What if Cardinal Timothy Dolan became Pope? That’s probably a long-shot, but it’s a question I’ve been hearing more and more especially as his star rises across the world. When asked, one answer I like to give is, “Well, look back to 1978 and find out.”
Sandwiched between the prophetic Pope Paul VI and the magnetic Pope John Paul II, Pope John Paul I was one of the twentieth century’s most charming Catholic leaders. He reigned as vicar of Christ for just 33 days before his unexpected death. But in those five weeks, he wooed the world.
Like the jolly archbishop of New York, John Paul liked his religion tinged with humor. He was a natural joker with a big, beaming smile. To this day Italians remember him as “Il Papa del Sorriso”—the Smiling Pope.
After his death, Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri remembered John Paul as a “meteor that lights up the heavens and then disappears, leaving us amazed and astonished.” Cardinal John Wright of Pittsburgh called him “an enemy of boredom, a friend of delight.”
A few weeks ago, I had a brush-in with this cheerful churchman. I was browsing my local used bookstore, when I stumbled upon a dusty old book titled Illustrissimi: Letters from Pope John Paul I (Little, Brown and company, hardcover, 258 pages).
Originally published in 1976, the book was unlike any other I’d seen from a Pope. I had poured over Paul VI’s exhortations on evangelism and sexuality. I had studied Pope John Paul II’s rich theology of the body. And I had read plenty of theology from Pope Benedict XVI.
But this was a book of humor.
Inside I discovered fictional letters to a wide diversity of people: illustrious writers, fictional characters, and famous historical figures. There were letters to Pinocchio, Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton, Mr. Pickwick, Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, Jesus, and many more.
My favorite of the bunch was his letter to Mark Twain, the beloved American author. It’s a great examples of John Paul’s captivating warmth, and also his simple, practical spirituality.
The book is out of print, though you can still snag used copies on Amazon, but I’ve reprinted the letter below to give you a taste of this forgotten Pope.
Dear Mark Twain,
You were one of my favorite authors during my adolescence.
I still remember the amusing Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which, after all are your own boyhood adventures, dear Twain. I have repeated some of your witticisms hundreds of time; the one about the value of books, for example. The value is beyond calculation, you once said to a girl who had questioned you, but it varies. A book bound in leather is excellent for sharpening a razor; a small book, concise—the sort the French write so well—wonderfully used when wedged under the short leg of a table; a thick book, a dictionary, for example, is an ideal projectile for throwing at cats, and finally, an atlas, with its wide pages, has the most suitable paper for keeping a pane of glass from rattling.
My pupils used to be delighted when I would announce: Now I’ll tell you another Mark Twain story. But I fear that the members of my diocese are shocked. “A bishop who quotes Mark Twain!” Perhaps it should be first explained to them that, just as books vary, so there are various kinds of bishop. Some, in fact, resemble eagles, soaring in masterly documents, at the highest level; others are nightingales, singing the praises of the Lord in a wondrous way; others are poor wrens who, on the lowest branch of the ecclesiastical tree, attempt to express some notion on very vast subjects.
I, dear Twain, belong to the last category. And so summoning my courage, I will recall how you once remarked, in effect, that man is more complex than he seems: every adult contains not one, but three different men. “What do you mean?” someone asked. And you said: Take John Doe. In him there is John the First, namely the man he thinks he is; there is John the Second, the man others think he is; and finally, John the Third, the man he really is.
How much truth, Twain, is contained in your joking remark! Take, for example, John the First. When we are shown a group photograph in which we posed, which is the likable, attractive face we look for at once? Sad to say, it is our own. Because we are vastly fond of ourselves, above all others. Loving ourselves so much, we are naturally led to enlarge our own merits, to play down our transgressions, to judge others by different standards from those used to judge ourselves. Enlarged merits. They are discussed by your fellow-writer Trilussa:
The little snail of Vainglory
Who had crawled up an obelisk
Looked at its slimy trail and said:
I see I’ll leave my mark on History
This is the way we are, dear Twain; even a bit of slime, if it is our own, and because it is our own, makes us boast, gives us a swelled head!
