God Father and Mother – Part II

Here is the long-delayed second installment of this series. My apologies for not finishing it sooner: I was determined to get it up today, the 32nd anniversary of Papa Luciani’s election, and I succeeded. I also have to apologize for the rather strange state of the endnotes. I was using the HTML footnote function for the first time, and it refused to work after footnote no. 6. I couldn’t figure out how to get it back on track, and I don’t have time right now to do it. But everything will certainly be legible. Enjoy!

A Revolutionary Statement?

One of the best-remembered things about John Paul I’s short papacy is his statement at his Sunday Angelus address on September 10, that “God is a father, even more a mother.” It was instantly taken up by the press all over the world.

One Italian journalist, Carlo Bo, called it “revolutionary” because it gave an image of God that was tender as well as powerful. [1] Another thought that the Pope had intended to strike a blow for feminism: “When . . . the man wants to impose his own will, the woman can protest against his absolute authority with the words of the Pontiff.” [2] Another suggested that what the Pope really intended was to make the Blessed Virgin a member of the Trinity! [3] Everyone treated it as something revolutionary. An article later written in German was even bluntly titled: “God is Father and Mother: Was John Paul I a Heretic?” [4]

None of this commentary was particularly deep or intelligent. Few appeared to notice that the Pope’s conception was based on the prophet Isaiah, from the most orthodox of Christian sources, the Bible. No one was on hand to point out that the maternal attributes of God had actually long been celebrated by the Church Fathers and many Catholic mystics. No one noticed the other instances — since almost the first days after he became Pope — when John Paul I made similar statements. No one has pointed out how deep and how far back into his life this idea went. No one that I know of has ever given a real scholarly analysis of his thought in this area.

It might seem odd to speak of a scholarly exegesis of Papa Luciani’s talks, since the tone of these talks was anything but scholarly. In fact, it seems to me that his writings do not resemble works of theology so much as they do the Gospels themselves, the things that theology is written about. The Gospels are so simple and transparent on the surface, but theologians have never tired of studying and explaining them in long books and articles, so much can be gained from the depth of their wisdom. Papa Luciani’s writings strike me in the same way. By his own admission, he sought to imitate the simplicity of the Gospels in all his writing and preaching. Once in a talk to the priests of Vittorio Veneto, he explained the “teaching method of Jesus,” extolling its simplicity and use of concrete images tied to the life of the people. He ended with: “If only we all spoke as He spoke in the Gospel!” [5] No wonder John Paul I has been called “the Pope who spoke like Jesus”! [6]

But it would be misleading to think that he was just a simple priest who spoke from the heart not the head. Albino Luciani was an outstanding student of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, from which he graduated as a special student who did not have to attend classes because he was already teaching full time in the seminary in Belluno; in 1942 he was rewarded his licentiate (similar to Master’s degree) magna cum laude, and later received his doctorate. He was outstanding student not only in Latin but in Greek and Hebrew as well. He was completely steeped in biblical theology and the Church Fathers. In the 60’s and 70’s he read a great deal of modern theology, so he must have been up to date on what feminist theologians were thinking.

Luciani at times wrote in a more theological style, where his learning was more readily apparent. But it was his capacity to have absorbed and lived that theology so deeply that he could transform it concretely into living and imaginative works that don’t read like theology that is so striking.

John Paul I’s ideas about God as mother can best be understood against the backdrop of his spirituality in general, so before I analyze his ideas about God as mother in detail, I want to take a look at his spirituality, drawing on the knowledge I have gained by translating his writings for many years.

Boldness, Bravery and Humility

Much of his spirituality can be understood if we understand the effect that a single book had on him. It was The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, and he read it when he was just seventeen. He described its effect on him as like “a lightning bolt.”

St. Therese is known as the “saint of the little way,” the way of simple and childlike trust and abandonment to God; the way not of great deeds, but of little roses of love and sacrifice scattered in the path of her neighbor. But that is not all that young Albino Luciani saw when he first read the book. He later wrote in an imaginary letter to St. Therese:

“The Story of a Little May Flower” you had defined it. To me it seemed like the story of an “iron rod,” because of the sparks of strength of will, courage and decision that shot from it. Once you had chosen the road of complete giving of yourself to God, nothing could have barred your way: neither sickness, nor opposition from outside, nor inner clouds and darkness. [7]

He saw in her, in other words, what any young man would like to see. Of course, he also gained, either then or later, a deeper appreciation of the roots of this courage in her abandonment to God. But he had special reason to recall her courage when at the age of 35 in 1947, he was taken to a sanitarium with suspected tuberculosis. “Therese, at twenty-three, up until then healthy and full of vitality, was flooded with joy and hope when she felt the first hemoptysis [blood from the lungs] rise into her mouth. Not only that, but when her illness subsided, she obtained permission to finish her fast on a diet of dry bread and water — and you want to start trembling? You are a priest, wake up, don’t be a fool!” [8]

Luciani wrote with insight about the better known side of Therese’s spirituality as well:

St. Augustine had written: “We go to God not by walking, but by loving.” Christ had said: “No one can come to me, unless my Father draws him”. Perfectly in line with these words, you felt like a “little bird without strength and without wings”; in God, on the other hand, you saw the eagle, coming down to take you to the heights on his own wings. You called divine grace the “elevator,” which raises us to God quickly and without effort, you being “too little to climb the harsh ladder of perfection.” [9]

There are two sides, then, to the spirituality or St. Therese: the dynamic action of following Christ on one hand, and humility, childlike abandonment, and for lack of a better word, rest in God on the other; this is the way in which we let Him do the “heavy lifting” by trusting completely in His grace.

