Culture

An open letter to Albino Luciani in the style of those of "Distinguished Gentlemen".

Today, August 26, marks the anniversary of the election of John Paul I as successor of Peter. Before becoming pontiff, he published in the press a series of fictitious letters to famous writers and literary figures. They were later collected in a book entitled "Illustrious Gentlemen". These lines collect a fictitious letter sent to him and in the style in which he wrote them.

Vitus Ntube-August 26, 2022-Reading time: 8 minutes

Photo: John Paul I, the Pope with a smile

Illustrious Pope:

I write to you with gratitude.

Some years ago I received your book "Most Illustrious Gentlemen." which was a collection of letters you wrote to illustrious men and women and published in the press. Thanks to this book, I "learned" to read, I fell in love with literature. Your book encouraged me to read more books and taught me how to read them, that is, to make the characters and authors always present and to be an interlocutor with them. Reading has become an encounter, a dialogue, thanks to you.

I enjoyed your book very much and have longed to read more of your writings. I dare say I have read all of your proclamations as Pope. They were thirty-three days of papacy for you, so it was an easy project to accomplish. I found that you did not abandon your style in your audiences and speeches as pope. Literary figures and examples never ceased to appear in your speech. It was a style I liked very much.

In your book Your ExcellenciesYou wrote to authors I liked, you opened new horizons for me to discover other authors as well. Of course, you have not written to all the illustrious authors, but you have written to writers like Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Alessandro Manzoni, Johann Goethe, Chesterton or to literary characters like Pinocchio or Penelope, etc. I remember you told Mark Twain about your reaction to quoting him. You wrote: "My students were enthusiastic when I told them: Now I'm going to tell you another Mark Twain story. I fear, however, that my diocesans will be scandalized: 'A bishop quoting Mark Twain!

Although you did not write specifically to Shakespeare, you mentioned him. The same with Leo Tolstoy, whose stories made it into your letters to other illustrious men, even though he did not receive a personal letter. I have no doubt that you would have written to more illustrious authors if time had permitted. You probably would have written to Albert Camus, Stefan Zweig, C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Solzhenitsyn, and perhaps to literary characters such as Don Quixote de la Mancha or Christina, daughter of Lavrans, Frodo, Samsagaz, and Monsieur Myriel from Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." You would also have come into contact with more literary people from all over the world, with Chinua Achebe, with Confucius, with Shūsaku Endō, etc.

You did write to saints; I suppose St. Francis de Sales was your favorite. He received a letter and made many appearances in other letters. He was your theologian of love. You would also have written to other recent saints. Perhaps to St. Josemaría Escrivá on the need for holiness for all people, as you emphasized in your letter to St. Francis de Sales. You spoke of being devout and how "holiness ceases to be a privilege of convents and becomes the power and duty of everyone". Holiness is an ordinary undertaking that man can achieve "by the fulfillment of the common duties of every day, but not in a common way." These are your words, and it was what St. Josemaría taught.

I just found out that you had written about him in another article in Il GazzettinoI was born on July 25, 1978, a month before he was elected Pope. Of course, in the article you made reference to St. Francis de Sales and even said that St. Josemaría went further than him in some aspects. You said that faith and competent work go hand in hand and that they are "the two wings of holiness. Well, I don't know if you would have liked this image that I would use now to describe faith and competent work: What if I compared them to the two blades of a pair of scissors? Would anyone dare to say that one of the blades is not necessary? Tell me what you think of my image. I have taken it from C. S. Lewis.

Well, surely you would also have written to the fathers of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. You received with joy the news of the cause of their beatification in your letter to Lemuel, King of Massah. I am sure you would be delighted that they are saints now.

You talked to poets, mothers, queens, young and old, etc. You spoke with Pinocchio and compared him to your childhood experiences. You also talked to the elderly, as in your letter to Alvise Cornaro in which you said that "the problems of the elderly are today more complicated than in your time and, perhaps, humanly deeper, but the key remedy, dear Cornaro, is still your own: to react against all pessimism or selfishness".

But what you taught me, above all, was how to maintain that dialogue and what the nature of that encounter can be. You showed how to balance a dialogue between generations. You avoided being anchored in an old way of doing things and accepted the reality of your time. You knew how to bring the different generations into dialogue. You did not consider the old as outdated and the new as the only relevant thing. This gap between generations can be compared to arriving at noon to a meeting scheduled at nine o'clock in the morning. If the conversation has been going on for the previous three hours, the latecomer will have missed many details and will be in danger of repeating what has already been said. It is this ability to incorporate the conversation started at nine o'clock into the present moment that you have shown in your letters. In your letters you had conversations on various topics: feminism, education, chastity, vacations, "fakenews" and relativism and you even have a letter to an anonymous painter. You were a man who knew how to converse.

I write to you with gratitude also because you taught me that books can be reread as you did many times on the anniversary of the birth or death of an author, or on any other occasion. I reread your book again on the occasion of your beatification this year as you taught me. I hope people will have the opportunity to read those letters of yours on this occasion.

