A Journalist's Archive

A Thief in the Night
John Cornwell
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          Real life mysteries have it all over fiction.  "A thief in the night" illustrates this point as journalist John Cornwell tries to untangle the circumstances surrounding the death of John Paul I.   There's a dead pope, an endless list of suspects, opposing forces within the Vatican, and a financial crisis, all elements of a great murder mystery.  But Cornwell must determine whether it was a sinister plot or divine intervention that caused the death of the man known as "the smiling pope."      

          Albino Luciani's unexpected death a mere 33 days after becoming pope in August 1978 sent shock waves through the Catholic world.  After all, Luciani, who took the name John-Paul to honor his two predecessors, was only 66 years old and was reported to be in good health at the time of his election. 

          Cornwell said, "Rumors that Luciani had been assassinated began to circulate on the very day he died. Newspapers in Italy, and bishops as far away as South America, wondered aloud why there was no autopsy in view of the suddenness of his death." 

          But perhaps it was the undeniable collective sigh of relief emanating from Vatican City when John-Paul's death was announced that helped to set the stage for numerous conspiracy theories.  Jean-Jacques Thierry, a French author, listed Cardinal Villot, the Vatican secretary of state, as the number one suspect.  Another writer, Roger Peyrefitte, said it was a combination of forces including the KGB, Mafia, Freemasons, and the Vatican Bank which led to the pope's early demise.     

          In 1984, David Yallop wrote "In God's Name: An investigation into the murder of Pope John Paul I."  His book named Cardinal Villot, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, and Cardinal John Cody, archbishop of Chicago, as suspects who "acting alone or with other suspects may have plotted or connived to murder John Paul I with digitalis."

          Vatican City's response to all of these allegations was "Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur." "What is asserted without proof can be denied without proof."  Cornwell said the Vatican took a long time to learn a "no comment" response equals a guilty verdict in today's media.  But in 1987  Archbishop John Foley, then president of the Commission for Social Communications, the official Vatican media office, asked Cornwell to conduct an independent investigation into the death.

          Cornwell writes, "The Vatican expected me to prove that John Paul I had not been poisoned by one of their own."  That being the case, Cornwell, an ex-Catholic and former seminary student, seemed an unlikely candidate for an impartial investigator, and he admits his background kept creeping into the narrative. 

          But Cornwell is a dedicated a journalist, who refused to play the roles of either nemesis or patsy.  He accepted the assignment only after being assured he would have access to certain key players.  Then he began his investigation by asking the all-important "Who, What, Where, When and How," questions.  The contradictory answers he received led him to wonder if anyone could ever discover the truth.

          Who found the body?  The official report said the pope's body was found by his private secretary, Bishop John Magee.  But Cornwell quickly discovers Sister Vincenza, an elderly nun who cared for Luciani while he was a cardinal in Venice, was routinely the first person to see the pope each morning when she delivered his coffee around 5 a.m.  When he didn't respond to her knock, she entered the room, finding the pope dead in his bed.

            So the official Vatican statement about the pope's death begins with a lie.  Covering up the white lie, invented on the pretense of protecting the pope's reputation, meant many more lies had to be told.  For instance, the answer to when the body was found had to fit Magee's time schedule, not Vincenza's.  Then, just for fun, Vatican Radio officials laughingly planted a story that the pope was clutching a copy of "The Imitation of Christ," in his hands when he died.  Actually, he was holding a business report. 

          Cornwell said it was these discrepancies combined with the political struggle occurring in the church at the time that fueled the conspiracy theories.  Traditional and liberal cardinals argued over the role of the papacy, birth control, and whether priests should be allowed to marry.  Perhaps, more importantly, they also debated the morality of Marxism versus Capitalism, and decided which governments to support financially through the Vatican Bank.

          Liberal cardinals saw the reforms set in motion by John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council halted when Paul VI became pope.  They believed the only way to break the traditionalists' hold on the Vatican was to elect a non-Italian pope. But after three ballots neither traditionalists nor liberal cardinals could garner enough votes for their candidates, so Luciani's name was put forth as a compromise candidate.

          Luciani never wanted the job, Cornwell said.  Furthermore, "It is apparent, from the vantage of hindsight, that Albino Luciani was singularly ill-equipped by experience and by nature for the role of pontiff."  He came to that conclusion after listening to numerous clerics describe the pope's mental state.  A Monsignor Paul said the general feeling in the Vatican was that the job "overwhelmed" Luciani.  The monsignor said, "The pope was a fairly simple, devout pastor, a good man, but a small and simple man." 

          Many others, including Cardinal Villot, believed the pope was mentally unbalanced because he often mentioned Pinocchio in his speeches.  Church officials could cover-up these lapses, but then Luciani alienated numerous officials when he suddenly announced, "I think god is more female than male."

          Cornwell concludes Luciani was a humble holy man, who lacked the business or political experience to be pope.  "It is equally clear that he was seriously ill," Cornwell said. 

          Cornwell thought these lapses in judgment could have been explained by a medical condition.  His investigations led him to interview Luciani's niece, Dr. Lina Petri, who shed new light on the pope's health, proving the Vatican's proclamation about Luciani's health the day he was elected pope was merely one more lie.    

          What killed the pope?  The official documents signed by Renato Buzzonetti, the pope's physician, said Luciani died of a heart attack.  However, Buzzonetti never examined the pope until after his death.  Dr. Petri, who saw her uncle's body a few hours before it was embalmed, came to another conclusion based on Luciani's past health issues, but without an autopsy the actual cause of death may never be known.  

          "A thief in the night" is far more than a mystery.  Cornwell's investigation reveals the inner workings of the Vatican, giving readers a glimpse into an otherwise unknown, inaccessible, world. 

          And his solution to the mystery surrounding Luciani's death merely reinforces the old adage, "fact is stranger than fiction."         

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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