Reformer in the Vatican Pope John Paul I

Albino Luciani, Cardinal Bishop of Venice was elected to succeed Pope Paul VI on August 26 on the third ballot, or the 'third conclave' as the Curia terms it. In electing him Pope, the cardinals the world over - especially those from Third World countries - had made plain their unhappiness with the way things were being run from the Vatican. It was a vote against the establishment - the Curia. It is also possible that the officials of the Curia, living in their own insular world, had been unaware of the breadth and depth of discontent in the Catholic world. After Luciani's death thirty three days later, the conservatives closed ranks and elected the reactionary Karol Wojtyla - the present Pope. It was back to business as usual.

The person most responsible for the election of Luciani was his friend Cardinal Giovanni Benelli of Florence. Unlike the patrician Popes that preceded him, Luciani was a provincial from the mountainous north; but he was by no means the simple monk he has been made out to be. He was widely read in several languages, widely travelled, and as Popes go, still quite young. No less significantly, he seemed to be in excellent health and good physical condition with reason to look forward to a long reign. The ease with which he was elected, and the speed at which he moved to implement his reforms suggest that he had studied the problems of the Church long and hard with the help of like-minded reformers like Cardinal Benelli and Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider. All this indicates careful planning by the reform wing of the Catholic hierarchy.

In voting for Luciani as the proverbial 'compromise' candidate hoping that he could be made a prisoner of the Vatican bureaucracy, the conservatives had clearly underestimated the man. They elected him in preference to a known liberal firebrand like Lorscheider of Brazil (supported by Luciani himself). Italian chauvinism probably also played a part. Those who had known the mild-mannered Luciani over the years had a very different opinion of him. They knew there was much steel in the man. One of them observed:

His mind was strong, as hard and sharp as diamond. That was where his real power was... He could not be overwhelmed. When everyone was applauding the smiling Pope [Luciani, John Paul II, I was waiting for him... to reveal his claws. He had tremendous power. (Yallop, p. 163)

Luciani had another quality that went unrecognized - detachment. He could draw himself completely away from the surroundings and analyse problems purely as abstractions. One is led to suspect that he may even have been an agnostic. But as so often the case in this age of television and instant analysis, all this was overlooked by pundits and Pope watchers keen on presenting their own preconceived opinions as the result of 'expert analysis'. They also never bothered to check what had made Luciani, while Cardinal of Venice, terminate all banking transactions with Banca Cattolica del Veneto and complain to Marcinkus. He clearly had more than an inkling of the financial problems in which the Vatican Bank was mired. The very fact that he moved so fast and yet unerringly to attack the sources of corruption suggests that he must have had some prior knowledge regarding the financial irregularities.

But reporters with closed minds and an inflated sense of their own worth never bothered to study the man or his record. His folksy manner and simplicity of bearing were taken for ignorance, and his gentleness for weakness. Luciani had never shown much interest in theology, which also contributed to his underestimation by the reactionaries who throng the Curia. To such minds, there exists nothing worth knowing beyond theology.

Upon assuming office as John Paul, the new Pope moved with impressive speed. He concentrated on two major issues: greater flexibility in the Church's position on birth control, and cleaning up the financial mess in the Vatican Bank. He was soon frustrated by the entrenched establishment that seemed to move according to its own agenda. It reacted with horror when it learnt that John Paul looked favorably upon contraception as a method of birth control. As one who had grown up in a large family, and had experienced poverty at first hand, he understood the need for birth control to alleviate poverty, and also the need for the Church to take the lead in the effort. He well understood that most Catholic countries are poor and suffer from overpopulation. He also knew that the Church had acquired a bad image in Latin America through its association with right wing dictators like Duvalier of Haiti, Peron of Argentina, Pinochet of Chile and others of the same brand.

This shift in the Church's position on birth control was to be John Paul's first major policy initiative - and it was a tremendous one. He had granted an audience to a high level United States delegation at which he planned to announce this historic change of stand on birth control. This would ensure world-wide publicity for the event. Jean Villot, the Vatican Secretary of State and a firm opponent of birth control raised objections in a long argument. At the end of a forty-five minute meeting on the subject held on September 19, 1978, John Paul told Villot off, displaying uncharacteristic impatience:

... during the period which we have been talking over one thousand children under the age of five have died of malnutrition. Over the next forty-five minutes while you and I look forward with anticipation to our next meal a further thousand children will have died of malnutrition. By this time tomorrow thirty thousand children who are alive, will be dead - of malnutrition. God does not always provide. (Vallop, p. 170)

