Virginia Barton

A smiling pope, humorous and wise

Catholic Herald, 30 March 1990      


Review: Illustrissimi: Letters of Pope John Paul I (Mount £5.95)


By a strange coincidence, this reprint arrived on my desk just as I finished A Thief in the Night by John Cornwell (Penguin £4.99). That rattling good read gave an insight into the “smiling” Pope we were denied by the brevity of his reign.

Illustrissimi (the plural of the rather formal Latin mode of address, illustrious ones) is a translation of the famous letters Pope John Paul I wrote for an Italian newspaper while he was Cardinal Archbishop of Venice.

john-paul-1-sizedThey became famous when Albino Luciani was elected Pope. It seemed a little eccentric at the time – a patriarch of Venice writing what were in effect pastoral letters, under the guise of correspondence with fictional or historical individuals, as newspaper articles.

Reading the letters is probably the closest we will ever get to the mind and character of John Paul I. I approached them with some skepticism – and was totally won over by their beguiling mixture of simplicity, humour and wisdom. They are written in an easy, almost chatty; style quite devoid of pomposity.

The letters touch upon many a modern dilemma (fashion, tourism, TV, pollution) and problems as old as time. The author was teaching almost surreptitiously, without prejudice and with a profound knowledge of human beings.

My favourite is the letter to Pinocchio. In it, John Paul I speculates on the boy’s future and outlines with perspicacity the likely stumbling blocks of adolescence.

Charm was the word associated with this Pope, and this welcome reprint is charming indeed. It is delicately translated by Isabel Quigly and amusingly illustrated by Papas. If you didn’t buy a copy in 1978, do enjoy it now.



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