Sunday, October 17, 2010


 Hey, hobo man,/ Hey Dapper Dan,/ You both got your style,/
But brother, you're never fully dressed without a smile!
-- “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” from the musical Annie, lyrics by Martin Charnin 

Today is the birthday of John Paul I, a Catholic Pope known both for his very brief reign (34 days) and for his down-to-earth Humility and Gentleness. Widely loved by the common folk, John Paul earned the nickname Il Sorriso di Dio (“God's Smile”). As a gay man raised Catholic with, shall we say, decidedly ambivalent feelings about the Church (ha!), I have unreserved admiration for John Paul. He was a spiritual bad-ass of the first order and worth learning about. So today I will honor him with an homage to the virtue of Smiling.  
Why do I, an Earth-worshipping/Buddhist weirdo, love John Paul I so much? First of all, like so many, I appreciate his Humbleness. John Paul was the first modern pope to speak in the singular form, using 'I' instead of the “royal we”--which so unnerved his traditionalist underlings that they re-wrote transcripts of his talks to show the formal plural pronoun!

John Paul also was the first to refuse the bejeweled papal tiara and the sedia gestatoria, a gilded, ostrich feather-laden palanquin or throne upon which he was carried to public events. (His staff convinced him to use it so that the large crowds lined up along the roads could see him, so he relented. But John Paul II, his successor, agreed with John Paul I that it was unnecessary, and it has not been used since 1978.) Instead of a “coronation,” John Paul had a simple “investiture” as Pope. When he was named as Patriarch of Venice, he, in his own words, “blushed to the roots of my hair.”

This Simplicity carried into his ministry. John Paul did not go in for gobbledegook jargon in his speeches, prefering plain talk that people could understand. In a talk to the priests of Vittorio Veneto, he explained the “teaching method of Jesus,” emphasizing the use of concrete images tied to the life of the people and concluding, “If only we all spoke as He spoke in the Gospel!” For this reason, John Paul I also earned the nickname “the Pope who spoke like Jesus.” He recalls the Czech virtue of Lidovost that we visited earlier this month.  

But John Paul was no pushover. He was gutsy. Those of you who cleave to a more feminine metaphor of the Divine may remember John Paul I’s famous statement during one of his Sunday addresses that “God is a father, even more a mother.” This electrified the world press, who interpreted his statement as revolutionary. Some felt it simply reminded the faithful that God shows Gentleness in addition to Power. On the other extreme, one reporter thought it meant Mary the Mother of God was being promoted to the Trinity! And a German article suggested John Paul might be (gasp!) a heretic. Blogger Lori Pieper explains that, rather than being heterodox, John Paul I’s view of God as both Big Mama and Big Papa was consistent with his words and speech all the way back through his priestly career.

The virtue of Smiling as shown to us by John Paul I derives from the root virtues of Humanity, Transcendence, and Temperance. When we are genuinely Smiling, we are tapping into qualities like Humor, Joy, Simplicity, Confidence, Humility, and Love. We’ve all heard that the act of Smiling can actually change our brain chemistry, and there’s scientific evidence to back this up. Smiling heals us and heals the people around us too, something called the “halo effect.”

So today, remember the Simplicity and Humility of the Smiling Pope, who gave up a jeweled tiara for a better raiment: Smiling. Try one on for size yourself. Remember, you’re never fully dressed without one!

May we see the gates of Smiling, and perhaps make a home there.

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