Papa Giovanni Paolo I, 1978


It was 5:30 am on September 29, 1978. The nun Vincenza Taffarel, charged with bringing the breakfast to the pope, knocked on the door of the room where His Holiness John Paul 1st rested in the apartment reserved for the Pope in the Vatican Apostolic Palace. She had no answer. She knocked even stronger. She opened the door and entered the room. She saw the Pope in the bed, leaning against the head of bed with a book on his lap and the light on. The pope was unconscious. The nun ran to call the pope’s private secretary, Msgr. Magee. The two realized that the Pope had died.

Albino Luciani was born in Forno di Canale (today Canale d’Agordo) on October 17, 1912. He was the eldest of four siblings of a modest family whose parent, in order to procure what was necessary for his family, had been forced to migrate to Switzerland. Albino was consecrated as a priest on 7 July 1935. He became a teacher at the Belluno seminary. In 1947 he graduated in theology by discussing the thesis “The origin of the human soul according to Antonio Rosmini”. It was a courageous and breaking thesis because some of the Rosmini’s works had been banned by the church.

In 1958 he was appointed bishop of Vittorio Veneto by John XXIII, who, having been patriarch of Venice, knew him personally and had an excellent consideration of that little priest of ill health, sided with the poor and the workers. His nomination as bishop had already been proposed twice. They had been rejected by the Roman Curia because of poor health and his small size.

In 1966, during his stay in the diocese of Vittorio Veneto, he faced a thorny question that arose in the parish of Montaner. Bishop Luciani appointed Don Giovanni Gava as the new owner of the parish on the death of old parish priest. The parishioners said they disagreed with the appointment of the bishop because they indicated as a parish priest the chaplain Botteon. Luciani remained in his position because, he said, the parish priests are appointed by the bishops and not elected by the faithful. The contrast took on worrying proportions, so that the new priest found the entrance and windows of the church walled up. The bishop, Albino Luciani, considering useless further attempts, went personally to Montaner, escorted by the carabinieri, and withdrew the consecrated host from the tabernacle, banning the church by religious services. In Montaner, some parishioners created an Orthodox community that still survives.

In 1969 Pope Paul VI appointed Bishop Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice. Albino Luciani, appointed patriarch in a difficult period of economic crisis and dispute, did not hesitate to intervene directly in the crisis of the industries of the Veneto alongside the workers who risked the job or who had been fired. He also put up for sale many properties of the Venetian church to financially support the weaker classes, which at that time were represented by the families of the workers left without work. This increased the popularity of the Patriarch Luciani among the common people. In 1971 he became vice president of the Italian episcopal conference.

Some episodes seemed to predict the election of Luciani to the papal throne. In 1972, Pope Paul VI went to Venice. Paul VI took his stole and placed it on Luciani’s shoulders, as if he wanted to indicate him as his successor, after the solemn Mass celebrated in Piazza San Marco, crowded by a huge crowd of faithful. In 1977 Luciani went to Portugal where he visited Sister Lucia Dos Santos in Coimbra. Sister Lucy was one of the three young shepherds who had the vision of the Madonna at Fatima. It seems that the seer predicts to Albino Luciani his appointment as pope. This did not make the cardinal happy. In the following days he seemed very troubled by the conversation he had with Sister Lucia. From confidences gathered later it turned out that the nun had also added that her stay at the top of the church would have lasted very little. The patriarch of Venice was very reluctant when about his possible appointment as pope, limiting himself to replying that he wished a long life to Pope Paul VI.

In 1972 the IOR ceded 37% of the ownership of Banca Cattolica del Veneto, losing control. Until then, the Catholic Bank had been the financial reference of many small businesses in the Veneto region and of many parishes that was supported by the institute for their financial needs. The same fate was reserved for the Banco di San Marco, a bank founded by the Venetian diocese in 1895 and which collected the money from the Venetian parishes and priests. Patriarch Luciani, not informed in advance of the transfer, went to Rome to get clarification and to support the reasons why the two banks remained under the control of the church. In the Vatican he met Monsignor Paul Marcinkus, president of the IOR, the Vatican bank. The meeting did not go well. Luciani’s remarks about the fact that the Venetian dioceses had not been informed of the decision to cede the banks and that the two institutions were the biggest financial supporters of the Venetian church, Monsignor Marcinkus replied with annoyance and arrogance, dismissing the patriarch rudely.

