Who shall decide when doctors disagree?
The figure of John Paul I, who succeeded
Paul VI, adds yet another,
and one of the most profound, to a situation that is
with problems. Created Bishop by John XXIII, and made a Cardinal by
Paul VI (the Popes who, between them, created and implemented the
revolution), his rise to the Papal throne after having been Albino Luciani
(image left), Cardinal-Patriarch of Venice, came almost as an
ecclesiastical bolt from the blue.
Humbly circumstanced, he grew up in a family where opinions, quite
naturally, were formed and dominated by those of the father, a
committed Left-winger; and he was in his mid-sixties when, on 26
August, 1978, he emerged from the conclave at which he had been
elected, with unprecedented speed, after four ballots that covered
only eight hours and forty-five minutes on the first day.
An observer with an eye on the state of affairs at the Vatican might
have noted that the stage was being set for yet another Renaissance
drama. And such an event was indeed figured forth by the enigmas at
once presented by this (apparently) by no means uncommon Pope.
Two schools of thought, in neither of which his voice had so far
been definitely heard, grew up about him. One insisted that he was
bent on continuing the changes set afoot by his two predecessors;
that he favoured the modernist or progressive elements, and their
Support for this was given when he rejected the title of Supreme
Pontiff, and elected to be installed rather than crowned. There was
no crucifix on the table that served for an altar, at his inaugural
Mass. Simplicity governed all, and those who echoed the ideology of
Paul VI were soon claiming that the new Pope was ‘their man’,
especially when he was known to have opposed the Church’s teaching
On the other hand, it was said. that he contemplated the annulment
of some of the innovations started by Vatican Two; that he deplored
the so-called ‘upward’ movement that was threatening the Church; and
those conservatives who looked for an endorsement of their viewpoint
were encouraged when the time came to appoint new Bishops to vacant
sees, and, more especially, one to his old Patriarchate of Venice.
In that he was opposed by Cardinal Baggio (known as Ceba to the
secret societies) whose candidate was a certain Monsignor Ce, who
was known to be radical. But John Paul refused to make the
appointment, thus giving support to those who wished to believe that
he was in conflict with heresy.
Their satisfaction, however, was short lived, as was evidenced by an
occasion when he was called upon to address a gathering of students
and teachers. He led them in reciting the Angelus, but no sooner had
he concluded the last ‘Hail Mary’ than he began to sing the praises
of one whom he extolled as ‘a classical example of abnegation and
devotion to education.’
This was not, as might have been expected, a saint, nor even a
simple member of the Church, but Giosue Carducci (1835-1907), who
had been professor at Bologna University and whose name, as a
self-confessed worshipper of Satan, was widely respected in occult
His poem Hymn to Satan, in forty stanzas, contained such lines as
the following [apart from the first line, the quotation here given
bears little resemblance to the original Inno a Satana - ed.]:
‘Glory to thee,
On Thy brow shall rise, like laurel groves, The forests of
I drink to the happy day which shall see the end Of Rome the
To Liberty who, avenging human thought,
Overturns the false throne
of Peter’s successor;
In the dust with crowns and garlands!
Lie shattered, iniquitous Lord!’1
In shorter pieces, Carducci
apologized to Satan, or the spirit of
evil, which he called Agramainio, for the lies and slanders that are
heaped upon him on earth. Glorifications of the occult and the Black
Mass, and of Satan as the symbol of revolt against the Church, the
antithesis of religion, are mixed with blasphemies. Satan is thanked
for being kind, while in his Ode to the Town of Ferrara, Carducci
cursed the ‘cruel old she-wolf of the Vatican’.
Carducci became the centre of a cult, and was accorded much the same
reverence by his followers that he gave to Satan. Processions were
held, preceded by a banner on which Satan, in all his regalia of
horns, tail, and hooves, was depicted, and at which a parody of the
Litany, including the line ‘Gloria in profundis Satanae’ was
chanted. The last eight verses of the hymn by this ‘singer of Satan’
passed into the repertory of songs that made the rafters ring in
Italian secret society meetings.
Yet Pope John Paul’s admiration for this man, his holding him up as
an example for teachers and the rising generation to follow, was
only one of the mysteries connected with his reign.
Over the centuries Rome, insisting on her unique historical
validity, had remained stubbornly aloof from negotiations with other
Churches, Protestant or Orthodox. But the Second Vatican Council had
opened doors so that representatives of those Churches were now
exchanging views and discussing the possibilities of unity.
One such visitor to Rome was the Russian Metropolitan Monsignor Nikodim, the Orthodox Archbishop of Leningrad.
