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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope John Paul I, who served for just 33 days as Pontiff in 1978 before his abrupt death, has moved a step closer to sainthood, the Vatican said on Thursday.

Known as the "smiling Pope" because of his good nature, Albino Luciani's reign as head of the Catholic Church was the shortest in modern times and his shock demise fuelled press speculation that he might have been murdered.

The Vatican has always denied the rumours, saying he died of a heart attack.

As a first step to placing him among the Church's swelling ranks of saints, the Vatican said Pope Francis had backed a vote by the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints to recognise the "heroic virtues" of Pope John Paul I.

This means John Paul I, the last Italian to be made pontiff, can now move on towards beatification, the final step before sainthood. Beatification would require a miracle attributed to his intercession.

The Catholic Church posthumously confers beatification, and later sainthood, on people considered so holy during their lives that they are now believed to be with God and can intercede with him to perform miracles. Miracles are usually the medically unexplained healing of someone.

John Paul I's sainthood process started in 2002 after his supporters in Italy collected some 300,000 signatures on a petition calling for him to be made a saint. It could take many more years for his cause to progress further.

Luciani, Cardinal of Venice, was elected pope on Aug. 26, 1978. A humble man, he had no time to leave his mark on the Church before his death on September 28, 1978.

Rumours rapidly surfaced that hidden forces within the Church had poisoned the newly elected Luciani to head off institutional changes he was planning to introduce.

The Church's decision not to hold a post mortem on the body, bickering over who was in the Vatican on the night of the death and crude attempts to hide the fact a nun found his body was manna to fans of conspiracy theories.

Luciani's successor John Paul II ruled for 27 years and died in 2005. He was made a saint in 2014 - the fastest elevation to the sainthood in modern times.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alison Williams)

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