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from issue no. 01 - 2004

Albino Luciani: The smile of the Christian life

The speech of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints at the presentation of the book on John Paul I, Mio fratello Albino

by Cardinal José Saraiva Martins

A moment during the presentation of the book on  Pope Luciani, published by30Days, which was held at the Almo Capranica College  of Rome on11 Dicember 2003. Speakers, from left to right: Father Roberto Busa, Senator Giulio Andreotti and Cardinal José Saraiva Martins

A moment during the presentation of the book on Pope Luciani, published by30Days, which was held at the Almo Capranica College of Rome on11 Dicember 2003. Speakers, from left to right: Father Roberto Busa, Senator Giulio Andreotti and Cardinal José Saraiva Martins

1. I am particularly pleased of take part in the launch of the book Mio fratello Albino. Ricordi e memorie della sorella di papa Luciani [My brother Albino. Memories and recollections of the sister of Pope Luciani]. First of all because it is for me a significant occasion to show my lively appreciation and all my respect for the well-deserving magazine 30Days and its acute editorial initiatives.
The work the magazine performs could, in fact, be compared, servatis servandis, to a paper pulpit, in the sense that it contributes to the spread of truth, in the light of the Gospel.
With its editorial initiatives 30Days enters the arena of the contemporary, interpreting events, vicissitudes and proposing thoughtful reflections that arouse interest.
Reading 30Days – and I confess I always do so with much pleasure – one ranges over the field of culture, without ever losing sight of the apostolic goal, let us say, that of permeating the surrounding in which people live and act today, above all so that they may encounter Christ. At bottom it is the way that the magazine has of being “salt and leaven”, in the world of printed paper.
It seems to me a work of great charity, what Antonio Rosmini described as the charity of intelligence, and I am pleased to acknowledge the real contribution in this field 30Days offers to the Church in the present world.
It seems obvious, but required, to offer my gratitude to the editor of 30Days, Senator Giulio Andreotti, and express the wish that he may long continue to lend his authoritative and well-qualified charisma to that post.
2. The other, and not secondary, indeed the main purpose of our gathering this evening is the presentation of the very fine book: My brother Albino. Memoirs and recollections of the sister of Pope Luciani written by Stefania Falasca with journalistic appeal, not without impassioned participation, along with a flowing and attractive skill in narration. The book then is handsomely presented, thanks not least to splendid photographs by Massimo Quattrucci.
In introducing the book I shall also make use of two quotations, which are not in the book, but are not irrelevant to it, as you will be able to judge as we go ahead.
I borrow the first from a Danish writer, who, in his time, enjoyed a certain notoriety in ecclesiastical circles during the first decades of the twentieth century. That was also due to the sensation caused by his conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism: the writer was Giovanni Jorgensen, who was fascinated by Saint Francis of Assisi and wrote a life – which is his best known work – and went to settle in Assisi. He also wrote a life of Saint Catherine of Siena and finally one of Don Bosco, published under the editorship of the Salesian Don Cojazzi, who in his time was tutor of the young Pier Georgio Frassati. I take the quotation from the latter biography of Don Bosco, unfortunately unfindable and out of print – who knows whether 30Days might push for its republication, perhaps even in an updated version from the stylistic point of view. Jorgensen writes, paraphrasing Holy Writ with great respect: «Allow me to begin the life of Don Bosco with these words: “In the beginning there was the mother”… she was called Margherita Occhiena and was a Piedmontese farmer’s wife» (G. Jorgensen, Don Bosco, Società Editrice Internazionale, Turin 1929, pp.19-20).
Helped by what I have read, with much interest, of the witness of Antonia Luciani to her brother Albino, recorded in the book that is being presented this evening, I would like to say I would begin a fine biography of Luciani precisely in the style of Jorgensen, that is: «In beginning there was the mother… she was called Bortola Tancon and was a Veneto mountain woman».
The church square in Forno di Canal, in a photo from the ’twenties