Born in 1930, and becoming the youngest Bishop of any creed in
Christendom, he was reputed to exhibit a pro-Soviet and
anti-West bias. In 1961 he led a deputation of Orthodox churchmen to
the World Council of Churches. He was
awarded the United Nations’ medal for peace, and became head of the
Foreign Relations Department of the Moscow Patriarchate; and after
attending the installation of John Paul I, he was received in
audience by the Pope on September the 5th.
The meeting occurred in the study adjoining the Pope’s private
library, and the opening remarks, as reported probably by Father Arrupe, Superior-General of
the Jesuits, or by the liberal Cardinal Willebrands (who acted as hosts to Nikodim), followed these lines:
‘Welcome, dear brother’, said the Pope, coming forward from the
large oak table at which he had been working, ‘So close to us, and
yet so far away. What shall we discover about ourselves? When will
all of us, Catholic and Orthodox, be sons of the same Church?’
Nikodim responded in the same spirit. ‘I wish it could be in your
reign that such a thing could happen.’
The Pope asked for news of the state of religion in Russia.
‘Father Arrupe tells me that you are very hopeful about the future of the
Church in your country.’
Nikodim was silent for a time. Those who had met him could imagine
how, when pausing for an answer, his eyes showed as little more than
slits under bushy brows.
‘Most Holy Father, I’ll be frank with you’,
he said at length. ‘In Russia they think very badly of me. They say
I am working with the State authorities, and that I serve them
rather than God. Yet I am a faithful servant of God.’
That short confession brought a rush of colour to his cheeks.
He breathed quickly, in the grip of some violent emotion.
John Paul asked quietly: ‘What do you wish me to do?’
When able to speak again, Nikodim continued: ‘Most Holy Father, how
can we work together if Russia still thinks that the Orthodox Church
is part of the Communist system? One day I shall be crushed’ – he
flung out his arms – ‘and the Russian Orthodox Church will come to
an end. You must come to an understanding, and negotiate with them
as they ask you to.’
Had that been the object of Nikodim’s visit? We shall never know,
for by now his physical state was truly alarming. His hand was
pressed to his left side, as though, it was later said (perhaps by
John Paul himself), he wished to tear out his heart and fling it at
the Pope’s feet. He tried to speak, but failed. His mouth twisted,
and only the whites of his eyes were visible.
The Pope seized and partly supported him. ‘Mercy, he is ill’, he
exclaimed to Willebrands, who was still within hearing. ‘Quickly,
Eminence, call Doctor Fontana’ – the Pope’s private physician.
The Pope arranged what comfort he could for Nikodim on the floor of
the study. Then he opened the window. By the time the doctor arrived
the Russian was dead.
It later emerged that Nikodim had been refused permission to enter
France, on his way to Rome, and that he was only able to do so when
a number of French Bishops interceded on his behalf.
Then, as though to account for their opposition, the French Foreign
Office let it be known that Nikodim was an accredited agent of the
Soviet Secret Police.
Thursday, the 28th of September, 1978, had been what passed as on
ordinary day at the Vatican. The Pope, after working in his office,
had received some members of the hierarchy in private audience, and
then a group of prelates from the Philippines, to whom, as
representatives of the most Catholic region in south-east Asia, he
extended a special welcome.
Following lunch, and the usual siesta, there was more business and
discussion with several of the Cardinals. Evening prayers in his
private chapel had been followed by a general goodnight to members
of his staff, after which he retired to his bedroom on the third
floor of the Apostolic Palace.
Friday dawned as a typical end-of-September day, with the rows of
Palace windows taking shape in the dull grey light and the first
sounds coming, not from birds in the Vatican Gardens, but from the
little room where Sister Vicenza, a nun who had been in the service
of Popes for the past ten years, was preparing coffee. Her timing,
her movements, and the details of her task, had an almost military
It had turned five o’clock. At ten minutes past she would place the
cup of coffee, always strong, in the sacristy adjoining the chapel
where the Pope knelt, in meditation, before saying Mass at
five-thirty. She was therefore surprised when, not hearing any
movement, she had gone to the sacristy and found that the coffee,
half-cold in the cup, had not been touched.
One of the Papal secretaries, Don Diego, then joined her; and when
five-twenty came, and still the Pope had not appeared, they went to
the door of his bedroom. There the secretary tapped, more than once,
and having received no answer he opened the door.