Luciani certainly understood and practiced both sides. He spoke often about the dynamic following of Christ. There is a very characteristic summing up of this idea in a Christmas sermon from 1961 when he was bishop of Vittorio Veneto:

Paul sums up the whole Gospel well when he says, “dilexit me et tradidit semetipsum pro me” (Gal. 2:20): “He loved me and gave himself for me.”
But St. Paul was not content with summing up; he drew some practical conclusions.
That love, he said, is only the first love; now must come the second, mine. Christ has written the first page of the book; now I must write the second. The immense love that Christ has for me leaves me no peace, it compels me, it cries out to me: “Get moving, Paul, and do something for him in return” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14).
And he really got moving: he set out to follow Christ as though on a impassioned and passion-inspiring adventure. That time when I was on horseback on the way to Damascus, he says, Christ seized me and made me his. I was happy to become his prey; so happy that, from that time on, I have tried to run after him in an extraordinary chase in which one is at once hunter and prey (cf. Phil. 3:12). [10]

Judging from the number of times it turns up in his writings, Phil 3:12 must have been one of his favorite passages of Scripture. He also quoted it in Sept. 13 audience as Pope. [11]

The bold, the daring and the adventurous side of the love for God are reflected in the little articles he wrote as a professor at the seminary for the little newsletter he founded, Amici del Seminario Gregoriano, to encourage young boys consider the priesthood – such as these about Charles de Foucauld and St. Ignatius of Loyola (here).

He also liked to emphasize the idea of the love of God as a journey. In his last audience as Pope on September 27, he said:

The Lord has given us this strong desire to make progress. . . We began by living in caves, in lake dwellings, then in huts, then we put up houses, then palaces, now there are skyscrapers. Always advancing. At first we went on foot, then on horseback, on camels, then in carriages, then by train, now by airplane. Always advancing. This is the law of progress. But not only progress in traveling. . . the love of God is a kind of journey. We must make progress here too. “Lord, make me love you more and more.” Never stop. . . [12]

To express his ideas on the quiet, contemplative and restful side of spirituality he wrote:

Francis de Sales was a great apostle. And well, these are his words: “Faith in God is the mainstay of all my thoughts and all my actions”; “I prefer to be weak rather than strong, because God lets the strong walk, the weak he carries.”
Michael Sailer, a great professor of theology and a bishop, taught priests to pray this way: “Lord take me as I am, with all my deficiencies and make me into what you want me to be.”
Feelings of this kind, expressed to the Lord, when remorse for our sins pricks us, become wings that raise and carry, bringing us to God and God to us. [13]

The authors he cited are the wellsprings of his spirituality, in particular, St. Francis de Sales, who he quoted very frequently. As Pope he told the crowd at his Wednesday audience on faith that he said the prayer by Sailer every day. [14]

When he was teaching in the seminary in Belluno in the 1940’s, one of his students, Don Aldo Belli, heard him describe the spiritual life in this way:

The Lord asks the soul for an act of generosity. If the soul answers yes, the Lord gives some joy in return, but at the same time he asks for a still greater act of generosity. If the soul again answers yes, the interior joy grows, but the Lord’s demands also increase, and thus the soul is raised by responding to greater and greater requests. This kind of stairway has no limits because it is submerged in the depths of God. [15]

Luciani’s spirituality would certainly have been incomplete without either of these sides. As he sums it up:

St. Thomas Aquinas says that humility has a twin sister: magnanimity and he explains the family relationship, more or less in the following way: Sanctity is an arduous and difficult good: in as much as it is a good, it attracts the soul; in as much as it is difficult, it discourages it. Two virtues must come to each other’s aid; humility to put on the brakes, so that the soul does not aspire to great things in an exaggerated and unseemly way; magnanimity to work hard, so that the soul feels impelled to great enterprises according to the dictates of reason.
You can see the two sisters at work in St. Paul: Humble when he writes: “Last of all and as though one untimely born, he appeared to me]”(1 Cor 15:8); “To me, the least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8); “For I am the least of the apostles, who is not worthy to be called an apostle” (1 Cor 15:9). Magnanimous and launched into every risk and arduous undertaking, when he feels that he can say: “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13) . . . The waves fling the ship that is carrying him against the rocks; poisonous snakes bite him; pagans, Jews and false brothers drive him away, they persecute him; he is beaten with rods, placed in prison, they make him die every day, at every moment of the day, they believe they have frightened him and annihilated him, and he leaps forth, fresh and dewy, to assure us: “I am not in despair” (2 Cor. 4:8), and then he gets to his feet and launches the defiant statement of Christian certainty: “I am certain that neither death nor life, nor angels nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus” (Rm 8:38-38).
Here is the result of priestly humility. It does not lead to pusillanimity but courage in enterprising work and trusting abandonment to God! [16]

