'Smiling Pope' John Paul I takes the next step toward sainthood -- not all pontiffs earn this distinction

On Sept. 4, 2022, Pope John Paul I, born Albino Luciani, will be beatified: proclaimed as “blessed,” the last step before being canonized as a Catholic saint.

Elected head of the Catholic Church in August 1978, he held the papacy for only one month. John Paul I was found dead in bed late that September. The cause of his unexpected death was determined to have been a heart attack, notwithstanding a lingering swirl of conspiracy theories.

Despite his short papacy, John Paul I left a mark. Called the “Smiling Pope” because of his welcoming manner, he was the first pope in centuries to refuse a formal coronation, choosing a simpler inauguration ceremony. The new pope’s life as a priest, bishop, cardinal and finally pope was embodied in the motto he chose for his ministry: “humility.”

All of the past five popes who have died have been nominated for canonization, and three have been named saints. But not every pope has been revered as a saint by Roman Catholics – especially during the medieval era, a period I focus on in my work as a scholar of Catholicism.

From powerless to powerful

Nearly all the popes of Christianity’s first few centuries have been recognized as saints – starting with St. Peter, Jesus’ apostle, whom Roman Catholics recognize as the first pontiff. He and St. Paul, the author of several of the letters known as epistles in the New Testament, are both believed to have been executed in Rome around A.D. 64.

Until the early fourth century, Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire, although this legislation was not always rigidly enforced. Tradition holds that most of the early popes died as martyrs.

After Christianity was legalized, bishops and popes became increasingly involved in the empire’s political struggles of the next several centuries. Some of these arose when the church became divided over important theological issues, and individual emperors supported one view over another.

Invasions by Germanic tribes from north of the Alps also caused chaos, and popes often served as stabilizing figures in Italy and beyond. Several popes from the sixth through eighth centuries have been named saints.

The age of scandal

During the early medieval period, after repeated political and military upheavals, the Frankish kings north of the Alps “donated” territories in parts of northern and central Italy to the pope. These Papal States governed directly by the pope became an important center of political activity.

The popes’ secular power led to struggles among aristocratic families of Rome for control of the papacy. This led to a period in the late ninth and 10th centuries often called the “Dark Ages” or “nadir” of the papacy.