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The Pre-Papal 'Letters' of John Paul Reviewed Everything from Charismatics to the Beatles

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As Patriarch of Venice, Albino Luciani published a series of “letters” to the “most illustrious ones”—notable figures in both history and literary legend. In fact, Luciani used the imaginary correspondence as a pulpit for folksy, anecdotal homilies on social and theological matters. Between the lines emerges a man who is essentially conservative, learned (even on pop culture), large-hearted—and eminently suited to be Pope John Paul I (below). A sampler:

To Mark Twain, a skeptic who ridiculed religion: “How much truth there is to your humor, Mark. We become [vainglorious], as was a jackass who covered himself with a lion’s skin. ‘What a lion!’ everyone shouted; men and beasts fled. But a gust of wind blew the skin off and everyone saw the jackass. One must smile when one learns how little there is beneath certain titles and certain celebrities!”

To Hippocrates, the ancient Greek Father of Medicine: “You were the first to classify the four fundamental temperaments of man: impulsive, phlegmatic, irascible and melancholic. Many saints had what we might call defective characters, but they knew how to get the best out of themselves.”

To King David: “The Bible portrays your varied personality: poet and musician, brilliant leader, a shrewd king who was involved—not always happily, oh me!—in harem intrigues. But in spite of that, thanks to your remarkable piety, you remained conscious of your humble status in the face of God. I have 100 times held a funeral for my pride—and 100 times seen it return more alive than before. In short, I worried about what others thought of me.”

To opera’s barber of Seville: “You have come back—on the TV screen I saw you. Returning now, you would discover that millions of youths are doing what you did. They declare themselves revolutionaries, but with the excessive attention paid to hair and clothes risk making themselves merely effeminate. Over in Liverpool there [are] four disheveled and melodious young men. The Queen of England not only did not plug their mouths but conferred a high honor on them.”

To Saint Theresa of Avila (1515-1582): “For me you are an example of a repeated phenomenon in the Church. Women do not govern, but very often inspire, promote and sometimes direct.” He extolled her charisma, but added: “I hope this business of seeing charismatics all over the place is a passing custom.”

To Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan dramatist: “I cannot share your negation of the Devil. Like the poet Baudelaire, I think the Devil’s most successful hoax has been to make men believe he doesn’t exist. He wants to slip through our lines incognito. That the Devil exists is no more debatable than the existence of God.”

To Jesus: “The critics have attacked me. ‘He’s a bishop, a cardinal.’ It’s been said, ‘He rolls up his sleeves and writes letters in every direction: to Twain, to Penelope, to Dickens, to who knows how many others. And not even a single line to Jesus Christ!’ But You know it. With You I have a continual conversation. Translating this to a letter, however, is difficult. And then what do I write to You, about You, after all that has been written about You?”

To Samuel Pickwick (below), the bumbling Charles Dickens character: “Blunders [made] in good faith come from prejudices; for example, ‘The treasures of the Vatican,’ ‘the Church allied to the powerful.’ These are concepts that today render hostile to the Church many people who loved and esteemed her. A large sum is in fact necessary to the Holy See that must attend to a thousand needs, especially of the poor.”

To Pinocchio (left), mythical puppet created by the 19th-century Florentine writer Collodi: “In you, child, I recognize myself. Even I, going and coming from school, got into fights—throwing snowballs in the winter and punches and such things in all seasons. I received a few, I gave a few, trying to balance those comings and goings and trying not to whine to those in my family who, if I had complained, surely would have given me the rest.”

To G.K. Chesterton (left), English author: “The conclusion of your monk [in The Ball and the Cross] is correct. Take away God, what then remains? Progress, they say. Yes, but this progress brings missiles, bacteriological and atomic weapons, pollution, things that threaten to carry all humanity to catastrophe.”

To Marconi, the inventor of the radio: “Your very intense life can be summed up in this phrase: Few words, many facts. In this respect you teach something to us, who today seem inclined toward the opposite tendency—many words but sparse practical fruits.”

To Penelope, who waited 20 years for husband Ulysses to return from his odyssey: “Even the best of consorts fall prey to foul moods. [So] a couple should take turns. If one has a monopoly on moods, the other has no choice but to try to have a monopoly on patience.”

To Goethe (below), German poet: “The artist is free to portray evil, but evil should appear as something wrong. There are [film] directors who think they can redeem a whole pornographic film with a final moral remark like a sprinkling of holy water. It takes much more than that!”