenzi said. “He was full of understanding for them, but he felt the Catholic truth is the Catholic truth. It can’t be bargained away for something else.”

In the same spirit, when the Venetian chapter of FUCI, the Federazione Universitaria Cattolica Italiana, went too far in questioning his authority, Luciani ordered them to disband.

I asked Lorenzi what he thinks of the name with which Luciani has gone down in history: “The Smiling Pope.”

“Too facile,” he responded. “He wanted to convey a message, which is much stronger than this image. His was not the smile of a salesman on TV pushing toothpaste.”

At the same time, Lorenzi said, he understands why Luciani’s smile was so captivating, after Pope Paul’s final agonizing months. In May 1978, Italy’s Prime Minister Aldo Moro, a good friend of Paul, was murdered by the terrorist group the Red Brigades after having been held hostage for almost two months. Paul, in a memorable homily at St. John Lateran, actually rebuked God for not having heard his prayer that Moro be saved.

In that context, a smiling, joking pontiff was a breath of fresh air.

 * * *

Finally, I asked Lorenzi the inevitable, and probably unanswerable, question: What kind of pope would Luciani have been?

For one thing, Lorenzi said, he would not have traveled as much as John Paul II. His only two overseas trips had been to Brazil in 1975, at the invitation of his friend Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, and to Rwanda and Burundi while he was still in Vittori Veneto to see the mission some of his priests had set up there.

During his month as pope, his lone decision on travel was a negative one. He said he would not attend the meeting of Latin American bishops scheduled for Puebla, Mexico, in 1979. Eventually, John Paul II did make the trip.

“I’m sure in the back of his mind was, ‘What the Hell am I going to say to those bishops over there in Latin America?’” Lorenzi said.

For another thing, John Paul I would have had fewer massive celebrations in St. Peter’s Square and elsewhere, and would have been less omnipresent in the media.

“He was always wary of applause,” Lorenzi said. “When people stopped clapping, he always wanted to know how it would change their lives.”

He would have emphasized collegiality and collaboration.

“He used to say, ‘Blessed is that bishop who has priests more brilliant than himself,’” Lorenzi said. “He was a believer in consensus.”

This does not mean, however, that he would have been confrontational with the Roman Curia.

“He knew that without the Curia, you could not have a full view of how the Catholic Church has been governed,” Lorenzi said. “You have to rely on this human organization.”

Luciani’s passion would have been largely outside the Church, in the dialogue with culture, Lorenzi said, but he would have worked in and through the institutional Church to advance it.

Interestingly, Lorenzi said, much of the difference in approach between John Paul I and II reflects their personal experience. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s background in Poland pivoted on the confrontation with Nazism and Communism. Thus John Paul II has proclaimed the rights and dignity of the human person.

Luciani, on the other hand, grew up in a free society, allowing him to see the misuse to which fallen human beings sometimes put that freedom. Hence his style, Lorenzi said, was less muscular, less bold, more humble and self-effacing. Where John Paul II is famous for challenging dictators face-to-face, the most enduring image of John Paul I is of calling a child forward during a general audience to gently chat with him about a catechetical point.

Luciani’s would likely have been, in other words, a kinder, gentler pontificate. (This is not to say that John Paul II’s has been unkind, merely that evangelical zeal, not humility, is his lead idea). A less noisy pontificate -- and, perhaps for that reason, less historic. Both styles are valid, both capture essential points of the gospel, but they are undeniably distinct.

* * *

In the end, Fr. Diego Lorenzi was probably the ideal secretary for a pope whose guiding light was humility. Lorenzi himself is about as meek a man as Italian clerical culture ever produced.

One anecdote to make the point.

As we finished our conversation Aug. 27, I walked with Lorenzi down the hill from the Casa Tra Noi on via Monte del Gallo to the Bronze Door at the Apostolic Palace, where he picked up his VIP tickets for that morning’s audience. He had brought five friends from Venice, and Lorenzi had arranged with Dziwisz to have six tickets.

As we then walked toward the audience hall, Lorenzi opened the envelope and discovered that there were only five tickets inside.

“Oh well,” he said, “at least my friends can go in. I’ll wait outside.”

I was dumbstruck. This was the private secretary of a pope, and he was going to stand outside while the audience commemorated the 25th anniversary of his pope’s election?

“Absolutely not,” I said. “We’re going back to get another ticket.” After hemming and hawing, Lorenzi allowed me to drag him back to the ticket office.

When we arrived, Lorenzi apologized profusely and said he was sure the man handling tickets couldn’t do anything for us. When the man concurred, Lorenzi was prepared to move on.

“But this is the secretary of John Paul I,” I insisted. “Surely we can do something.”

