Much ink has been spilled over one of the shortest pontificates in the history of the Catholic Church: the thirty-three day reign of Pope John Paul I. Before becoming pope he was Albino Luciani, the Cardinal of Venice. Since dying he has been embraced by traditional Catholics as a martyr pope – even though he chose a name combining the two popes responsible for the not-quite-traditional Second Vatican Council. He has been hailed as a ramrod of orthodoxy – even though he favored easing the Church’s ban on artificial contraception.
In the 1970’s Luciani was visited in Venice by Pope Paul VI who, amidst the cheers of onlookers, gave Luciani his papal stole as a gift: a clear signal that Luciani had, at the very least, the approval of a pope who was steadily squeezing traditionalism out onto the very margins of Catholicism. As Paul would not have given his papal stole to a “pre-conciliar” cardinal, neither would a conclave of cardinals picked by Pope John and Pope Paul have so quickly elected Luciani unless they were satisfied he would follow the post-conciliar script.
Moreover, Luciani’s speedy election was subject to a new rule enacted by Paul VI that barred cardinals over 80 years of age from having a vote: added insurance against the election of a “pre-conciliar” pontiff. Did Luciani fool everybody? Was he really a traditionalist mole? He didn’t live long enough to answer the question, and people have been guessing at his true colors ever since – a fascination caused by his unusual death.
The official cause, heart failure, was disputed by Luciani’s family, and the evidence. The Vatican press office didn’t help matters by issuing conflicting reports about the death scene and the medical evidence. Adding to the confusion was the regrettable fact that members of the dead pope’s entourage tampered with evidence at the death scene. Also unusual was the rush to embalm Luciani’s body just hours after his death. Public clamor for an autopsy was ignored. If an autopsy was performed it was done secretly and the results were never revealed.
By contrast, Pope Paul VI’s death by heart failure two months previously was uncontroversial. Part of the controversy over John Paul I’s death was that the physical evidence, although subtle, tended to indicate poisoning as the cause of death. This was not, and probably never will be, proven. (The point to the controversy over the quick embalming is that this made it almost impossible for an autopsy to detect poison).
Who would have wanted to poison Luciani, and why, has fueled several books and countless conspiracy theories on the left and the right. Did John Paul I really intend to overturn Humanae Vitae? Probably not, but David Yallop thought so. Yallop wrote a bestseller, In God’s Name, An Investigation Into the Murder of Pope John Paul I (Bantam Books, 1984) advancing the theory that the Pope was murdered by P-2 Masonry, who had their hands all over the Church’s money. Yallop says the motive for the murder was Luciani’s intention to expose the arrangement. While Yallop is mostly right about the Vatican financial scandals, his depiction of Luciani as a crusading financial reformer is unlikely.
John Cornwell was hired by the Vatican to refute this argument. They did not get their money’s worth. In his book,A Thief in the Night, he theorizes that Luciani was at the point of death when elected, and Vatican negligence concerning Luciani’s health caused his death. Yet Cornwell’s theory of John Paul I’s frail health and bum ticker is even more unlikely than Yallop’s theory. Luciani simply was not that weak and frail, and his family and friends offer convincing evidence of his adequate health.
Well then, perhaps Pope john Paul I was killed because he was going to reveal the third Secret of Fatima. In 1977, the year before his death, Cardinal Luciani visited Sister Lucia dos Santos at the Carmelite convent in Coimbra, Portugal. Sister Lucy was the sole surviving visionary of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s apparitions at Fatima, Portugal. Luciani spoke alone together for almost two hours. He left the meeting impressed by Sister Lucy, and shaken by her words. After becoming pope he spoke as if Sister Lucy had predicted his election:
“It is most incredible, and yet Sister Lucia’s prediction proved to be true. I am here. I am Pope. If I live, I shall return to Fatima to consecrate the world and the peoples of Russia in particular, to the Blessed Virgin in accordance with the indications she gave to Sister Lucia (CRC Journal No. 288, September 1996, p. 12).”
It is not known whether Lucy told Luciani the third secret, or whether he read it during his short pontificate (the Secret was said to be kept in it’s original envelope in the papal desk). Some traditional Catholics are convinced that Luciani was murdered by those in the Church who feared the retrograde effect Fatima might have on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Veteran Vatican reporter John Allen has likened the pontificate of Pope John Paul I to a Rorschach inkblot everyone projects their own fantasies and dreams onto. After becoming Pope, Luciani indicated several times that he didn’t think he would live long. He was right.