Pope John Paul had been in office only about a month and already there was a systematic campaign to undermine his reforms and even his executive decrees. The limit was reached on September 27, 1979. On that day, there appeared in the semiofficial Vatican voice L 'Osservatore Romano two major articles stating positions on birth control and artificial insemination that directly opposed the views of John Paul. Since L 'Osservatore is seen by the world as the official organ of the Vatican, the articles were bound to be interpreted by world newspapers and politicians as reflecting the Pope's views. The timing was particularly awkward as he had planned to announce the Church's change of stand on abortion to the US delegation that was to visit him shortly. Someone or a group within the Vatican was deliberately sabotaging John Paul's reforms by putting out an official line totally opposed to his views.
This made the normally composed John Paul furious. He correctly judged that the man behind the misinformation campaign was his own Secretary of State, Cardinal Villot. At a meeting held the evening of the next day he told Villot about his major administrative decisions: he wanted not only Villot out, but also Marcinkus, Mennini and De Strobel of the Vatican Bank. Villot was to be replaced as Secretary of State by Cardinal Bellini - another reformer. The Vatican Bank officials would be removed with immediate effect - the following day - while Villot was to assist Bellini for a few days until he became familiar with his new office.
At 7.30 p.m. when the meeting ended, John Paul handed Villot a sheet of paper listing all the changes. Villot went back to his office and checked the list. Every one of the men removed by John Paul was a member of P2; no one appointed in replacement was a member. John Paul's message was clear: he wanted to break the hold of P2 on the Vatican. He probably did not realize the risk he was incurring in taking on such a formidable adversary.
That night, some time between 9.30 p.m. on September 28 and 5.00 a.m. on September 29, 1978, Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I died under mysterious circumstances.25
The bare facts of his death are as follows. His body was discovered at 4.45 a.m. of September 29 by Sister Vincenza. It was his habit to come out at 4.30 a.m. and have coffee left by her for him in the study. It was a routine that Sister Vincenza had not known Luciani to vary even once in the nearly twenty years she had been with him. Concerned about the delay, she first knocked, and then opened the door to find him seated with a frozen grimace on his face. He had been reading, wearing glasses and with some papers in his hands. She felt his pulse and found it had stopped. She
25 As previously noted I have based this on the work of the Brirish investigative reporter David Yallop. His findings have been confirmed by later official investigations in almost every detail. The Vatican however has remained silent over Yallop's charges. The 'Trial of the Century' involving a Mafia figure and Andreotti should reveal more details about the murky episode.
immediately informed the Pope's secretary, Father Magee, who called the Secretary of State, Cardinal Villot.
Villot arrived at 5.00 a.m. and confirmed that the Pope was dead. In a supreme irony, the man who was about to be removed from office by Pope John Paul was now practically the acting Pope because of the death; he was one of the major beneficiaries of the tragedy. Villot next took some steps to destroy and conceal evidence that in a normal state ruled by regular laws would be criminal. His main concern over the next few days was to make it appear that John Paul's death had been natural. But he would not allow an autopsy (post mortem examination) that would have established the cause of death.
Villot immediately removed all of the late Pope's paraphernalia - his glasses, slippers, his papers and medicines. He even destroyed John Paul's will that was stored in the safe! The whole room was ransacked the same day. It was as if Albino Luciani had never occupied the papal apartment. But even before arriving at the Pope's apartment, he had phoned the embalmers and sent a car to fetch them. The most logical explanation is that he either somehow knew or suspected the hand of Gelli's P2, which had a great deal to lose from John Paul's reforms, and of which Villot himself was a prominent member.
The normal course after the sudden death of a healthy man is to order an autopsy; Villot, however, went to great lengths to ensure there would be no autopsy. What makes his actions all the more suspicious is that he wanted the embalming to be done without blood being drained, (the normal practice). This makes the embalming process somewhat messy, but Villot's motive is not hard to surmise. A sample from the drained blood could be used to determine if the Pope had been poisoned. The very fact that Villot could think of such a detail at a time like that is compelling evidence that he was involved in the conspiracy of concealment and destruction of evidence following the Pontiffs death.
The official statement was that Albino Luciani had died at 11.00 p.m. of myocardial infarction (heart attack). To determine the cause of death as myocardial infarction, and the time of death as 11.00 p.m. without an autopsy is a medical impossibility.
A few days later Villot claimed that it had been caused by an accidental drug overdose - again a medical impossibility without an autopsy. At least he seemed to have been closer to the truth this time, except that it may not have been accidental. Later, rumours swept through the Vatican claiming that signs of vomiting were to be seen when Luciani's body was discovered. This would explain Villot's rush to remove everything from the room including the Pope's slippers and glasses, and every scrap of paper.
Many also recalled an 'accident' at the Vatican that had killed the Russian Archbishop Nikodim of Leningrad on September 5. He had been granted an audience by Luciano during which he suddenly slumped over a cup of coffee and died. The Russian prelate had been in extremely poor health with a record of several heart attacks. As a result, though it came as a shock, his death was no great surprise. It was now being said that the Archbishop had been killed by a poisoned cup of coffee intended for the Pope.
These rumours could have been laid to rest with an autopsy, but Villot would not permit it. It was claimed that the Pope was too august a person on whom to perform an autopsy, but this too proved false. There had been autopsies on Popes before, the last one being on Pius VIII who had died on November 30, 1830 under suspicious circumstances. The results were not made public though it was widely believed that he had been poisoned.26
26 The Pope may be too august for an autopsy, but not august enough to escape murder. The catalogue of murdered Popes compares favorably with the record of the Delhi Sultanate or Ottoman Turkey.
Throwing more suspicion on the circumstances of John Paul's death was the embalmers' statement: the brothers Ernesto and Renato Signoracci who embalmed the Pope's body denied that the death could have been so early as 11.00 p.m. of the 28th. Rigor mortis had not yet set in, and they told investigator David Yallop that they would place the Pope's death between 4.00 a.m. and 5.00 a.m. of the 29th. This means that the Pope must have been dead less than an hour when Sister Vincenza found him; he may even have been alive but with a pulse too faint to be detected.
A systematic misinformation campaign was immediately set in motion by Villot and the Curia suggesting that John Paul had been in poor health with a weak heart. This is extremely doubtful for the Vatican has not released any records in support of the claim. In all his sixty-five years, Luciani had needed medical attention only three times, none of which had anything to do with his heart. As a northerner from the Italian Alps he had low blood pressure, exactly the kind of man who is not susceptible to heart attacks. Only the year before being elected Pope, Luciani had gone on a mountain climbing expedition during which he had climbed 2,400 metres (8,000 feet) at good speed and with ease. This, in fact, had been an annual practice with him.
The most telling fact of all is that no doctor in Italy was prepared to sign John Paul's death certificate. This can only mean that no doctor was willing to risk legal liability by signing a certificate about the cause of death without an autopsy. To this day, there is no official death certificate for Albino Luciani signed by doctors.
For all the official statements from the Vatican, the real cause of Albino Luciani's death remains a mystery. The strange behavior of Jean Villot and other Vatican officials following the tragedy, however, is a matter of record.
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