The church square in Forno di Canal, in a photo from the ’twenties

Allow me a confidence on the subject. Going to Belluno for the opening of the diocesan phase of the cause of canonization of Pope Luciani, 23 November, the current Vicar General of Belluno said – and also present was Don Giorgio Lise, the postulator, who is here with us this evening and can confirm it – that he came from the same village as Don Albino, that was called then Forno di Canale, today Canale d’Agordo, and that he attended and various times served mass for Luciani. But the interesting thing was this remark: «In the village», he said, «even when he was already ahead as monsignor and bishop, when they spoke of him they always called him Bortola’s Don Albino». He then added an even more eloquent detail: «When they spoke about Luciani’s father, people called him Bortola’s Giovanni, a fairly exceptional and odd thing, but it says a lot about the strong, significant presence of this woman by her husband and son».
3. One of the last out of the countless references that the servant of God Albino Luciani was wont to make to his mother, in sermons, lectures, speeches, writings, is the one he made during the general audience of 27 Wednesday September. In it he said about the Act of charity: «My mother taught me it, but I still recite it now, several times a day». In recalling that, the sister of Pope Luciani, Antonia (on page 38 in the book), notes that Don Albino dedicated his first book, Catechetics in crumbs, published in 1949, precisely the year after the death of the mother, «To the sweet memory of my mama, my first catechism teacher». And she goes on to speak of the child Albino who once did an essay on his mother, in fourth elementary grade, in which, among other things, he wrote: «she dresses casually because she is a countrywoman, but she knows how to read and write well and also do counting». She adds, still his sister Nina, that their mother «was a rustic woman, as we people say in the Veneto, very simple, but of great temperament, excitable, energetic» (on page 38 of the book).
Another savory episode recounted by Signora Antonia concerns the great passion Albino had for reading: «He always carried books with him, even when he went to mow the grass up the mountain. Berto», the other brother who was a teacher all his life, «called him “the devourer of books”». «“I remember”, continues his sister and it’s a moving scene, “the first time he read the History of a soul of Saint Teresa of Lisieux. He was seventeen years old. I remember it well because he even asked mother for the money to buy it. He said: “If I could have the money...”. In fact he’d read a review of the book in a daily paper that our father had and he wanted it very much» (as you’ll find in the book on page 53). After so many decades gone, Signora Nina has imprinted in her memory various episodes from the life of little Saint Teresa, learned from her brother Albino, that he recounted so well they have remained vivid in her mind.
Again on their mother, his sister Antonia says (on page 74 in the book) that when the bishop appointed Monsignor Luciani first Provicar and then Vicar General of Belluno, their mother asked him: «Albino, what are these things they’ve given you to do?» And on her son’s answer that he was required to do greater work for the Church, their mother remarked: «If that’s how it is, it means I’ll pray more for you». The mother of Don Bosco would have said the same thing. And also our saintly mothers, let me add.
What I have said so far may help us understand the great role of the family, in particular of the mother, in the growth, in the shaping of a person, and that, to put it in Jorgensen’s words, «a boy will be a saint if his mother is on the road of God» (Ibid., p. 20).
Holiness then has its own pedagogy, or rather one should say that a pedagogy of holiness exists, of which John Paul II also speaks in his letter Novo millennio ineunte, where he says: «The course of holiness is personal, and demands a true and proper pedagogy of holiness, that can adapt to the rhythms of individual people. It has to integrate the riches offered to all with the traditional forms of personal and group help and with more recent forms offered in the associations and movements recognized by the Church» (NMI 31). Albino Luciani in the course of a general audience, speaking with the child that he called to come and help the Pope, said: «When I was a bit bigger, my mammy said to me: “When you were small you were very ill”; I didn’t remember, but I believed in mammy. I believed in what she told me, but I believed in her still more because she was the mammy», and he then compared what he was saying with the relationship the believer must have with the Lord.
In the close bond Albino Luciani had with his mammy Bortola there is a whole pedagogy of holiness to be rediscovered and reproposed with courage in our pastoral programs. Falasca’s book, which 30Days has had the happy idea of publishing, has this merit: it enables us to enter a domestic and family dimension, it lifts the veil on the holiness of the Luciani family, in its simplicity and every-day quality.
Above, standing, his mother Bortola Tancon and, seated, his maternal grandparents

Above, standing, his mother Bortola Tancon and, seated, his maternal grandparents

