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Posted September 7, 2004

Book: Illustrissimi Letters from Pope John Paul I
Author: Albino Luciani
Little, Brown and Company, Boston, pp. 258

An Excerpt from the Forward:

Certainly St. Thomas More was no fool when he joked about his own death. He could afford to be joyful because he believed. He, as every believer should see, saw joy in creation, joy in being, joy in knowledge, joy in love, joy in beauty; and above all joy in that which sanctifies and ennobles and immortalizes these, joy in the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Pope John Paul brought all this back into focus with his gentle ways, winning smile, and joyful ease with people. He had the light touch. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in his book, Illustrissimi. Here he banters with figures of literature, great and small, real and fictitious, to teach, exhort, correct and chat.

It would be a great mistake to see these charming essays that combine to make a delightful book as the diverting writings of an idle cleric. Cardinal Luciani was first and foremost a pastor of souls. His approach to literature reflects the ancient Christian maxim “per verbum ad verbum.” One can reach the Word of God through the study of the written word. If Cardinal Luciani wrote to Mark Twain, Pinocchio, or Charles Dickens, it was to teach some point of the Christian ideal. Again, and again this comes through clearly. Yet what endears the writer to his reader is the light, confident, and happy manner. Much as the warm smile reached out from the balcony of St. Peter’s to all kinds of people, friendly, believer and non believer, so Luciani’s letters to the illustrious figures of literature reach out to touch a responsive chord in the hearts of many of us who look to Peter as we look to the Lord for the face of our Father --- a Father who also smiles.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Dear Chesterton,

On Italian television, these past months, we have seen Father Brown, that unpredictable priest-detective, a typical creation of yours. To bad Professor Lucifer and the monk Michael did not also appear. I would have been happy to see them as you described them in the Ball and The Cross, traveling in an “airship,” seated side by side, Lent next to Carnival.

When the ship is over St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the professor hurls blasphemy at the Cross. And the monk says: “I once knew a man like you, Lucifer . . .This man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by the roadside . . . Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his homeward, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing, smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight tha this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked to together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. . . .He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river.”

Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.

“Is that story really true?” he asked

“Oh, no,” said Michael, airily. “It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross, but you end by breaking up the habitable world . . .

The monk’s conclusion, which is also your own, dear Chesterton, is correct. If you take away God, what remains, what does mankind become? In what sort of world are we reduced to living.?

But, it is the world of progress, I hear some say, the world of well-being!

Yes, but this vaunted progress is not everything that was hoped: it also brings with it missiles, bacteriological and atomic weapons, the current process of pollution: things which --- if provision is not made in time --- threaten to bring catastrophe on the whole human race.

In other words, progress with human beings who love one another, considering themselves brothers, children of a single God the Father, can be something magnificent. Progress with human beings who do not recognize God as a universal Father becomes a constant danger.

Without a parallel moral process, interior and personal, that progress develops, in fact, the most savage dregs of mankind, making the human being a machine possessed by machines, a number manipulating numbers, “A raving barbarian,” Papini would have said, “who instead of a club can wield the immense forces of nature and of mechanics to satisfy his predatory, destructive, orgiastic instincts..”

I know: many people think the opposite of you and of me. They think that religion is a consolatory dream; it is supposed to have been invented by the oppressed, imagining a nonexistent world where they later will recover what is stolen from them today by their oppressors; it is supposed to have been organized, entirely for their own advantage, by those oppressors, to keep the oppressed still under their heel, and to lull in them that instinct of class which, without religion, would impel them to struggle.

It is useless to point out that it was precisely the Christian religion that fostered the wakening of the proletarian consciousness, exalting the poor, announcing future justice.

Yes, they answer, Christianity awakens the consciousness of the poor. But then it paralyses it, preaching patience and replacing the class struggle with faith in God and gradual reformation of society!

Many think also that God and religion, directing hopes and efforts toward a future, distant paradise, alienate man, prevent him from fighting for a more immediate paradise, to be achieved here on earth.

. . . .The one that many are fighting is not the true God, but the false idea of God that they have formed: a God who protects the rich, who only asks and demands, who is envious of our progress in well-being, who constantly observes our sins from above to enjoy the pleasure of punishing them!

My dear Chesterton, you know as well as I, God is not like that, but is at once good and just; father also to prodigal sons; not wanting us poor and wretched, but great, free, creators of our own destiny. Our God is so far from being man’s rival that He wanted man to share in His own divine nature and in His own eternal happiness. And it is not true that He makes excessive demands of us; on the contrary, He is satisfied with little, because He knows very well that we do not have much.

Dear Chesterton, I am convinced, as you are, this God will become more and more known and loved. By everyone, including those who reject Him today, not because they are wicked (they may be better than either of us), but because they look at Him from a mistaken point of view! Do they continue not to believe in Him? Then He answers: I believe in you!

Table of Contents:

To Charles Dickens
We are running out

To Mark Twain
Three John does in one

To Gilbert K. Chesterton
In what sort of world

To Maria Theresa of Austria
Beautiful without all this nonsense

To Charles Peguy
We are the amazement of God

To Trilussa
In the heart of the mystery

To St. Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux
If you govern, be prudent.

To Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Noblesse Oblige

To Penelope

To Figaro the Barber

To the four members of the Pickwick Club

To Paulus Diaconus

To Don Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordova

To St. Bernardino of Siena

To St. Francis de Sales

To the Bear of St. Romedio

To Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov

To Lemuel, King of Massa

To Sir Walter Scott

To the unknown painter of the castle

To Hippocrates

To St. Therese de Lisieux

To Alessandro Manzoni

To Casella, Musician

To Luigi Cornaro

To Aldus Manutius

To St. Bonaventure

To Christopher Marlowe

To St. Luke the Evangelist

To Quintilian

To Guglielmo Marconi

To Giuseepe Gioacchino Belli

To Felix Dupanloup

To Petrarch

To St. Teresa of Avila

To Carlo Goldoni

To Andreas Hofer

To Jesus