Since today (October 17) is Pope John Paul I’s birthday, I’ll add these excerpts from the draft of the biography of him that I am writing; I don’t have time to polish it much, but I did my best; I’ve had to leave the references incomplete, but I can assure you everything is well documented.
In September 16, 1972, Pope Paul made a trip to the National Eucharist Congress in Udine. On the way, he was scheduled to pay a visit to Venice. The murmurs of dissatisfaction and dissent against his papacy from both the right and left were increasing. He was rapidly approaching his 75th birthday (September 26), and this event was not ignored by the press. Many pointed out that the Pope had asked bishops to resign from their dioceses when they reached 75. Many people speculated that Paul too might decide to resign at 75. Some even hinted that he really should resign.
On the morning of September 16, just before departing for Venice, he gave a clear sign that he intended to die where he was: he made an addition or codicil to his testament, beginning with the words “Into Your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. . .” A final stock-taking, in view of his birthday, and a reminder of death.
Later, after his flight landed in Venice, the Pope, accompanied by Patriarch Luciani, walked down the special platform that had been built the whole length of the piazza in front of the Basilica of San Marco. After the Pope finished giving his blessing, the Patriarch and the whole crowd burst into applause, startling the pigeons who took perfectly timed flight across the square.
Pope Paul then took off his papal stole, embroidered with the symbolic figures of Peter and Paul, the first leaders of the Church in Rome. After first holding it high in the air to attract attention to his gesture, he put it over Luciani’s shoulders, saying, “For the good shepherd!” Luciani began to to protest, but the Pope insisted, “You are an inspiration . . . you deserve this”-(Camillo Bassotto: Il mio cuore è ancora a Venezia, Venice, 1990).
Everyone speculated about the gesture, though Luciani himself never mentioned it. His sister-in-law Antonietta later told me, “Pope Paul was not one to joke, like Pope John. He knew what he was doing and he did it very seriously. He thought that it was right that he [Luciani] should be his successor.” (From a conversation on September 30, 1985).
Later on, in 1974, when diocesan archivist, Don Gino Bortolan, wanted to put the photo of Luciani with the Pope and wearing his stole on the cover of the diocesan annual, Luciani objected to the picture being there. “We’re talking about history here,” Don Gino replied. “He is the latest Pope to come to Venice and we have to recall the event, don’t we?” And Luciani said no more (interview with Msgr. Gino Bortolan by Gloria Molinari, November 18, 2004). Luciani was modest, and would not have trumpeted his relationship with the Pope in any case, but it seems as if he also feared what the gesture represented.
Pope Paul, for his part, seemed to have wanted to make a statement to all the world: “I won’t resign now, but in a few years, you can have this man.”
Though before becoming Pope, Luciani was very reluctant to speak about the incident with the stole, he told the whole world about at his first Angelus after his election, when he spoke of his affection for the two Popes from whom he had taken his papal name:
Pope Paul not only made me a cardinal, but a few months earlier, on the runway in St. Mark’s Square, he made me turn red all over in front of 20 thousand people, because he took of his stole and placed it on my shoulders. I have never been so red! Besides, in the fifteen years of his pontificate, this Pope showed not only me but the whole world how we should love, how we should serve, and how we should work and suffer for the Church of Christ. (Transcribed and translated from the tape recording Giovanni Paolo I: Il Papa del Sorriso).
It was almost as though he finally felt free to speak of the honor that Pope Paul had paid him, and the warmth that so many had missed in this misunderstood Pope.