Pope for 33 days

news: Pope for 33 days

Returning 15 minutes later to find the Pope still not stirring, she knocked again and entered. She gasped in horror at what she found. Unmoving, the Pope was sitting up in bed, holding some sheets of paper. He was wearing his glasses, his head turned to the right and his lips parted showing his teeth in an agonised grimace. On his bedside table lay an opened bottle of Effortil, a medicine for low blood pressure. After only 33 days in office, John Paul I had died suddenly and alone.

Albino Luciani, ultimately to become the first Pope to bear two names, was born on October 17, 1912. Coming from a poor family, he was educated in the seminaries of the diocese of Belluno, ordained as a Catholic priest in 1935 and received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1937 to 1947, he served as his diocese’s seminary Vice Rector and taught dogmatic and moral theology, canon law and sacred art. In 1958, Pope John XXIII made Luciani Bishop of Vittorio Veneto and, 11 years later, Pope Paul VI appointed him Patriarch of Venice before raising him to the Cardinalate in 1973.

When the conclave assembled in the wake of Paul VI’s death, it was bitterly divided between reformers and conservatives – between those who sought to move forward with the comparatively liberal and modernising agenda of Vatican Council II promulgated by Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and those who yearned for a reversion to the rigid dogma of Vatican Council I convoked by Pope Pius IX in 1869.

Cardinal Albino Luciani’s humble, diffident and self-effacing manner endeared him to the conservative Roman Curia (Vatican Parliament) as a perfect compromise candidate whom they could easily control. Indeed, few expected the papacy of this small, smiling 65-year-old Italian to cause any waves whatsoever. But, following his election and despite taking the names of his two predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI, to represent a combination of their qualities (one progressive the other traditional), Luciani/John Paul I, to the surprise and horror of the Curia, embarked on a full scale overhaul of the Papacy and the Vatican, in an attempt to return the Catholic Church to its spiritual origins.

Even at his coronation, John Paul I refused to wear the jewel encrusted crown and be carried in the papal sedan. He ignored the scripts prepared for him by the Curia for audiences and press conferences, and was so outspoken that the Curia even censored his comments in the Vatican daily newspaper, Osservatore Romano, particularly when he began to talk positively about contraception.

But worse was to follow for the Curia when Albino Luciani, within just a few weeks of his coronation, delved deep into the affairs of the Vatican Bank, especially during the time of his predecessor, Paul VI, and apparently discovered a staggering web of corruption involving, among other things, the money laundering of the proceeds of organised crime including revenues from heroin trafficking. Furthermore, the Italian news agency L-Osservatore Politico had carried out an investigation concerning the involvement of prominent members of the Curia with secret societies, including P2 and other Masonic lodges and John Paul had obtained a list containing 121 names of members of Masonic lodges, ranging from Cardinals to priests, in spite of the fact that Canon Law states that to be a Freemason ensures automatic ex-communication.

On the evening of September 28, 1978, the Pope summoned his closest advisor, Vatican Secretary of State and leader of the Curia, Cardinal Villot, to his private study to discuss certain announcements and changes he intended to make public the next day. Among those whose “resignations” would be accepted by the Pontiff the following day were American Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the head of the Vatican Bank, several members of the Curia implicated in Masonic activities and Villot himself. In addition, John Paul I said that he would announce an imminent meeting with an American delegation to discuss a softening of the Vatican’s stance on birth control.

On finding the Pope dead, his housekeeper immediately alerted Cardinal Villot, whose first response to the news was to call in the morticians, even before summoning the Vatican physician to examine the body or verifying the death himself. Arriving in the Pope’s room at 5am, Villot immediately removed the papers from the dead Pope’s hands, took the Effortil bottle from the bedside table, removed John Paul’s last Will from his desk and some personal items, including his glasses and slippers that were soiled with vomit. None of these items were ever seen again.

Despite Vatican claims that its house physician specified myocardial infarction as the cause of death, up to now, no death certificate for John Paul I has ever been made public. In breach of Italian law, which requires a waiting period of at least 24 hours before a body may be embalmed, Villot had John Paul’s body embalmed within 12 hours of his death (however the Vatican is not part of Italy and so is not bound by Italian law). Refusing a postmortem, the Vatican insisted that a papal autopsy was prohibited under Canon Law. This was later shown to be incorrect and it was revealed that a postmortem had been carried out on the remains of Pope Pius VIII in 1830 (in that case, results suggested he may have been poisoned). Furthermore, the usual procedure for embalming a body requires that the blood first be drained and that certain internal organs removed. During the embalming of John Paul I, neither blood nor tissue was removed from the corpse leaving nothing to analyse for the presence of poison.

It is, of course, possible that Pope John Paul I died of natural causes or as a result of an accidental overdose of medicine he took for low blood pressure; or, as British historian and journalist John Cornwell strongly suggests, of an “untreated embolism” (such was consistent with John Paul I past medical history – he had suffered from a retinal embolism in 1976).

But, the circumstances surrounding the sudden death of John Paul I and the Vatican’s management of the affair caused loud outcries among the public and the press at the time and have since spawned a number of books on the subject. Author Vance Ferrell described the scene when John Paul I’s body was put on public display: “When Pope Paul VI died, little emotion had been expressed. But when John Paul I died, the entire city [ie., Rome] was up in arms. Men and women wept openly everywhere. When his body was shown, people passing it were heard to shout, Who has done this to you? Who has murdered you?”

• Conspiracy theorists may enjoy the following books on the subject: A Thief in the Night: The Mysterious Death of Pope John Paul I by John Cornwell; The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder and the Mafia by Paul L Williams; In God’s Name by David Yallop and City of Secrets: The Truth Behind the Murders at the Vatican by John Follian.