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Think of Pope John Paul I’s life, not his death, supporters of his beatification say

Rumors surrounding Pope John Paul I’s sudden death have obscured the legacy of his life for too long, postulants for his sainthood said.

FILE - Pope John Paul I smiles at a crowd of thousands during a traditional Sunday noon blessing from his studio's window overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in this Sept. 1978 photo. On Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, Pope Francis will beatify John Paul I, the last formal step on the path to possible sainthood. (AP Photo)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope John Paul I, who reigned over the Catholic Church for barely more than 33 days in what is considered one of the shortest pontificates in history, will take the first step toward becoming a saint on Sunday.

While his sudden death in September of 1978 has taken over the narrative of Pope John Paul I’s legacy, advocates for his canonization voiced their hope on Friday (Sept. 2) that the upcoming event will shed light on the qualities that marked his life.

Cardinal Beniamino Stella, who promoted John Paul I’s beatification cause, remembered his mentor as “a man of deep and assiduous prayer, of careful listening and capable of providing human and spiritual support, as a pastor for priests and for the people of God, an educated and knowledgeable master of faith and able communicator of the word of God, friend and brother to priests, a visitor to the sick and an unmatched catechist.”

Stella made his remarks during a press conference at the Vatican on Friday ahead of the pope’s beatification in St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday.

Of the nine popes of the 20th century, four have been made saints, making the practice increasingly popular in recent times. On Sunday, Pope John Paul I will take his first step on the road toward receiving a halo.

Often remembered as “the smiling pope” for his kind disposition or “the September pope” for the month of his short-lived papacy, few things gathered more attention than his unexpected death, which sparked rumors that continue today of homicide and dark plots within the Vatican walls.

“It’s amazing that 44 years after his death questions still linger because of books that constitute noir literature,” said Stefania Falasca, vice president of the Vatican John Paul I Foundation and a postulator for the pope’s beatification cause.

Falasca, whose 2017 book, “Pope Luciani, Chronicle of a Death,” debunked many myths surrounding John Paul I’s death, called the rumors that he had been killed by Vatican rivals or corrupt officials “self-advertising garbage.”

“History is based on facts,” she said, listing the sources and documents she accessed in ascertaining the medical history of John Paul I that led to his heart attack. “The time of fantasies is defunct,” she added.

Born in the northern Italian region of Veneto in 1912, John Paul I experienced firsthand the reforming spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to reconcile the Catholic Church with the fast-paced changes of modernity. After serving as head of the Archdiocese of Venice for more than 10 years, he was elected pope on August 26, 1978.

“Over the course of that month I always saw him tranquil, serene, secure,” said Sister Margherita Marin, a sister of the Child Mary who was appointed to serve the pontifical apartments under John Paul I. “It was as if he had always been pope,” she added.

Over his short pontificate, John Paul I emphasized reform, dialogue, peace and unity. During the Second World War, and under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini, records show that he helped Jews and political opponents flee persecution. He insisted that the famed director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was gay, be buried in the church and questioned the decision of Pope Paul VI to deem contraception immoral in the church.

Lina Petri, the niece of Pope John Paul I, spoke of her uncle during the Vatican press conference as a loving and accepting man who embraced his papal duties with humility and grace.

Pope Francis has praised his predecessor for his meek disposition, calling him “a wise and humble man” who could “speak about God with evangelical simplicity,” during a meeting with the Vatican John Paul I Foundation in May.

For Francis, the greatest legacy of Pope John Paul I was his ability to project a pontificate that goes beyond the hierarchical structures of pontiffs, cardinals and bishops and embraces the entire world. John Paul I emphasized a church that “shines not with her own light but with a reflected light which comes not from men but from God,” he said.

The pastoral model of John Paul I offers guidance for bishops today, said Stella. “When in trouble, he was a bishop who prayed,” he said, adding that “cultivating clergy was his gift.”

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Prayers for Pope John Paul I began immediately after his death, but it was in June of 1990 that the bishops’ conference in Brazil petitioned John Paul II to begin his canonization. Even though the timing was considered too soon then, it opened the door to the study of his cause, which resulted in a 2016 folder of more than 3,500 pages petitioning his canonization.

In 2017, Pope Francis issued the decree that made him venerable and set the process in motion for his beatification.

In 2011, Roxana Sosa prayed for Pope John Paul I’s intercession in saving the life of her daughter Candela, who was dying due to a serious form of refractory epilepsy and septic shock in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

When the young girl was unexplainably cured, Stella said, “it was the step that opened the door for the beatification that we are about to celebrate.”

Sosa said she was “very emotional” at the news of the pontiff’s beatification during a recording shown on Friday, adding that the pope “gave her faith and hope in a difficult time.”

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