Albino Luciani was born in Forno di Canale in the diocese of Belluno on 17 October 1912. His family was by no means rich, in fact, his father had to emigrate to Switzerland as a seasonal labourer until he eventually found work as a craftsman in glass at Murano.
The young Luciani entered the Minor Seminary of Feltre, and then later studied philosophy an theology in the Seminary of Belluno. After ordination to the priesthood on 7 July 1935 he moved to rome where he studied at the Gregorian University and obtained the doctorate in theology with a brilliant thesis on the origin of the soul in the thought of Rosmini.
On his retrn in 1937 he served as curate, first in his native parish of Forno di Canale and then at Agordo, while at the same time teaching religion in the local technical institute. From 1937 to 1947 he was vice-rector and Professor of Dogmatic and Moral Theology, Canon Law, and Sacred Art in the Seminary of Belluno. In 1947, while still continuing as a professor in the saminary, he was wa appointed Pro-Chancellor, and then Pro-Vicar General, and eventually Vicar General of the diocese.
As Secretary he prepared the interdiocesan Synod of Feltre and Belluno in 1947.
As Director of the Catechetical Office he organized the Eucharistic Year and Congress of Belluno of 1949, and later recounted his experiences in his book "Catechesi in bricole" whish has rub to six editions in Italy, ,while a seventh edition has appeared in Columbia. In it he reveals himself as a gifted writer and keen observer, with qualities of conciseness and clarity which later came to be appreciated.
He was named Bishop of Vittorio Veneto in the Consistory of 15 December 1958 and received episcopal ordination in St Peter's from Pope John XXIII on the following 27 December.
The pastoral activity of Albino Luciani produced abundant results. He carried out his mission with equal intensity on spiritual, charitable, and spititual planes. Among his chief concerns was the organization of the clergy and of the Catholic associations. These latter he urgend collaborate closely with the Bishop.
From the council to the Synod
His innate clarity of expression came to his aid long years ago when the young Don Albino had to expound the Gospel to the simple folk of his native village. To make himself better understood, he began to insert stories and anecdotes in his short sermons. This style is again evident in a series of “letters” which he published for three years in the monthly “Messagero di S. Antonio”, and which were later gathered into a book. They were addressed to the most diverse characters of history, fable, or literature.
He took part in the Second Vatican council and was among the most solicitous in having its directives put into effect by issuing opportune instructions to the clergy and faithful of the diocese.
On 18 April 1962 he wrote a pastoral letter (“Notes on the Council”) in which he set out a schema of instructions on the Council to be delivered to the faithful. The schema followed the costumary form; on nature of the Council, the various phases of preparation, the scope of purpose of the Council, namely, the solution of doctrinal and practical problems, with an invitation to ecumenical union and an exhortation to prayer and hope.
He made a meticulous study of the subject of responsible parenthood and engaged in consultations and talks with medical specialists and theologians. He warned of the Church (the ecclesiastical Magisterium) in pronouncing on such a delicate and controverted question.
With the publication of the Encyclical Humane Vitae, there could no longer be room for doubt, and the Bishop of Vittorio Veneto was among the first to circulate it, and to insist with those who were perplexed by the document, that its teaching was beyond question.
Paul VI called him to succeed Cardinal Urbani as Patriarch of Venice on 15 December 1969, but in sign of humility, he did not take possession of the See until almost five months later, on 13 February 1970. It was an unforgettable occasion. The whole city was in festive array as Venice received her new Pastor as a great gift from the Pope.
Dialogue with Culture
The simplicity of the new Patriarch won him the sympathy of all. The long vacancy of the See showed things in different light and increased the urgency of certain problems.
Venice, where everything seemed tranquil, felt in fact the spiritual ferment of those years, filtered by a spirit traditionally critical and reflective. Then there was industrial Venice, and it was this that largely engaged the attention of the new Patriarch from the first years of his mission. The development of the Venetian hinterland led to the increase of the families of workers who required priests and churches; on the other hand, there proceeded relentlessly the depopulation of the lagoon area.
Albino Luciani experienced all these worries, and he set to work at once among this people. His example is that of a simple and every active life. For his entrance into diocese he abolished the traditional pomp and ceremony of the procession of gondolas down the canal to St Mark’s. He walked through the streets, among the people, just like anyone else; he greeted everyone, and was always available.
When Paul VI went to Venice in September 1972, he found a very different city. The gift of the stole by the Pope to the Patriarch in the presence of the huge crowd that thronged St Mark’s Square was interpreted as the announcement of the Red Hat which Pope Paul would confer on him a few months later.
In the Consistory of 5 March 1973, the Pope announced the names of thirty-nine new cardinals, and among them was Albino Luciani of the Title of St Mark at Piazza Venezia.
The activity of Cardinal Lucani became much more intense, and his commitments more numerous. In 1971 he took part in the Synod of Bishops, having been invited personally by the Pope. In 1972 he was Vice President of the Italian Episcopal Conference, an office he held for three years.
At the time of the referendum on divorce in Italy, rather than tolerate the members of FUCI (Federation of Italian Catholic university students) and of the student community of San Trovaso campaigning in support of divorce, he suppressed both organizations in his diocese, thereby causing a sensation throughout the country. On matters of faith and of Catholic doctrine he is intransigent.
The pastoral appeals to the “critical or dissenting catholics” increase. They are appeals to the sense of clarity, to the mind of the Church. To place man, instead of God, at the centre is not Christianity; for the first commandment is to love God; to love the brethren is the sign of love for God.
Pluralism may be found in the field of what is open to opinions, but not in that dogma. Otherwise it becomes a “deadly snare” and an “alteration of the faith”.
On two solemnities – the Immaculate Conception (8 December) and the feast of St Lucy (13 December) – the Patriarch of Venice illustrates to the faithful in St Mark’s the two themes of great doctrinal interest today: “The sacred pluralism”.
It is a careful and exhaustive illustration, strewn with stories and examples, with frequent appeals to the Gospel, to the Council, to the words of the Pope. “Sacred pluralism must coexist with the love of the Church and with the authentic mind of the Church… A healthy pluralism is respectful of the worth of tradition.” It is the thought upon which Paul VI had insisted when speaking in the Basilica of St Mark and appealing “to the goodness and wisdom of the Venetian people”.