Paul Marcinkus was born in 1922 in Cicero, a suburb of Chicago, famous as it was also the birthplace of Al Capone. He became a priest, and soon he moved to Rome to study canon law. He climbed positions of prestige within the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome. In 1963 he founded Villa Stritch, a stone’s throw from the Gianicolo, to host American prelates visiting Rome. He became the bodyguard of Pope Paul VI in his travels around the world, thanks to his remarkable physical prowess. In 1969 he was appointed president of the IOR despite being completely fasting for finance.

In 1972 the so-called “Vatican connection” scandal broke out. The Vatican bank headed by Marcinkus had purchased a large number of fake stocks from the Mafia. The investigation that followed was entrusted by Paul VI to the American FBI. The Federal Bureau focused its attention on the deputy secretary of state, Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, acquitting its compatriot Marcinkus on charges. Since then there were closer ties between the IOR and members of obscure financial powers. All this will result, years later, in the scandal of Banco Ambrosiano with the consequent “suicide” of Roberto Calvi, president of the same, involved in a billionaire shortfall. Despite the fact that the Vatican claimed that it was not involved in the bankruptcy, the IOR intervened with an outlay of $ 250 million to partially cover the shortfall.

In 1973 the patriarch of Venice, Albino Luciani, was appointed cardinal by Paul VI. In 1978, when Paul VI died, the conclave of the cardinals was convened for the election of the new pope, in which Cardinal Luciani also participated. The patriarch of Venice suspected that some of the most important cardinals participating in the conclave had identified his figure as a possible future pontiff. During the conclave he took refuge in his room not to participate in the numerous clusters of cardinals who were discussing the future pope. He showed himself around as little as possible, hoping to go unnoticed and not arouse the temptation in his colleagues to elect him as pontiff. He had not forgotten what Sister Lucy had predicted. Despite everything, the second day of conclave Luciani was elected Pope. He represented an alternative among the hard and pure traditionalists like Cardinal Siri, the supporters of the Second Vatican Council and the most progressive. The majority of the votes of the fourth vote were concentrated on his figure, a supporter of a poor but traditionalist church in the principles of faith.

“Habemus Papam” was the traditional announcement to the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Immediately after the new pope, who had chosen the name of John Paul 1st, had the first clash with Cardinal Pericle Felice. He wanted to give a short speech to the crowd but was prevented. Traditionally only the Urbi et Orbi blessing of the new pontiff was foreseen. It was the first time, after about a millennium, that the Pope chose a name never used by previous popes. It was also the first time that the nominal 1st was added to the name, not necessary being the first pope to use that “nomen”.

The Vatican curia showed very little respect for the Pope. Positive remarks on contraception formulated by Luciani were simply ignored.  The “Osservatore Romano”, systematically corrected his speeches before publication. Pope Luciani preferred the “I” instead the royal “we”, in the transcription on the Observer the “I” was transformed into “we” by the editors of the newspaper.

The Pope had repeatedly expressed his ideas about the poverty of the church. He also did not approve administration of the IOR by its president Paul Marcinkus. Albino Luciani did not hide his desire to completely restructure the financial sector of the Vatican. The memory of Marcinkus was still alive in the mind of the pope, who had treated him as an annoying priest when he had gone to ask for the sale of the Banca Cattolica del Veneto. Marcinkus had to fear now that Luciani had become Pope, the little priest would fire him for his work. Another cardinal who feared the new pope was Jean-Marie Villot, who presided over the powerful APSA, a Vatican institution that administered the immense property owned by the church and acted like a real bank.

Pope John Paul 1st had other controversies with the prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, who had the power to appoint the bishops of the dioceses. Luciani wished that a prelate of his trust be appointed to the Church of Venice, but Villot opposed the suggested name, wanting to establish his man as patriarch of Venice. The last fight between Baggio and the Pope was the day before his death. Luciani altered and threatened, if Baggio had not prepared the decree appointing the patriarch of Venice on the basis of his indications, to send Cardinal Baggio himself to the head of that diocese. In the day he also had a meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Villot.

