Letters of Pope John Paul I
by Albino Luciani
(Gracewing/Little Hills Press, 2001, 286pp, soft cover, $35.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Despite the brevity of his papacy, which lasted a mere 33 days, Pope John Paul I nonetheless made a lasting impression in the hearts and minds of the faithful around the world. Renowned for his endearing smile, his wry sense of humour, and his warm-hearted humility, this unassuming pontiff brought to the office the same jovial legacy which had characterised his ministry as Cardinal Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice.
During that ministry, the then Cardinal was commissioned by the Messaggero di S. Antonio, an Italian Catholic paper, to contribute a letter, fictional in nature, addressed to some or other 'eminent person' every month. Some 40 of these letters have been collected and bound together in a single volume, Illustrissimi.
Originally published in 1976, this unique collection, like its author, is imbued with a genial charm which will undoubtedly enchant even the most unlikely reader. And it is easy to see why.
In spite of its rather plain cover, which suggests, perhaps, a more serious content, Illustrissimi reveals itself to be at once light-hearted and easy to read, while possessing a wealth of serious, pointed and insightful observations and reflections on the state of modern culture.
The letters, most of which are around four or five pages in length, are addressed to a wide variety of personalities, both real and fictional, dating back to antiquity. Here we find Hippocrates, St Teresa of Avila, Pinocchio, King David, and a whole host of fascinating characters, being subjected to Cardinal Luciani's inquisitive and probing mind.
Set against a backdrop of great social, political and cultural upheaval which characterised the aftermath of the Second World War, the letters reveal a yearning in the heart of the future pontiff for the values and virtues of times gone by.
It is unlikely that any reader will be familiar with all of Luciani's subjects, but this is inconsequential; a small blurb recounting the subject's particular history immediately precedes each letter. In any case, Cardinal Luciani uses the main body of the letter to reveal the essential aspects of his subject's life and legacy as necessary.
There results a wonderful sense of familiarity between the reader, the author, and his subject, whom he introduces as if introducing an old friend, proceeding in earnest to ensure that we might feel fully included the ensuing discourse.
The collection bears no apparent order, such that one might happily open the book to any letter, although it is unlikely the reader's appetite will be satisfied with taking in just one. Like a bag of cookies, the book's contents are light, sweet, and immediately pleasing to the palate, with chunks of wisdom scattered throughout like rich chocolate-chips.
The perfect companion to a hot cup of tea, Illustrissimi offers a fascinating view of human civilisation and some of its most prominent figures, from the perspective of a man deeply concerned with its apparent decline. Along the way, it sheds much light on the little-known personality and interior life of its affable author, the future Pope John Paul I.