We still don’t know much about John Paul I, who was elected – and died – forty years ago

Forty years ago this week, Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice was elected pope. Next month marks the 40th anniversary of his death. The only thing most younger Catholics know about John Paul I is that he reigned for 33 days. They may also think they know that he was murdered. He wasn’t, but his death remains mysterious.

It would be reasonable to assume that John Paul, found dead in the papal apartments in the early morning of September 29, 1978, was the shortest-reigning pope. In fact, no fewer than nine had shorter reigns. The briefest was 13 days: Urban VII in 1590. Confusingly, until 1961 the record was three days. Pope-elect Stephen was a cardinal but not a bishop when he was chosen in 752. The Church has changed its mind twice about his validity, and he’s currently an also-ran.

These things weren’t so surprising in an era when people often dropped dead. But in 1978 it was assumed that a 65-year-old man in apparently good health, and with world-class medical care, would be around for at least a decade.

The shock was tremendous. My saintly grandmother, enchanted by the “Smiling Pope”, nearly fainted. Some pontiffs instantly win the public’s heart: John Paul II and Francis are examples, but so was Papa Luciani. That was no ordinary smile. In photographs he looks like an Italian grandfather who’s just walked in to his surprise birthday party.

Losing him was heartbreaking and surreal. Canon Tony Churchill, then a young priest at Wonersh seminary, was shaving with the radio in the background. “I heard the words ‘the new Pope has died’ but they didn’t sink in,” he remembers. “It was a terrible moment of déjà vu – we’d only just had the funeral of Paul VI.”

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