The Source of Contemplation

This dynamic is frequently found in different forms in much Christian spirituality and is built into the contrast between the active and the contemplative life. In Luciani’s writings, it is clear that contemplation is both the fuel for the active life, and the place where we rest from it. I think humility in particular tends to be a requisite, as well as the fruit, of the contemplative life, but it requires constant reflection on God’s true nature as well as our own. What can we do when looking at God but say: “I am only dust and ashes before you, Oh Lord!” (Gen. 18:27)?

It has been recognized that the seeing of a maternal aspect in God is one of the hallmarks of the contemplative life. It is found frequently in the Church Fathers, particularly in their use of the fourfold exegesis of Scripture, especially the mystical sense, which expounds on the text, discovering symbols or types to illustrate our life with God. Augustine, for example wrote that for those who become children before God, he becomes father and mother to them: a father because he builds, summons, judges and rules; a mother because he caresses, feeds with milk, nourishes, and gathers together like the hen with her chickens. Augustine also used the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament to speak of Christ, Divine Wisdom, as our Mother. [17] The tradition was alive through the early Middle Ages in monastic spirituality, especially among the Cistercians, and in mystical writers, exemplified by Julian of Norwich, who spoke of God as our mother. So Luciani, who loved the Fathers, especially Augustine, had a rich tradition to draw from.

Sister Ritamary Bradley, who studied the motherhood of God image in the works of the Fathers, stresses that this widespread tradition makes it something universal about the faith: “The motherhood similitude signifies what Christian mysticism is essentially about.” [18]

This tying in of the motherhood of God with contemplation and the inner life turns out to be key in Luciani’s experience as well.

But we should first look at motherhood and fatherhood as it appears in his life, and that is what I will focus on in the next installment.


[1]Carlo Bo, “Al di la della devozione tradizionale,” Corriere della Sera, September 11, 1978, pp. 1-2.

[2]Goffredo Parise in Corriere della Sera, September 12, 1978, p. 1.

[3]Giovanni Testori, “Con la Madonna,” Corriere della Sera, September 14, 1978, pp. 1-2.

[4]Hans Dietschy, “Gott ist Vater und Mutter: War Papst Johannes Paul I ein Ketzer?” Reformatio30 (July/Agust 1981): 425-32.

[5] Albino Luciani, Il Buon Samaritano: Corso di esercizi spirituali (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero, 1980), pp. 188 89.

[6] Georges Huber, Jean Paul Ier, ou La vocation de Jean-Baptiste (Paris: Editions, S.O.S., 1979), p. 154.

[7] Illustrissimi, in Albino Luciani, Opera Omnia (Padua:Edizioni Messaggero, 1989), 1:344. Translation mine.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bollettino Ecclesiastico della diocesi di Vittorio Veneto, January 1962, pp. 32-37.

[11] “Some years later, Paul would write to the Philippians: “That time, on the road to Damascus, God seized me; from that time on I have done nothing by run after Him, to see if I too can seize Him, by imitating Him and loving him ever more” (Phil 3:12). This is what faith is: surrendering to God, but transforming our own lives.” (transcription from Il Piccolo Catechismo di Giovanni Paolo I recording Rome, Edizione Paoline, 1980?); translation mine.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Salmo 130: L’umilta sacerdotale.” Albino Luciani, Opera Omnia, 2:108. Johann Michael Sailer (1751-1832) was a Jesuit professor and Bishop of Regensburg (Ratisbon), appointed in 1829.

[14] Transcription from Il Piccolo Catechismo di Giovanni Paolo I; translation mine.

[15] Don Aldo Belli in Humilitas, August 1988.

[16] “L’umilta sacerdotale” in Opera Omnia, 2:110.

[17] Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmum 26; PL 36 col. 208-209; cited in Sister Ritamary Bradley, “Patristic Background of the Motherhood Similitude in Julian of Norwich,” Christian Scholar’s Review, 8 (1978): 102.

[18] Ibid., p. 113.


God Father and Mother – Part II — 3 Comments

  1. Thank you for continuing this excellent series. How interesting it is that Papa was influenced by St. Theresa of the Little Flower. Edith Stein, a gifted Jewish woman who converted to Catholicism and became a Roman Catholic nun and who tragically lost her life in a Nazi concentration camp was very much influenced by St Teresa of Avila. These two Carmelite nuns who are Doctors of the Church are two of the only three female Doctors of the Church. The third female being St. Catherine of Siena who was a third order Dominican. All three of these dedicated and extraordinary women committed their lives to Jesus while quite young. Their piety has impressed people for many, many years

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