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John Paul I’s charming and wise letters to Jesus, Dickens, Pinocchio, and many more

Illustrissimi, a collection of forty letters the future pope wrote to historical, literary, and Biblical figures, offers a shrewd and surprisingly relevant understanding of the increasingly post-Christian West and its social, economic, and political woes.

John Paul I photographed from his study's window in 1978. (Image: Sentinelle del mattino International/Wikipedia)

Behind the famously captivating smile of the recently beatified Pope John Paul I, who led the Barque of Peter for just thirty-three days (August 26-September 28) in 1978, lived a wise, gentle soul who beautifully embodied his episcopal motto of Humilitas (“Humility”). His shrewd and surprisingly relevant understanding of the increasingly post-Christian West and its social, economic, and political woes is on full display in Illustrissimi, a collection of forty letters the future pope wrote to historical, literary, and Biblical figures accompanied by zany caricatures rendered by the British cartoonist William Papas.

The letters’ recipients are very diverse, including Mark Twain, Pinocchio, G. K. Chesterton, St. Therese of Lisieux, and Jesus Christ Himself. Luciani’s letters were originally published in the early 1970s as a regular feature in the Catholic magazine Il Messaggero di Sant’Antonio when he was the Patriarch of Venice. They were first published in book form in Italy in 1976; an English translation followed two years later.

The letters follow a similar pattern. Luciani writes to a certain figure, beginning by praising him or her (although the future pope is not uncritical; for instance, he expresses disappointment at the anti-Catholicism in some of Sir Walter Scott’s novels). Next, he underlines a specific aspect of his addressee’s life or writing, which then turns into a discourse on a modern problem; many, but not all, relate to religion and morals. Luciani’s letters feel like the sermons of the kind of priest each of us will hopefully encounter in our lives: one who skillfully synthesizes complex theological ideas, making them accessible to everyone regardless of background, all the while remaining faithful to Catholic tradition.

I most enjoyed Luciani’s letter to Pinocchio. He writes about how much he enjoyed reading about the sentient puppet’s misadventures, with which he identified as a boy. The future pope and blessed even admits that in his childhood he took part in many fistfights, sometimes even initiating them!

What follows is a beautiful letter essentially addressed not so much to Pinocchio as to every Catholic pre-adolescent. Luciani advises his reader to be ready for the pangs of unrequited romantic love. Above all, John Paul I recommends tenacity in clinging to the faith at a time when young people are naturally inclined towards rebellion against all authority:

Like nearly all youngsters between the ages of seventeen and twenty, on your way to autonomy, you may strike against a hard rock – the problem of faith. In fact, you’ll breathe in anti-religious objections as you breathe the air at school, in the factory, in the cinema, and everywhere else. If you think of your faith as a heap of corn, then a whole army of rats will attack it. […] You must defend it: today, only the faith that is defended survives.

The issue of Catholic social teaching and its response to the ideologies of Marxism and capitalism figures prominently in Illustrissimi. This should not be surprising, as Pope John Paul I grew up in dire poverty, while his father, Giovanni Luciani, was an industrial worker who was drawn to the strongly anticlerical socialist movement (Luciani’s mother was a devout Catholic; her parish priest recommended marrying Giovanni, hoping that the marriage would reconcile him with the Church).

This topic is addressed in the letter to Charles Dickens. Luciani tells the famous English writer how he loved his work for its denunciation of social injustice. Luciani explains that Dickens would be pleased to learn that a century after his death, manual laborers enjoy many rights and protections. However, Luciani laments the growing income disparity between industrialized and poor nations and within Italy itself, as well as the fact that the West is turning into a society of money-obsessed Scrooges.

In a passage of a letter to Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio, that echoes his immediate successor’s arguments in the encyclical Centesimus annus, John Paul I writes:

Capitalism deserves credit for promoting industrial development and personal freedom; but it can be reproached with having caused great suffering to the poor in the last century and many inequalities today. Marxism tramples on personal freedom and sweeps away all religious values; but it cannot be denied credit for having opened many people’s eyes to the sufferings of the workers and the duty of solidarity.

As Luciani was writing his Illustrissimi in the 1970s, a new attempt at marrying Catholic social teaching with Marxism was ascendant in Latin America. I do not know how much Pope John Paul I knew about liberation theology, but in a letter to a seventeenth-century governor of Milan faced with an armed insurrection he sounds like he is describing priests such as Ernesto Cardenal who would a few years later participate in Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution:

Palestine in the time of Christ was a theater of guerrilla war, [the Marxists] say. The guerrillas – the zealots – fought against Rome. […] Deprived of his rights as a citizen by the white colonialists from Rome, Jesus, a downtrodden Jew, couldn’t fail to find himself among the revolutionaries. […] The Gospels and Epistles, then, must not be heeded, but must be re-interpreted.

However, Luciani explains, “Christ, though inferior to none, not even to the Father, was a model of respect towards human authority,” not in the least to Mary and Joseph. Our Lord consistently preached and practiced non-violence. Meanwhile, Luciani continues, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the pope and bishops do not oppress the laypeople, as the Marxists claim, but instead serve them, helping bring them closer to salvation.

Another topic that frequently appears in Illustrissimi is the Sexual Revolution, which had exploded just a few years earlier. While claims of Pope John Paul I’s desire to thwart traditional Catholic teaching on sexual morality have been debunked, Illustrissimi offers further proof that Luciani, in fact, was a rather conservative thinker on the sacredness of human life and sexuality.

A letter to Carlo Goldoni, an Italian playwright who poked fun at the relations between the sexes, turns into a searing denunciation of abortion. Apart from underlining the sacredness of all human life, Luciani rejects the foolish argument that Italy, which in the early 1970s had not yet legalized abortion, should do so because other “civilized” countries have done so. Today, many similar pressures are placed on nations with pro-life legislation: “An illness brought into Italy from outside doesn’t become healthy because it’s imported; it’s still an infection or an epidemic.”

Meanwhile, in letters to Goethe and Empress Maria Theresa, Luciani condemns the gratuitous scenes of sex and violence in contemporary cinema and the immodest clothing of women, respectively.

Illustrissimi covers many other problems. Some of the most memorable letters are addressed to Christopher Marlowe, whom the future pope chastises for skepticism about the Devil’s existence, explaining that duping fools into not believing in him is precisely Satan’s means of gaining unwitting stooges in his struggle against God, and the Renaissance Venetian printer Aldus Manuzio, to whom Luciani laments about the explosion of the news media, much of it dishonest and of poor quality; this letter sounds even truer in the age of social media and fake news.

Illustrissimi is evidence of Pope Blessed John Paul I’s considerable erudition and literary talent. I see it as the perfect component of a Catholic liberal arts curriculum. It will introduce young people to many figures they should know and provide an intelligent Catholic perspective on social challenges that are just as relevant today as they were in Cardinal Luciani’s time.


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About Filip Mazurczak 72 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others.

1 Comment

  1. Compare and contrast the hobbies of two popes:

    One wrote letters to fictional or deceased personages.

    Charming.

    The other impoverishes humanity by advocating for insane, unfounded, destructive green energy initiatives.

    Harming.

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