At 8pm on September 28th the Pope dined with his two secretaries Diego Lorenzi and John Magee. After dinner he had a telephone conversation with the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giovanni Colombo. The two secretaries later told the Pope confided them that he had pangs in his chest. Cardinal Colombo said that, speaking on the phone with the Pope, he had felt serene and without particular worries. At 5:30 the following morning he was found lying on the bed, lifeless, by the nun and the secretary.

Albino Luciani suffered from hypotension and regularly took drugs to fight it. The Vatican doctors indicated a myocardial infarction probably due to the accumulated stress after his election as pope. As usual, the Pope’s body was not subjected to autopsy, but the matter was taken seriously into consideration. A board of doctors consisting of three health professionals spoke about the need or not to do the same. Two members of the college declared the autopsy unnecessary, confirming the cause of death communicated by the Vatican authorities, while the third doctor was in favor.

Suspicions about the death of the Pope were also fueled by the revelation of the presumed association to the Freemasonry of some apical members of the College of Cardinals. The journalist Mino Pecorelli, in the previous days, had published a list of personalities of the church in his weekly OP that joined the Masonic lodge, including eight cardinals responsible for the most sensitive offices of the Vatican. Five months later, the journalist was assassinated with four gunshots in Via Orazio in Rome by an unknown assassin.

The first doubts of the journalists arose from the fact that the official statement indicated as the author of the discovery of the death the pontiff’s secretary Msgr. Magee. On the contrary, it was ascertained that the first to enter the pontiff’s bedroom was Sister Vincenza Taffarel, worried about the Pope’s failure to reply to his repeated knocking on the bedroom door. It probably seemed inappropriate to the Vatican authorities to make public that a woman had free access to the Pope’s bedroom. Sister Vincenza confirmed the fact years later.

Other suspicions focused on the state of health of the pontiff in the days before the death and on the triggering cause of the infarct. The church’s official internal voices to emphasize that the pope had had chest pain the day before, but he refused the doctor’s intervention, minimizing his illness. This circumstance was also confirmed by the two secretaries Lorenzi and Magee. But the versions of the two were profoundly divergent, while Lorenzi told of an illness immediately after the meeting with Cardinal Villot, which took place in the morning, Magee declared that the Pope had had the illness in the afternoon.

The theory of death due to myocardial infarction was joined by a theory that, while not contradicting the Vatican doctors’ statement, placed the emphasis on the stress to which the pope had been subjected. Luciani had had opposition to many of his decisions by the cardinals, heads of the various Vatican departments, who were supposed to collaborate and help the pontiff in his ministry. The last contrast was with Cardinal Baggio the morning before his death. This continuous tension would have caused the heart attack.

The missed autopsy fed speculations on an external intervention that had determined the death. Even the ambiguities of the press release and the fact that the objects, the notes and the medicines that were on the place of death had not been found, perhaps subtracted immediately after the discovery of the corpse, contributed to the halo of mystery. Years later, Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, a close friend of Albino Luciani, did not deny that doubts about the death of John Paul 1st could also be legitimate due to the lack of autopsy that would have definitively clarified the cause of death.

The writer David Yallop, in his book “In the name of God”, embraced the thesis of murder, justifying it with the innovations that Pope Luciani intended to introduce to the financial and banking activities of the Vatican. The writer did not bring decisive proof for his thesis. He considered as significant clues the disappearance of documents and medicines from Pope Luciani’s room immediately after the discovery of death, and the failure to autopsy. The murder, according to Yallop, would have matured in the areas of deviant Freemasonry, the same that the journalist Mino Pecorelli had reported on his weekly OP. The crime, as told in the book “In the name of God”, would materialize with the unintentional assumption of “digitalina” by Pope John Paul I, which in inappropriate doses actually causes myocardial infarction. Yallop’s thesis, carried out without concrete evidence and with some discrepancies between his narration and what actually took place, was not considered credible by most experts of the Vatican.

The theses of an external intervention that had “facilitated” the death appeared as mere speculations of the usual conspiracy theorists. Following the wounding of Pope John Paul 2nd, the mystery of the kidnapping of the young Emanuela Orlandi, the triple murder / suicide of the commander of the Swiss Guard Alois Estermann, of Cedric Tornay and of Gladys Romero that occurred within the walls leonine, the thesis of those who consider Pope John Paul 1st a victim of his intentions of renewal of the Vatican finances seem possible. The renewal could have brought to the discovery hundreds of millions of dollars inappropriately deposited with the IOR.