The Pope lay on his bed, fully dressed, and obviously dead. On the
bedside table was a lamp, still burning, and a cheap little alarm
clock that he had brought from Venice. In the corridor was a red
light emanating from an electric bell. It was placed there as an
alarm, to summon help, and its glow meant that such a signal had
been made by the Pope who, as Diego saw at a glance, had died alone
without his call being answered. He had worn the Fisherman’s Ring
for only thirty-three days.
The Pope’s other secretary, Father John Magee, was next on the
scene, and as the news spread Cardinal Confaloniere, Dean of the
Congregation of Cardinals, who arrived at the bedside, pronounced
what was afterwards accepted as the regular and official version of
The resulting description might relate to the death-bed of any
outstandingly religious man. The Pope was on the bed, supported by
pillows, with his head, turned a little to the right, inclining
forward over his chest. His eyes were open.
The prevailing impression was one of calmness and serenity, with no
suggestion of pain. There was nothing to belie the
name ‘smiling Pope’ that had been given him during his brief time in
Rome. One hand held some sheets of paper containing notes for a
speech he intended to deliver on the following day. A copy of Thomas
a Kempis’s Imitation of Christ was on the floor. [The author is here
repeating the sanitized version provided by the Vatican and
challenged by David Yallop in his book ‘In God’s Name’ - ed.]
In the near panic and stupefaction that followed, Don Diego, who
might have been. expected to join in, was holding a hurriedly
excited conversation on the telephone. It later transpired that he
had called Doctor Antonio da Ros, begging him to come at once to the
Vatican to carry out an external examination of John Paul whom he
had known and treated for some twenty years – an extraordinary act
for a secretary to carry out on his own initiative, when he was
surrounded by a bevy of influential prelates; and doubly surprising
since Doctor da Ros was not in Rome, but in Venice.
The news was released through Vatican Radio at seven-thirty-one, and
on Italian Radio the morning’s announcer cut short the latest act of
terrorism by the Red Brigade to say:
‘We interrupt this broadcast to
bring you grave news ...’
The tolling of bells throughout the city, and the lowering of the
yellow and white Vatican City flag, took up the story; and away in
Cracow, when the tidings were heard in the old building that housed
the cathedral Curia, a man who had been seated at breakfast suddenly
rose and retired to the private chapel. Those who saw him at the
time remembered how Karol Wojtyla, for that was his name, was
deathly pale and trembling, as though some heavily charged mission,
whose import had been made known to him by some secret counsel in
the not too far off past, was on the point of reaching fulfillment.
Those who experienced it have no hesitation in saying that from then
on an atmosphere, hitherto unknown there, passed into the Vatican.
Men began almost to question themselves, as they did others. Small
groups met, and talked without animation. They were under a nameless
pressure that it was beyond the power of any among them to remove.
Much of the conversation there, at normal times, is highly allusive,
causing one to search into their classical, historical, or literary
memories to find a reason for it, or an answer.
Now that impression was heightened, as when Cardinals Poletti and
Baggio came face to face, both aware of a question, and both equally
nervous lest the other might solve it. One of them took refuge in
recalling the words of Antonio Fogazzaro, the anticlerical writer.
‘Eminence’, said one, ‘you jeer at anyone who holds his tongue.
Dread his silence!’ A less experienced priest came nearer to summing
up the situation in more picturesque language.
‘The cupboards of the
Vatican are full of skeletons. Their bones are beginning to rattle.’
‘What if they are?’ said another cleric. ‘They were placed there
during the great heresies of the Middle Ages. Now those heresies
have come again.’
Rumours, mystery, embarrassment, perplexity.... It came almost as a
relief when movements were heard in the hall-way that led to the
Pope’s bedroom. The Swiss Guards, before the termination of their
four hours’ duty there, were marching out, and a high temporary
partition was being erected round the bed. At the same time, all
exits and entrances to that part of the building were sealed.
Before long the dead Pope’s brother and sister, Eduardo and
Amelia Luciani, and a niece Pia, had arrived. They were plain, simple
people, who would be regarded, by some in Rome, as rugged sons and
daughters of the mountains (they came from the Dolomites), and not
the sort to impress, in spite of their closeness to the dead Pope, a
Cardinal like Villot who, now in charge of Vatican affairs and
worldly to a degree, covered an iron nature with a more than usual
share of French courtesy.
Worried by the sudden and unexpected death of their brother, they
voiced their agreement, with most of the doctors, that an autopsy
must be held to settle the matter and dispel any lingering doubts.