4. Now I move onto the second quotation, which I mentioned at the beginning, not in the book, but not foreign to it. I take it from the little volume published by Città Nova, the course of spiritual exercises given by Cardinal Van Thuân to the Pope and the Roman Curia some years ago. The Cardinal, finding himself in transit for a day in Melbourne, in Australia, where he was to give a course of spiritual exercises, says: «With great comfort I read on a wall these words of hope: “There is no saint without a past, as there is no sinner without a future”» (in Witnesses of hope, Città Nuova, 2000, p. 47).
Much could be said on the hope that Albino Luciani as priest, confessor (in peculiar in Agordo and there is a whole chapter on this aspect of Luciani, as yet almost unknown, from page 60 to page 65), bishop, patriarch and Pontiff placed on sinners. But discovering the “past” of this candidate to holiness, the servant of God Albino Luciani, aroused much interest and curiosity in me, a past on which the book lingers and dwells, with abundance of detail, extremely encouraging I would say, and that helps us feel holiness near and truly possible.
In the family portrait that comes out of the lively conversations with Nina Luciani and that Stefania Falasca has transformed into this book, which is a pleasure to read, there are exciting discoveries to be made. For example, on page 44 we are told of when little Albino, in 1915, caught pneumonia because in the winter of that year - thick with snow – he ran barefoot out into the snow and when his mother caught up with him he was dripping wet. I was touched reading this passage, because I, too, as a child, was caught and taken back various times by my mother, after escaping from the bed to play in the snow.
So Albino was lively, one reads on page 46: «So lively. When his mother went into the fields to work he would always escape, running off with other kids and he needed to be watched for you never knew what he might get up to». I invite you to smile reading the episode of the cartridges and of the spanking it earned Albino. Or the episode reported on the following page (page 47), when at school he called the teacher a thief because she hadn’t given back a book he’d lent her. When the parents were summoned to the school, his father said to his wife: «Bortola, you go and apologize to the teacher, I’m not going because if I go I’ll lose my temper and thrash him» (page 47). His brother recounted this episode again at the lunch given when Luciani became bishop, remarking, in his speech about his newly consecrated brother and stirring great laughter among the relatives and friends present: «Don’t you believe he was always a saint… even if afterwards he’s made mammy very happy».
The story of the sling-shot because of which he very nearly became a Franciscan is very engaging. And quite marvelous is the story of the summers spent with the family, when Albino was a young seminarian or new priest. I want to read a part, I can’t resist the temptation, because it’s too beautiful: «Of those summers spent together, the images that have remained most vivid to me», Signora Nina confides, «are those in Val Garés, where we went to mow… The finest memories I have are when I used to go up the mountain immediately after dawn, to help Berto and Albino in the haymaking. I have a very clear memory of those dawns in the meadows, covered in white lilies, and Albino in his cassock swinging the scythe» (page 54).

5. Since I can dwell no further, I invite you to discover the many beautiful things each page of the book contains. Not least, though at the end, Monsignor Luciani’s sermon, given in his home parish when he had just been consecrated bishop of Vittorio Veneto. It is a masterpiece of spirituality, pastoral concern and catechetics. The authoress of the book, in picking out this sermon from the hundreds that are known, has made a most intelligent choice, because in that sermon there is effectively all of Luciani, what he was and also what he was later to become as Pontiff. In it can be found the fullness of his thinking and his program as pastor.
Paul VI on a visit to Venice, 16 September 1972

Paul VI on a visit to Venice, 16 September 1972

The aspect of Luciani as catechist comes up various times in the book (for example on page 55). During the opening of the cause for beatification in Belluno, a thought of Albino Luciani on catechesis was read that I particularly liked: «The most beautiful of ministries is the pastoral ministry. But the catechism is more beautiful still. There is nothing comparable to it. It is the purest ministry, more detached from any pretension. What is not catechism is nothing in my eyes» (A. Luciani, Illustrissimi, Lettera a Dupanloup, Messaggero Padova, pp. 300-301; cf Opera Omnia, vol. I, pp. 405-406).
I finish with a last thought by the servant of God Albino Luciani on holiness that has been with me since I heard it at in the opening ceremony of the cause in Belluno, and I think it may also be for all of you here present this evening an effective and persuasive invitation to say “yes” to the call to holiness that the Lord addresses to us, as did he, our Don Albino. The thought is this: «Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness. The Pope canonizes, it’s true, only genuine saints… If we here on earth make a kind of selection, God doesn’t do so in Heaven; coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, students set higher than the officials saints we venerate on earth» (Omnia Opera, vol. VI, p. 16).
Probably, I would like to add, explicating more fully, wanting to include the people here present as well, we shall also find journalists, writers, photographers and politicians.
I am convinced that the book presented this evening doesn’t need much publicity, because it does it for itself and will certainly be successful, as has already been shown. For my part once again, also in public, I declare my appreciation of her work to the writer Stefania Falasca, to photographer Massimo Quattrucci and, for the book production and fine appearance, also of the layout, to the 30Days publishing house that has offered us here a volume worth the trouble of reading and circulating among friends and acquaintances.

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