Play down transgressions? “I take a friendly drink once in a great while,” a man says. Others insist, on the contrary, that he is a sponge, afflicted with a chronic dry throat, a true worshiper of Bacchus, forever bending his elbow. And the woman says, “I have sensitive nerves; at times I grow upset.” Upset, indeed! People say she’s tough, cantankerous, vindictive, an unbearable character, a harpy!
In Homer, the gods move about the world wrapped in a cloud that hides them from everyone’s eyes; we have a cloud that hides us from our own eyes.
Francis de Sales, a bishop like me and a humorist like you, wrote:
“We blame our neighbor for the slightest faults, and we condone the greatest ones in ourselves. We want to sell dearly, but buy cheaply. We want justice done in the home of others, but mercy in our own. We want our words to be taken kindly, but we are offended by those of others.
If an inferior is not well-mannered with us, we are irked by whatever he does; but if we find someone agreeable, we excuse him, in any action. We firmly demand our rights, but we want others to be temperate in demanding theirs…What we do for others always seems a great deal, what others do for us seems nothing.”
That is enough about John Doe the First. Let us turn to John the Second. Here, my dear Twain, it seems to me that the situation is two-fold: John wants people to respect him or else he suffers because people ignore and despise him. Nothing wrong there; he should, however, try not to exaggerate in either direction. “Woe to you”—Our Lord said—”for you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places…,” and all is done in order to attract attention. Today we would say that, given the struggle for position, the pushing and shoving to achieve titles, through concessions and renunciations you are trying to get you name in the papers.
But why “Woe to you”? In 1938, when Hitler visited Florence, the city was covered with swastikas and slogans. The writer Bargellini said to Cardinal Dalla Costa: “You see, Your Eminence, you see?” “Never fear!” the cardinal replied, “his destiny is already marked down in the thirty-seventh Psalm: ‘I have seen a wicked man overbearing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon. Again I passed by, and, lo, he was no more, though I sought him, he could not be found.'”
At times that “woe to” does not indicate divine punishment, but only human ridiculousness. It may be like the ass who covered himself with a lion’s skin and everyone said: “What a lion!” mean and animals fled. But the wind blew, lifted the skin, and everyone saw the ass. And then they came running back in a rage and gave the animal a sound, deserved beating.
Shaw said much the same thing: How comical truth is! In other words, we can’t help smiling when we know how little there is behind certain titles and certain forms of celebrity!
And what if the opposite happens? What if people think evil, where good exists? Here another thing Christ said comes to our aid: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” Not even Christ managed to satisfy everyone. So we must not take it too much to heart if we fail, too.
John the Third was a cook. This is not one of your stories, Twain; it is Tolstoy’s. Outside the kitchen door the dogs were lying. John slaughtered a calf and threw the entrails into the yard. The dogs fell on them and said: “He’s a good cook; he cooks well.” Some time after that, John was shelling peas, peeling onions; he threw the husks into the yard. The dogs rushed over, but, sniffing scornfully they said: “The cook is spoiled; he’s worthless now.” John, however, was not upset by this opinion; he said, “It is the master who must eat and enjoy my meals, not the dogs. The master’s appreciation is enough for me.”
Good for Tolstoy. But I ask myself: What are the Lord’s tastes? What does He like in us? One day, as He was preaching, someone said to Him: “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” He held out His hand toward His disciples and answered: “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
This is the person whom He likes: the one who does His will. He likes us to pray, but He does not like prayers to becomes a pretext for avoiding the labor of good works. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” Do what He tells you!
This may be a moralizing conclusion. You—humorist that you are—would not have drawn it. I, who am a bishop, must; and I urge my faithful: If you happen to think again of the three Johns, the three Jameses, the three Franceses that are in each of us, pay special attention to the third, the one whom God likes!
— Pope John Paul I, May 1971