Professor Prati, consultant of the heart unit of St. Camillo
hospital, said an autopsy was not only desirable, but
necessary. Professor Alcona, head of the neurological department of
the Polyclinic of the Catholic University of
Rome, gave his more downright opinion that it was the duty of the
Holy See to order a post-mortem. The same theme was to be more
strongly renewed after the Pope’s funeral when another specialist,
Professor Fontana, said:
‘If I had to certify, under the same
circumstances, the death of an ordinary unimportant citizen, I would
quite simply have refused to allow him to be buried.’
Many publications were equally insistent that a post-mortem was
necessary, among them being the conservative group Civilta
Cristiana, under its director Franco Antico, and the influential
Corriere della Sera, of Milan.
Their doubts were supported by the way in which the specialists, who
examined the Pope’s body, contradicted each other. Doctor Buzzonetti, the first doctor on the scene, said the Pope had
suffered an acute coronary thrombosis. Another put it down to
cancer, while a third said the Pope had an apoplectic fit resulting
from a brain tumour. Doctor Rulli of the St. Camillo hospital, said
it was a case of cerebral haemorrhage.
The suggestion of heart trouble was discountenanced by Edouardo and
Amelia Luciani, while Monsignor Senigallia said that John Paul,
acting on his advice, had had an electro-cardiogram which lasted for
twenty minutes, and that no irregularity had been revealed.
The official investigators now adopted a new line to help them out
of an embarrassing situation. They suddenly announced that the Pope
had, from the first, been a very sick person; that he had been
baptized soon after birth since he had not been expected to live
through the day; that he had been in hospital eight times, in a
sanatorium twice, and had undergone four operations.
heart, and sinus trouble, with swelling of the hands and feet, were
also numbered among his complaints. His fingernails had turned
black, he had managed to survive with a single lung, while there was
also talk of an embolism, or blood clot. If this summary of ills had
been true (and he underwent the usual medical examination before the
conclave) he would not have been elected.
Within a few hours, when the initial feeling of shock had been
passed, a veritable campaign of suspicion made itself felt,
from which only Villot, and a few of his close associates stayed
aloof. There was talk of a more than medicinal dose of digitalis, of
the rare wickedness that would be necessary to introduce poison into
the wine used for Mass, and of the unobtrusive ways in which a man
might be helped to die.
But these hazards apart, with such terms as murder, assassination,
and poison beginning to be heard, there were some unanswerable
questions that were threatening, as one prelate put it, to shake the
pillars of the Vatican to their very foundations.
The first one to look on the face of the dead Pope was Don Diego, a
secretary. He must have seen something that thoroughly alarmed or
shocked him, since he had rushed to the telephone to call Doctor da
Ros, a more intimate medical friend of John Paul than any on the
Vatican rota, although the average of fourteen prominent specialists
it numbered were readily available, while da Ros was three hundred
Moreover, Don Diego was never asked to account for his action, or,
at least, not in a way that was ever the subject of any known
inquiry. And, normally loquacious, he became reserved, and could
never be drawn to enlarge upon the reason why, with so much
threatening to break about him, he rushed to the telephone to make a
What had he seen? Had it been the expression on the face of John
Paul? According to the octogenarian Dean of the Congregation of
Cardinals, Confalonieri, the dead man appeared serene, smooth,
peaceful, with a hint of smiling. But a young cleric who had
recently been accredited to the Vatican, and who pressed forward
with a beginner’s eagerness and ardour to make himself familiar with
its affairs, saw a very different countenance from the one
It was distorted by a pronounced look of suffering, while the mouth,
instead of presaging a smile, was gaping wide. That this latter
version was true was borne out when the embalmers arrived, the four
brothers Signoracci from the Medical Institute. Their combined and
highly practiced efforts, carried out for two hours on the face
alone, and with the aid of cosmetics, could not overcome, still less
remove, the manifestation of horror that the dead Pope carried to
But the greatest obstacle, in the way of a comfortable explanation,
was the red light in the corridor. It was controlled by an electric
bell on the Pope’s bedside table, and it was a signal that meant he
was calling for assistance. That signal had certainly been made. The
red glow had sprung into life. But it had not been answered. Not by
any of the guards, nor by any of the staff, the secretaries, clerks,
nurse, the chauffeur, who were in the annex; not by either of the
seven nuns of the Order of Marie-Enfant who, being responsible for
the Pope’s domestic arrangements, were on the floor above his own.
What had they all been doing at the time? What more important task
than the Pope’s welfare, his safety even, had kept them employed?