"Let us praise illustrious men, our fathers according to their generations. They were men of good, whose merits have not been forgotten." - Ecclesiasticus 44:1,10

Illustrious Albino, I am writing to you because you are now one of the illustrious men. You are illustrious not because of your literary ability, but because of your holiness, which the Church will soon recognize with your beatification. You have taught me to be an interlocutor - in your letter to St. Luke the Evangelist and in your letter to Jesus - to dialogue with the characters of the Gospel and to dialogue with Christ. This was the source of your holiness. You were a man of prayer, a man who dialogued with God. When you wrote to Jesus, you wrote to Him trembling, showing that you were in constant conversation with Him. In your letter, you wrote that:

"Dear Jesus:

I have been the object of some criticism. "He is a bishop, he is a cardinal - they say - he has worked exhaustingly writing letters in all directions: to M. Twain, to Péguy, to Casella, to Penelope, to Dickens, to Marlowe, to Goldoni and I don't know how many others. And not a single line to Jesus Christ!"

You know that. I try to maintain a continuous conversation with you. But translated into a letter I find it difficult: they are personal things. And so insignificant!"

You were in constant conversation with Christ. This is the true source of your illustrious nature and what you have taught me is of primary importance. You ended your letter to Christ by saying that "the important thing is not that one should write about Christ, but that many should love and imitate Christ."

I write to you with gratitude because you are a humble man. You took "Humilitas" as your episcopal motto. In your letter to King David, you manifested a dimension of this and how many times you tried to bury the pride you had. Many times you held a funeral and sang the requiem to pride. About this, you told King David that, "I rejoice when I find it, for example, in the short Psalm 130, written by you. You say in that psalm: Lord, my heart is not haughty. I try to follow in your footsteps, but unfortunately, I have to limit myself to asking: Lord, I wish that my heart would not run after proud thoughts...!

Too little for a bishop, you will say. I understand that, but the truth is that a hundred times I have celebrated the funerals of my pride, believing I had buried it six feet under with so much requiescat, and a hundred times I have seen it rise again more awake than before: I have realized that I still disliked criticism, that praise, on the contrary, flattered me, that I was concerned about the judgment of others about me."

It was the virtue of humility that you also recommended in your first general audience as Pope. Not only did you recommend the virtue of humility, but you also considered yourself the lowest. You wrote to Mark Twain showing him how you considered yourself the lowest among the bishops.

"As there are many kinds of books, so there are many kinds of bishops. Some, indeed, look like eagles gliding with masterly documents of the highest order; others are like nightingales singing wonderfully the praises of the Lord; others, on the contrary, are poor sparrows who, on the last branch of the ecclesiastical tree, do nothing but chirp, trying to say the odd thought on vastly vast subjects. I, dear Twain, belong to the latter category."

I write to you with gratitude because you have spoken of our service to Truth. We are servants and not masters of the Truth. This is what you wrote in your personal pontifical diary. You became a collaborator of the Truth. You taught us to seek the truth with docility in recognition of the fact that we do not believe it. You wrote to Quintilian about education and how to seek truth through it. You wrote that "dependence is natural to the mind, which does not create truth, but must only bow to it, wherever it comes from; if we do not take advantage of the teachings of others, we will waste much time searching for truths already acquired; it is not always possible to achieve original discoveries; it is often enough to be critically certain of discoveries already made; finally, docility is also a useful virtue. [...] On the other hand, which is better: to be confidants of great ideas or original authors of mediocre ideas?"

We do not make our own truths, but learn from those who have gone before us and in turn become collaborators with the truth. You even showed how we can easily serve the truth through images and examples from literature. You made many of your teachings known through literary images. You even gave a case in which you explained the incoherence of religious relativism using a story by Tolstoy. At the end, you said that "what Rahner sometimes fails to clarify with his volumes of theology, Tolstoy can solve with a simple comic strip!"

I write to you with gratitude because you have spoken of joy and the charity that accompanies it. You are known as the Pope of the smile. When you wrote to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, you spoke of a joy that is exquisite charity when it is shared. You told the story of the Irishman whom Christ asked to enter paradise because of how he communicated his joy. Christ told him, "I was sad, downcast, prostrate and you came and told a few jokes that made me laugh and restored my spirits. to paradise!" In his third general audience as pope, you spoke of how St. Thomas declared that joking and making people smile was a virtue. He said it was "in line with the 'glad tidings` preached by Christ, with the "hilaritas" recommended by St. Augustine; it defeated pessimism, it clothed the Christian life with joy, it invited us to be encouraged by the wholesome and pure joys we encounter on our way."

You are the Pope of the smile. Your writings radiate joy, as does your catechesis. You were a man of joy, of good humor.

I write to you with gratitude because you also held gratitude in high esteem. The choice of your name is itself a concrete example of your spirit of gratitude. In your first Angelus address you said how gratitude to the two previous Popes, John XXIII and Paul VI, led you to choose a binomial name for the first time. You explained this well in your first Angelus address. I have listened to the recording of this speech on the website of the foundation created in your name by the Vatican. I enjoyed listening to the speech in your own voice. One can imagine how you turned red when Paul VI put the stole on your shoulders as you say in that speech.

I have made public my first letter to an illustrious man. I have no doubt that you would like these letters, these dialogues, to continue with other illustrious men. We would try to maintain your legacy, especially that of your holiness. With joy we would be celebrating your beatification.

If this letter has been a bit baroque and with a lot of details, it is probably because I have tried to copy the style of your letters and I have done it badly. In your letters there was no lack of examples of texts. I am writing to you as you liked to write. Perhaps you would like to read it that way too.

The authorVitus Ntube

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