Thanks to Pope John Paul I

Posted by Webster 
I know what was going on in my life in September and October 1978. I won’t bore you with the details. Something big was happening—in my life, and, as it happens, in the life of the Catholic Church. On September 28, 1978, Pope John Paul I was found sitting up in bed, dead, 33 days into his papacy. According to the media reports, he had an open copy of The Imitation of Christ on his chest.

I thought about this early today when I read Frank’s post bridging Pascal’s Pensées and The Imitation of Christ. (Can’t wait for part 5 of his story.)

Most Catholics will think, yes, the death of Pope John Paul I led to the papacy of Pope John Paul II, arguably the greatest pope of modern times (though I will happily cast a vote for “my pope”). I think instead, yes, the death of Pope John Paul I led to my reading The Imitation of Christ. When I saw the TV report of JPI’s death the following day, I literally dashed out and bought a copy of The Imitation—me, the lapsed Episcopalian—and while watching for the puff of white smoke on TV, I read long and deep in the Doubleday edition (1976), based on the Richard Whitford translation made circa 1530.

What was it about the death of JPI that moved me to buy this book? What was it about this book that moved me to think about Catholic Christianity in a new way? Why do I still have that copy of The Imitation, bought on September 29 or 30, 1978, while the world was waiting—again—for the white smoke and the words Habemus Papam? 

It’s all a mystery to me. Rather than try to solve it and make this post longer than it needs to be, I’ll share a few excerpts from my heavily underlined edition of The Imitation of Christ.

1. All that is in the world is vanity except to love God and to serve Him only. (I think that both Frank and Qoheleth would agree with that one.)

2. If you would learn anything and know it profitably to the health of your soul, learn to be unknown and be glad to be considered despicable and as nothing.

3. A good devout man so orders his outward business that it does not draw him to love of it; rather, he compels his business to be obedient to the will of the spirit and to the right judgment of reason.

4. It is great wisdom . . . not to be hasty in our deeds, not to trust much in our own wits, not readily to believe every tale, not to show straightway to others all that we hear or believe. . . .

And so on, for 111 numbered sections, filled with wisdom that would take lifetimes to absorb. Who was Thomas à Kempis? I’m hoping Frank will tell us in his next post in the series, “To Be Frank.”

  • Anonymous

    Warren Jewell here . . . "Frank and Qoheleth", huh? Still chuckling, even as my vanity is part of all of vanity.One reads 'The Imitation of Christ' like one reads the heart of Scripture – over and over, and still knows he has a ways to go to understand what it is to have from what he reads. As much as 'Who was Thomas a Kempis?" is "Who did the author regularly entertain out of his prayers for his inspirations?" I have found only I can let go of the Holy Spirit. He refuses to let go of me. I have found that He is the side of God Who will lean like a really fine combination of Dutch uncle and your Mom over your needs. a Kempis needed His inspiration, and the Holy Spirit must have visited the man with every breath he took. At his elbow – over his shoulder – leaning in to read, comment, correct, suggest, enhance – and give Thomas all that love.For, every marvelous and illuminating thought from a Kempis is just regally draped in that love.

  • Lavona

    I'm not certain when I found my copy of Imitation of Christ, but it was an old copy and unedited. I was not yet Catholic though in my heart I wanted to be, and it was before 1960. It left an indelible mark on me … so to speak. Thanks for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    My son, when he was 7, used to take my copy of the "Imitation of Christ," because he thought it was the Bible, and took it outside on the Burm of the Apartments next door, and preach to other children in the neighborhood from Thomas a Kempis' Book. My son was pretending to be a priest. We went to daily Mass. It was so cute to see. Still have memories of it. I'll have to tell him of your website. He's 34 now.

  • Duane

    How very timely. The mention of this classic on this site led me to learn more about it and I ordered a copy tonight prior to seeing this. I'm eager to see what has made it so impacting on others.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, all, for these comments. I myself am going back to the Imitiation as Christmas reading. I will be spending time with my grown daughters and want them to ask me about it. I know it can change lives as it helped change mine.

  • Shannon

    Take some time to read some of John Paul I's writings as well. "Illustrissimi" is wonderful.

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Shannon, didn't know about his writings. Will look this up.