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from issue no. 11 - 2004

POPES. Interview with Cardinal Justin Francis Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia

«Thank you, disturbed Monsignor …»


So John Paul I, at the end of what would be his last audience, took leave of Monsignor Rigali, at the time a simple official in the Secretariat of State. His memories of those thirty-three days as the “interpreter” of Pope Luciani


by Gianni Cardinale



John Paul I
. General audience of Wednesday, 6 September 1978

«I’m in danger of saying something out of place, but I’ll say it…»

«How much mercy one requires! And even those who make mistakes … We need to be truly all right with ourselves. I limit myself to recommending a virtue, one very dear to the Lord: he said: “Learn from me who am meek and humble of heart”. I’m in danger of saying something out of place, but I’ll say it: the Lord loves humility so much that, at times, he allows serious sins. Why? Because those who have committed them, these sins, afterwards, when penitent, remain humble. There is no desire to believe yourself half saint, half angel, when you know that you’ve made some grievous mistakes. The Lord enjoined as much: be humble. Even if you have done great things, say: we are useless servants. Whereas the tendency, in all of us, is quite the opposite: to draw attention to ourselves. Down, down: it’s the Christian virtue which concerns ourselves».

John Paul I during an audience in the Paul VI Hall

John Paul I during an audience in the Paul VI Hall

«John Paul I was a pope of deep humility and deep peace. Perhaps he was not perfectly at his ease in the apostolic Palaces and was somewhat baffled by the multiple commitments which the pontificate involved, but he was conscious that it was the Lord who led him by the hand and this brought him a deep inner peace. As the Book of Wisdom says: “Consummatus in brevi, explevit tempora multa”». Cardinal Justin Francis Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia with Tuscan roots, still has a very vivid memory of the pontificate of Albino Luciani. The American cardinal, in fact, before being nominated archbishop of Saint Louis in 1994 and of Philadelphia in 2003, and holding important positions in the Roman Curia (even before that he was president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy and Secretary of the Congregation for the Bishops), worked in the Secretariat of State between 1964 and 1966 and then again from 1970 to 1985. And in this period among his tasks was also that of being the pope’s interpreter in the audiences granted to English-speaking ecclesiastics and personalities. «Both Paul VI, a pontiff for whom I retain utmost admiration, as well as John Paul I», he tells us, «did speak English, but preferred to keep the conversation in Italian the better to converse with the person or people they were speaking to. And I, in these cases, left my office on the Third Loggia and joined the audiences as interpreter». Cardinal Rigali is therefore a special witness to the brief pontificate of John Paul I. And he willingly accepted to recount his experience to 30Days. «First of all», the Archbishop of Philadelphia tells us, «I must say that Pope Luciani had a very pleasant way of speaking. At the first Angelus as pope, for example, he said with great candor how the cardinals who were near him in the conclave encouraged him not to be afraid when the “danger” of being elected to the Throne of Peter was looming over him… Then in a Wednesday audience he invited everyone not to draw attention to themselves, but to keep “down, down …».

Cardinal Justin Francis Rigali

Cardinal Justin Francis Rigali

Your Eminence, did you often interpret for Pope Luciani?
JUSTIN FRANCIS RIGALI: Fairly often. It also happened more than once in the same day. Also, I participated in the four catecheses that he held during the general audiences on Wednesday.
What is the most precious memory you have of those meetings?
RIGALI: The most vivid meeting as I remember is that of the last day of his earthly life. I was in fact interpreter for the last audience of his pontificate, granted to a group of Philippine bishops on an ad limina visit in the late morning of 28 September. I was the last one to leave him.
Did you know Albino Luciani before he became pope?
RIGALI: Yes, but – so to say – in extremis. In the sense that I met him by chance a little before he entered the conclave.
How did it happen?
RIGALI: Before the proclamation of the extra omnes there was a reception organized by the Secretariat of State in the Apostolic Palace attended by the cardinals and the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. I was also invited to this event, along with other officials from the Secretariat of State. I remember very well that I arrived in the reception hall somewhat early. And the first cardinal to arrive was Patriarch Luciani himself. For a certain amount of time we were among the few present. So we sat down and had the opportunity of talking a little.
What impression did he make on you?
RIGALI: I was struck by his great simplicity and his deep humility. At the time I didn’t know that his episcopal motto was in fact Humilitas, but it was a motto that truly mirrored his personality.
Did you think that he could become pope?
RIGALI: I must confess that he made an excellent impression on me because of his spiritual depth. I was aware that I was with a very special person indeed.
Of Luciani’s four Wednesday catecheses what struck you the most?
RIGALI: I was very impressed by how the Pope spoke of divine mercy. At least twice, on 6 and 20 September if I’m not mistaken [the cardinal quoted from memory and remembers correctly, ed.], he spoke of the “advantages of being sinners”. He didn’t use these exact words, but this was the sense. When one humbly confesses one’s sins and discovers one’s own human misery, there are two advantages. The first is that one can’t pretend to be perfect, can’t feel himself godalmighty and is therefore more understanding toward others. A sinner, then, can have a second great advantage: that of experiencing the sweet pardon of God, his mercy. Certainly Pope Luciani used a particular kind of language, somewhat unusual - «I’m in danger of saying something out of place … », he said – but beautiful, and very effective.
Luciani’s words referred perhaps to Saint Augustine who speaks of felix culpa …
RIGALI: «… quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem», says that most beautiful Easter prayer, the Exultet. It’s a poetic image – a fault in itself cannot be happy – but which didn’t enter into the most ancient Roman liturgy by accident. Original sin is not a happy fault in itself, obviously, but because it merited us such and so great a Redeemer.
Do you remember any other specific event of those thirty-three days?
RIGALI: Yes. The morning on which the Orthodox Metropolitan of Leningrad Nikodim died in the arms of the Pope [5 September 1978, ed]. That day I was called on to be interpreter both before and after that tragic event.
John Paul I greeting the faithful from the central loggia of the Vatican Basilica

John Paul I greeting the faithful from the central loggia of the Vatican Basilica

Let’s go back to the last audience, that of 28 September 1978.
RIGALI: In his speech Pope Luciani referred to the journey Paul VI had made to Manila in 1970. And he recalled that on that occasion Pope Montini committed himself, concretely committed the Church, to alleviate the sufferings of the poor, to help their economic and social liberation, but at the same time he did not neglect the “highest goods”, the fullness of life in the Kingdom of Heaven. On that point I remember that John Paul I made reference to the Kingdom of Heaven many times in his audiences: it happened, for example, when he received a group of American bishops on an ad limina visit and spoke to their families. But let’s go back to 28 September. On that occasion Pope Luciani took up the beautiful image of the Philippines as «the light of Christ in the Far East». At the end of the audience, of his last audience on the last day of his pontificate, the Pope took his leave of me with a pleasant witty remark …
Which was?
RIGALI: He excused himself for having disturbed me because he knew that I had a lot of work to do in the office. I replied that for me it was an honor to be summoned by the Pope. Then he replied with a smile and said: «Thank you, thank you, disturbed Monsignor …». Those were the last words I heard from him. The next morning Vatican Radio announced his death. It was bouleversant, deeply disturbing.
A last question. As you see it, what was the significance of Luciani’s pontificate?
RIGALI: Perhaps John Paul I had a brief pontificate, one of transition, to prepare the Church for a Polish pope. Here there are two coincidences that may be significant. Pope Luciani was elected on 26 August, the day on which Poland celebrates the Madonna of Czestochowa, and he died on 28 September, the anniversary of the episcopal consecration of Karol Wojtyla.


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