The police who patrolled St. Peter’s Square, all through the night,
must instinctively have glanced more than once at the slightly
parted curtains in the Pope’s bedroom. The red glow might have
appeared between them. But was it indeed observable all through the
night, or had it been tampered with so that it only became visible
at early dawn? There was no inquiry along those lines. Those
questions went unanswered. The Pope was dead. But a post-mortem,
demanded by most of the Pope’s doctors and his relatives, and
seconded by an influential Press, would settle all doubts as well as
determining the cause of death.
But here again the tall imposing presence of Villot intervened. An
autopsy, he declared, was out of the question; and his reason for
saying so left the doctors more bewildered than before. The body had
been found at five-thirty a.m. Time, that is normally so regular and
methodically paced at the Vatican, had then taken a surprising leap
forward. For the embalmers, with quite unnecessary and unprecedented
haste, had immediately been summoned, and their process had been
completed by nine-thirty.
‘But the intestines?’ asked one of the doctors, who had made up his
mind to remove them and carry out tests for a trace of poison.
Villot’s answer was again decisive. They had been burnt.
One of the most salient comments on the strange affair came,
surprisingly enough, from L’Osservatore Romano, which asked whether
the death of John Paul might in any way be linked to the homily he
had pronounced in favour of the Satanist and devilworshipper
Carducci. But only Catholics in Germany read this, for it was
deleted from every copy of the paper that went elsewhere. An effort
was actually made to suppress the German edition, but it was too
An unimpressive Press conference, that Villot could not actually
oppose, though his obvious displeasure almost had the effect of a
positive ban (especially when one of those present voiced the
widespread regret at the failure to hold an autopsy), yielded
nothing. Villot referred objectors to the final verdict given by
Father Romeo Panciroli who, after carrying out whatever check was
possible on the highly-spiced and viscerated body, was ‘pleased to
report that everything had been in order.’
Meanwhile a medical man, Gerin, who rejected the possibility of the
Pope’s death having been a natural one, openly pronounced the word
‘poison’; and a Bishop (one must respect his wish to remain unnamed)
made up his mind to succeed where doctors, professors, and
journalists, had failed. He would penetrate the veil of silence and
secrecy, and establish the truth, whatever its import or what it
He worked hard and long; interviewed countless people; delved into
every department, mounted stairways and passed through devious
passages in the Vatican. Then, for a time, he vanished from the
scene; and those who have since met him found him not only changed,
as may happen after only a few months, but in every sense an
entirely different man.
Hardened Romans and realists, who had expected nothing else, merely
shrugged. The dome of St. Peter’s is not an egg-shell, to be
cracked. He was merely one more fool who had cracked his own heart
Cardinal Villot, aware of the growing disquiet in the Church,
promised to make a statement on recent events in the Vatican
before the calling of the next conclave. He never did, but remained
a man of mystery to the last, leaving no evidence as
to how much he had known (there was ample suspicion to more than
make up for absence of certainty), or for how much he had been
responsible. The cause of Villot’s own death on 9 March, 1979,
occasioned the same elementary confusion that surrounded the passing
of John Paul I. The Cardinal, according to an early announcement,
had died of bronchial-pneumonia.
A second verdict named kidney
trouble; a third, hepatitis; while yet another attributed the cause
to internal haemorrhage.
It appears that top-flight Catholic specialists, when called to the
bedside of their most eminent patients, reveal themselves as being
very indifferent diagnosticians.
It was raining. From their places on the colonnade above the piazza,
Simon Peter and his fellow saints looked down upon a forest of
umbrellas. The dead Pope, in vestments of red, white, and gold, and
with a golden mitre on his head, had been brought from the
Clementine Hall in the Apostolic Palace to the square where, in a
plain cypress coffin, the body rested on a red blanket fringed with
ermine, for the celebration of an open air Mass.
The flame of a
single tall taper, placed near the coffin, flickered this way and
that in the wind and drizzle, but never to the point of going out. A
Monsignor, his mind heavy with a fast growing certainty, looked
round at the mostly shawled heads and white faces, and thought of
the terrible suspicion that was trembling on everyone’s lips.
‘It is too much’, was all he could murmur to himself. ‘It is too
A chill October dusk, pierced by pin-points of light from the city,
was closing down as the cortege moved into the basilica where, in
the crypt, future generations will come to gaze at a tomb bearing
the simple inscription JOHANNES PAULUS I. And some, despite the
blunting of time, may wonder.
1. Joseph Leti. Charbonnerie et Maçonnerie dans le Reveil national
italien. Translated by L. Lachet. (Paris. Ed. polyglotte, 1925.)
Quoted by Alec Mellor in Our Separated Brethren. (Harrap, 1964.)
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