‘Crushed’ by 2 papacies, the death of John Paul I eclipsed life | Religion


By FRANCES D’EMILIO Associated Press

VATICAN CITY — The moment the black wall phone rang in the early morning of September 29, 1978, at Stefania Falasca’s apartment in Rome is etched in her mind. Then 15, Falasca remembers her father answering and hearing the voice of her uncle, a priest who worked in the Vatican, come through the receiver: “The pope is dead!

“But he’s already dead!” Falasca remembered her puzzled father exclaiming.

Like countless other people around the world, his father struggled to understand how John Paul I, 65, elected pontiff just a month earlier – on August 26, 1978 – could have died, and first vaguely thought of Pope Paul VI, who died in early August at the age of 80.

John Paul I, born Albino Luciani, is widely known for his sudden and mysterious death than for his life. Falasca, an Italian journalist for a Catholic publication, has worked for over a decade to change that and convince the Vatican that he deserves to be a saint for the way he lived his faith, as a priest, bishop, cardinal and, if briefly, as pontiff.

People also read…

On Sunday, Pope Francis will beatify John Paul I, the last formal step before eventual sainthood.

Formal efforts toward beatification can begin five years after a pontiff’s death. For John Paul II, this rule was lifted a few weeks after his death in 2005, in response to cries of “holiness immediately!” rising from the faithful at his funeral.

But it took 25 years for the beatification process for John Paul I to begin.

John Paul I “was a crushed figure between two pontificates,” Falasca said, speaking in the block from St. Peter’s Square. She was referring to his successor, John Paul II, one of the oldest popes in history, and his predecessor, Paul VI, whose 15-year pontificate saw him preside over the Second Vatican Council with his modernization reforms. Both became saints.

In the case of Luciani, “no historian has been interested in the pope. As if briefly passing through time, forgotten,” Falasca said.

But writers seeing a bestseller that did were interested.

The abrupt disappearance of Luciani, whose body was found in his room in the Apostolic Palace and who has been dubbed the “smiling pope” for his cheerful face, aroused instant suspicion.

In the first hours after his death, the Vatican offered different versions, first claiming that a male secretary had found him, then admitting that the pontiff had been found dead by the nuns who brought him his coffee from the morning.

“They could have said immediately that it was the nuns and that would not have raised doubts, on the contrary, it would have given more guarantees,” Falasca said. A nun, Sister Vincenza, was well known to Luciani’s family.

The nuns later said the Vatican told them not to say they had found him for fear it would seem inappropriate for a woman to enter the pope’s bedroom.

At the same time, a monstrous financial scandal was developing involving an Italian bank linked to the Vatican’s own bank. There were murky links between a now-deceased US-born prelate who was president of the Vatican bank and an Italian financier, dubbed ‘God’s banker’, whose body in 1982 was found hanged under a London bridge in what has been ruled a homicide.

Was Luciani about to crack down on officials linked to the secret finances of the Holy See? Did he plan to eradicate corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy?

“In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I”, a 1984 book by David A. Yallop that sold millions of copies. The Vatican has concluded that Luciani was struck down by a heart attack, after suffering chest pains he played just before going to bed on his last night. But Yallop, noting that no autopsy was performed , concluded that he was poisoned by plotters linked to a secret Masonic lodge with ties to the Vatican and its bank.

In 1987, another British journalist, John Cornwell, came to the Vatican to research allegations of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in what was then Yugoslavia. Instead, a Vatican bishop asked him to write the “truth” of John Paul I’s death and promised him access to the pope’s doctor, his embalmers and others.

Writing his own bestseller, “A Thief in the Night”, Cornwell concluded that Luciani had “died of neglect”.

“At the very heart of the Vatican, it was psychological neglect,” Cornwell said in a telephone interview from the English countryside. “They gave him too much work without proper help. They didn’t take care of his health properly.”

“In other words, they had no respect for him, they thought he was a derisory pope, they said he looked like Peter Sellers,” Cornwell said, referring to the English comic actor who often played awkward roles.

Cornwell said some people were disappointed that he found no evidence of murder, including a bishop. “I met people inside the Vatican who were convinced” that there was a plot to eliminate Luciani.

Falasca says that John Paul I “is not beatified because he was pope”.

“He lived with exemplary method, faith, hope, charity,” she says. “He is a model for everyone, precisely because he testified to the essential virtues.”

John Paul I also broke molds, referring to himself as “I” in papal speeches, instead of the more impersonal traditional “we”.

“He was like a light breeze sweeping away centuries” of formalities, Falasca said. “His choice to be familiar was a theological choice.”

She marveled that among her most beloved books were secular literature – by Mark Twain, Willa Cather and GK Chesterton, a British author famous for his character as a detective priest.

For a Catholic to be beatified, the pope must approve a miracle attributed to prayerful intercession. In Luciani’s case, that miracle was the 2011 medically unexplained recovery of an 11-year-old girl hospitalized in Buenos Aires with brain inflammation and septic shock.

Her parents begged a priest from a nearby parish to come. As he rushed to her bedside, the Reverend Juan Jose’ Dabusti wondered who he should pray to for her to live. Inspiration struck. He prayed to John Paul I.

But why invoke the name of a largely forgotten pontiff? Falasca said Dabusti told him that when he was 15 he heard the newly elected John Paul I speak and decided to become a priest himself because Luciani was “very simple and very happy”.


Comments are closed.