Today marks the 33rd anniversary of John Paul I’s death. This year also marks the centenary of the birth of Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel Baron von Ketteler (December 25, 1811 – July 13, 1877), who gave up a splendid career to study for the priesthood and eventually become the Bishop of Mainz. His thought on social questions influenced Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum. They also had a very strong influence on the social thought of the future Pope John Paul I. It is perhaps worthy of note that Albino Luciani’s father Giovanni spent many years as a laborer in Germany, and as an ardent defender of workers’ rights, probably came into contact with Bishop Ketteler’s ideas.
Luciani wrote this delightful evocation of von Ketteler’s priestly vocation in 1941 while teaching in the seminary in Belluno, as part of a series he penned hoping to attract other idealistic young men to the priesthood. I think it’s very fitting to commemmorate John Paul I today.
He was a young German lawyer. A noble of the highest aristocracy, cultivated and brilliant. And above all impetuous and combative: from family tradition, from the ardor of his heart, from a need to fight. In the various universities in Göttingen, Berlin, Munich and Heidelberg, he was the ideal of his rowdy companions, the soul of all the student brawls and the terror of all those whose homes he boarded in. Alas! . . . He had even fought a duel, risking having his nose carried away! Equally ready to swim across a river that barred his way or through the volumes that were to lead him to diplomas, he had studied ardently, with splendid results.
And now he had been named referendary to the governor of his native city of Münster. His future was assured; he only had to follow the bureaucratic procedures . . . one fine day he would wake up as vice-prefect in some city in Westphalia or Prussia. And very probably he would not stop there! There was universal astonishment when people learned that he had stepped down from his office and turned over his insignia to the governor. What? Was he breaking off his career? He answered that he he’d had enough of it and retired to Munich in Bavaria. Here, he went in search of a new field for his industrious activities. Which one? Not even he knew.
He felt that he had good energies in him, he wanted to employ them in some great and holy cause, and inside he called for someone would come make use of him . . . he was heard . . . one evening he saw before him the vision of a poor religious sister in prayer. He was not a visionary; he tried to persuade himself that it was a hallucination, he tried to drive away the vision. In vain. He continued to see clearly a sister praying. But for whom was she praying? He did not know anything. Then the vision ceased, but at that very moment the thought came to him: “What if I were to become a priest?”
It had never passed through his mind! Now, however, he marveled that he had not thought of it before; it seemed very natural to him, he asked for advice and made up his mind. He entered the seminary and four years later he was ordained in Münster. First he was a chaplain then a parish priest; then a bishop, the great Ketteler of Mainz, the apostle of the workers, the magnificent fighter, the rebuilder of Catholic Germany! And the mystery of the sister who was praying? He understood it only in the last years of his life.
One morning he was invited to speak in an institute of sisters. As he was distributing communion, he stopped, and his hand trembled: he had recognized in the sister who was receiving Communion the sister of his vision. After Mass, he had all the sisters gathered together; but he did not recognize the one he was looking for. Then he asked the superior: “But are all your sisters here? “All of them, Excellency!” “But isn’t there perhaps someone missing?” “Ah!” – she said — “Yes, an old sister who tends to the humblest services. I’ll have her come right away.” She was the one the bishop wanted. He asked her if she was accustomed to saying any special prayers. She answered “Excellency, I am a poor sister; I am worth little, but I want to offer my sacrifices and prayers for priests and vocations.”
“Then it is you to whom I owe my vocation.” Yes. The hidden prayer of a good soul, the ardent generosity of a youth and the grace of God had constructed that magnificent vocation of a priest and bishop. And it always happens like this: God, the call, the good people. . . Amici del Seminario Gregoriano, April-May 1941; Opera 9:365-66.
This article makes me wonder if the prayers of some particular person inspired Papa Luciani’s vocation. If so, who might it have been? His mother? Someone else who loved him? Some ordinary religious or lay person whose name we will never know? Well, thank God for whoever it was. And may God inspire many beautiful priestly vocations like his!