Eventually the official handed Lorenzi a regular entrance ticket to the audience, advising him to present himself once inside the hall and to see what could be done. I was sure that once Lorenzi identified himself, Vatican protocol would take over and he would be ushered to the VIP section from which special guests are led up for the baciomano, or greeting, with the pope.

I returned to my office and switched on Telepace, the Catholic TV channel in Italy that broadcasts papal audiences. I was relieved to see Lorenzi seated in the front row.

* * *

On June 8, Bishop Vincenzo Savio of the Italian diocese of Belluno, where Albino Luciani was born, announced that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had approved the collection of testimony on Luciani’s life, the first step towards possible canonization. Savio appointed a postulator to coordinate this work, Salesian Fr. Pasquale Liberatore. A petition with more than 300,000 signatures from all over the world in support of declaring Luciani a saint had been presented to Savio last year.

As a footnote, I have written about Lorenzi before in connection to a Don Orione mission he supports in the Philippines. Readers may find that column here:

* * *

Other Vatican news this week:

• The Comunione e Liberazione movement is sponsoring its annual convention at Rimini. Each year, an all-star line-up of the country’s politicians parade before the ciellini. This year, the convention has offered a more explicitly programmatic line than usual to its guests, urging them to refuse to host the signing of a new constitution for the European Union in Rome this fall if the text does not acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe. John Paul II has repeated his desire for such a reference in seven consecutive Sunday Angelus addresses. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promised to carry the fight forward, but warns that it will be difficult, since as of now only Italy, Ireland, Poland and Spain have committed to back the acknowledgement, while there are 21 other EU members.

• Reaction around Rome to the August 23 murder of John Geoghan, the laicized Boston priest at the heart of the sexual abuse scandals, has paralleled that elsewhere. Paulist Fr. Jim Moran, associate pastor of the American parish of Santa Susanna, summed it up this way: “Shock, sadness and exasperation.” Meanwhile, the lone senior Vatican official to comment has been Archbishop Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. Herranz granted an interview to the Roman daily La Repubblica August 25. A member of Opus Dei, Herranz, 73, is in effect the Vatican’s attorney general.  He referred to the death as a “painful” incident. “As soon as I heard, I prayed for his soul and for his aggressor,” he said. At the same time, Herranz reiterated a widespread Vatican concern that the focus on sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the United States is excessive. “I don’t understand why it’s talked about only with the Church, as if somebody wants to sully its image in order to take away its moral force,” Herranz said. The complete interview is reported here:

• In this space last week, I noted the appointment of Benedictine Fr. Jean-Baptiste Gourion as auxiliary bishop for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Holy Land. I mentioned that Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger had supported the creation of a jurisdiction for Hebrew-speaking Catholics as a means to give the Church a voice in Israeli civil society. I wrote: “Like many observers, Jaeger believes that Latin Rite Patriarch Michele Sabbah can’t be that voice because he is perceived as partial to the Palestinians.” Jaeger wrote back to cry foul, and I promised that I would let him have the last word. Jaeger responds: “I have never believed, and have never said I believed, concerning the Patriarch, what you astonishingly attribute to me here. My point has been rather that it is normal in the Church for bishops to be ‘embedded’ in the nation to which they are sent, and that just as the Palestinians must have their own bishop, embedded in their own life, so must the faithful living in Hebrew-speaking Israel. German bishops for Germany, French bishops for France, etc. It is not an ethnic thing, there can be missionary bishops, but whatever their origin, they, their particular church, must be with reference to the respective civil society. Most particularly, I wish to emphasize that I have never shared, either publicly or privately, the sort of criticism of the Patriarch that you here attribute to me, and that I have always supported and defended his right to bear witness, and the rightness of his witness to date. I think he has been a magnificent Christian leader, as prophet and shepherd, a shining example to the churches in the Holy Land and the Middle East. He has -- and has always had -- my complete solidarity.”

• The Congregation for Divine Worship has approved a blessing for couples seeking children, developed for use in the archdiocese of Sydney, Australia. It has been prepared especially to assist couples who are having trouble conceiving or who may be infertile. The new rite has a blessing for couples or for the married woman alone. One version comprises a short formula and a blessing as follows: “May God, who through the childbirth of the Blessed Virgin Mary announced and granted to the human race the joys of eternal salvation, bless you and gladden your hearts with the gift of children. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.” Up to now, the Church has had no official blessing for this purpose. For the time being, the blessing is approved only for Sydney.

• Speaking of the Congregation for Divine Worship, it will host a meeting of the presidents of English-speaking bishops’ conferences on Oct. 21 to discuss liturgical translation. General issues are to include: The roles of the Vatican’s liturgy congregation and bishops’ conferences; more effective communication and consultation; and inculturation, in light of the third edition of the Roman Missal and a 1994 set of Vatican guidelines urging caution in integrating local customs into the liturgy.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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