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In the book Most illustrious John Paul I collected imaginary letters to historical and literary figures, to saints and less saints. Pleasant and profound pages where the meaning of his pontificate can be found

by Cristiana Lardo

In 1976 Albino Luciani, patriarch of Venice at the time, published a collection of imaginary letters, which he had already published in previous years (1971-1975) in the monthly The Messenger of Saint Anthony. Albino Luciani, first bishop of Vittorio Veneto and then patriarch of Venice, was elected pope on 26 August 1978 with the name John Paul I, but after only thirty-three days he died suddenly due to heart problems. On 4 September 2022 he was proclaimed blessed.

Luciani cared a lot about this work of his, right from the first publication. The full title is Most illustrious. Letters to the greats of the past and contains forty imaginary letters, whose recipients are writers, literary characters, biblical figures and saints, but there is also a letter to a bear! The last letter is addressed to Jesus. Luciani revised and reedited it three times Most illustrious. Although he has written other works of a doctrinal nature, certainly more "serious", this book fascinated him and he also entrusted the sense of his pontificate to this work, certainly unusual. Now Stefania Falasca, vice president of the John Paul I Foundation, has collected all the pontiff's writings and recently edited the first critical edition of Most illustrious.

Returning to the book, each of the forty letters develops a theme, a founding motif – sometimes explicitly stated, more often, simply evoked – which, like an invisible magnet from under the table, moves actors and situations. Each letter is almost a conversation between friends.

Regarding Luciani's style as a writer, the philosopher Jean Guitton noted shortly after his election: «Listening a short while ago in St. Peter's Square to the first Angelus of John Paul I, I rediscovered the art of the homily, what the Greek fathers defined as the "art of simply conversing with men". I seem to recognize in the new pope a bit of that courage, of "acquired innocence", Bergson would say... I have read his text Most illustrious, where I rediscovered the flavor of that born writer who is Albino Luciani."

In these imaginary letters Luciani addresses multiple themes: some issues are real urgencies for man (love, the confrontation with power, the difficulties of growing up when you are young, culture, revolution, sincerity, friendship , the anxiety of infinity...), but it also deals with more occasional and "lighter" topics, such as waiting for holidays, funny mistakes, the use of dialect...

But the dominant theme, the one present in each of these ideal conversations, seems to be literature. Here the author's vast literary knowledge is revealed, so profound that he informs every aspect of himself. Literary mediation then becomes for Luciani the key to understanding the world and, in the same way, that question of the infinite that drives all writing stands out clearly. Literature in Most illustrious it's the key to everything. Proof of this is the fact that most of the letters contain a literary quotation.

The language that Blessed John Paul I chooses is the so-called I'm humble o “everyday language”: the right tone for chatting with friends. Saint Augustine condensed the meaning of I'm humble in two terms: "useful and suitable", and says that Christian truth, as "loving and sweet salvation", must be placed suaviter, that is, with delicacy, both out of respect for his own nature and for the listener. In short, it is a language that embraces the world and men, that dialogues with them and is easily understood.

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer, stated: «A man, if he is a Christian, should not only be intelligent, he should also be an artist, because Christ taught art through his way of preaching, because each of the phrases of Christ, if not every single word, have literary value."

Also each letter of Most illustrious it has literary value; if you count the recipients you can see that most of them have to do with literature. Among the writers there are Luciani's favorites, also widely cited in his other works: Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Gilbert K. Chesterton, Charles Péguy, Trilussa, Alessandro Manzoni, Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, Francesco Petrarca, Carlo Goldoni. Christian and non-Christian writers, of whom Luciani captures the true meaning of the words, as in the letter to Manzoni, who is defined as the "new saint".

Even among the holy recipients of the letters, Luciani's choice as bishop and pope can be traced. The saints to whom he writes are all doctors of the Church, they have all left writings, they all speak of joy, of joy, of charity. «Woe to the models of behavior who smell of moralism a kilometer away», he writes in the letter to Saint Bernardino of Siena. And in the letter to Saint Francis de Sales he writes phrases such as: «Man is the perfection of the universe; the spirit is the perfection of man; love is the perfection of the spirit; God's love is the perfection of love (Theotimus)"; «Whoever loves God should embark on God's ship»; «Be like a child in the arms of God».

The conclusion of the letter to Sales is simple and brilliant: «Here is the ideal of the love of God lived in the midst of the world: that these men and women have wings to fly towards God with loving prayer; they also have feet to walk amiably with other men; and do not have "dark faces", but rather smiling faces, knowing that they are headed towards the joyful house of the Lord!

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