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 already crowded 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, 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 reforms.
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 forbidding contraception.
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 circles.
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 Aspromonte.
I drink to the happy day which shall see the end
Of Rome the eternal.
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 apologised 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 precision.
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 tragedy.
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 fulfilment.
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 baptised 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. Appendicitis, 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 miles away.
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 distant call.
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 officially described.
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 practised 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 his tomb.
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 annexe; 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 late.
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 might entail.
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 against it.
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 much.’
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.