The words of an agnostic - "God does not always provide". He then told Villot to confirm the meeting with the US delegation and make arrangements to receive it. The 'steel claw' of John Paul was beginning to show. The new Pope was having increasing difficulty with his Secretary of State. He found that he was often misquoted in the Vatican mouthpiece L 'Osservatore Romano. John Paul saw himself being surrounded by a misinformation campaign, in which his views were being misrepresented and his initiatives sabotaged. In frustration he told a visitor: "There are two things that appear to be in very short supply in the Vatican. Honesty and a good cup of coffee." (Vallop, p. 164)

The new Pope's position on some of the most cherished doctrines of the Church was seen as subversion by conservative officials like Villot. If John Paul were to have his way, it would not be long before the Catholic Church as they knew it would be dismantled. As an outsider in touch with the public, John Paul understood something that men like Villot in their insular world did not - to wit, the Church was in a crisis.

But he went much further; John Paul wanted changes not only in some long-held positions on birth control, but he also wanted a complete change in the administration, especially on the financial side. This sent shivers down the spines of men like Marcinkus and his associates Sindona, Gelli and Calvi.

What particularly concerned John Paul was the link between the Vatican Bank and Calvi's Banco Ambrosiano with its unsavory reputation as a money laundering outfit. Marcinkos had bought so heavily into Calvi's bank, that the Vatican practically owned the Ambrosiano. It was deeply disturbing to John Paul to learn that Italian authorities were probing this Vatican-Calvi link. Potential criminals in this investigation were high officials of the Vatican Bank including Marcinkus, Luigi Mennini and Pelligrino De Strobel - all highly visible members of the Vatican establishment.

In the meantime someone sent John Paul a list of 121 names in the Vatican who were members of the illegal P2. The list included the name of Jean Villot, his own Secretary of State. On the list were also the names of Vatican officials like Cardinal Baggio, Bishop Paul Marcinkos and Foreign Minister Monsignor Agostino Casaroli, as well as the Cardinal Bishop of Rome Ugo Poletti. These were criminals according to Italian law but enjoying immunity because of the Vatican's position as a sovereign state. No less disturbing was the fact that two years earlier, Pope Paul VI had been given the same information but had done nothing about it. John Paul had known that there were problems within the Church, but the rot was very much deeper than he could have ever imagined. All these men would have to go.

Through their P2 network, Gelli and Calvi came to learn of John Paul's intentions. By September 1978, Calvi had already stolen four hundred million dollars - almost a billion in today's values - of the depositors' money from the Banco Ambrosiano which was now owned by the Vatican Bank. If John Paul were to remove Marcinkos, the new man would discover Calvi's game and he would end up spending the rest of his life in an Italian prison. But Gelli reassured Calvi that he would take care of the problem.

Another major headache for John Paul was Cardinal Cody of Chicago. In addition to his antics already described, Cody was accused of closing Catholic schools in Chicago, often without even informing the school boards. The fact that most of these schools happened to have a high proportion of black students raised the spectre of racism within the Church. Incredibly, Cody justified the school closings claiming that many of the blacks were not Catholics. He stated that the Church had no obligation to educate Protestant black children. This did little to improve the image of the Catholic Church in Chicago. Priests and nuns were leaving the Church in droves; within a decade of Cody's administration of the Chicago diocese their number had come down by a third.

Cody had always treated the Vatican and its officials with contempt. He knew that Paul VI might complain but would never act. He had been unimpressed by the quiet, softly-spoken John Paul when he came to know him during the papal election. He dismissed him as a nonentity and assumed that it would be business as usual. But he began to panic when he learnt from his Vatican sources that this new Pope acted with firmness once he made a decision. And all signs indicated that Cardinal Cody was on his way out.

The following six men stood to lose everything from the reforms to be put into effect by John Paul I: Marcinkos, Cody, Villot, Gelli, Sindona and Calvi. A bishop, two cardinals, a shadowy ruler of the underworld, a Mafia leader and an unscrupulous banker. A nice balance of three high officials of the Church complemented by three lay crooks of the first water. These strange and sinister men controlled the Holy See and its operations, their positions now put in jeopardy by the election of Albino Luciani as Pope John Paul I.

But these were not exactly ordinary men without influence or resources in the world! With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear now that Albino Luciani, for all his energy and intelligence, had underestimated the power and influence of the men and forces ranged against him. They inhabited and operated in a nether world - like the P2 - that lay beyond Luciani's comprehension. All this power and influence, not to say experience, came in extremely handy for these men - inside and outside the Vatican - allowing them to engage in a large-scale destruction of evidence and records of their misdeeds during the hours and days following the death of Pope John Paul I on September 28-9 1978.

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