A Quiet Death in Rome: Was John Paul I Murdered?

He barely made it to the bathroom… it was hard to stand up. He clutched the sink and squinted painfully against the bright lights. Fumbling with his glasses didn’t help. Why did everything look so yellow? He fought in vain to breathe, his heart quivering wildly in his chest. A lurch, a stumble, and Pope John Paul heaved out his life on the cold marble floor.

Or did it happen this way…

Just a note to capture the sudden inspiration, and then he could finish dressing for bed. Would the talk be good enough? Nothing was ever good enough for Them. Why had They chosen him? God alone knew. He rose cautiously on swollen feet. Agony seized his lungs. Heart racing in panic, he gasped for breath that would not come. With a muffled cry, Pope John Paul crumpled dead beside his desk.

The death of Pope John Paul I on September 28, 1978, shocked a world that had barely been introduced to “the Smiling Pope.” His reign of 33 days had been one of the shortest in the annals of the papacy. The official cause of death was myocardial infarction—heart attack—but confusion in the details of his demise fed instant rumors of foul play. Within a few months of the pope’s death, Abbé Georges de Nantes from the League of the Catholic Counter Reformation was crying murder.

The first conspiracy book, Jean-Jacques Thierry’s La Vraie Mort de Jean Paul Ier (1983), emerged from Lefebvrist circles. It not only accused Jean Cardinal Villot of the murder but of also having substituted a double for Pope Paul VI. Other sensational—and conflicting—theories continued to appear during the 1980s … John Paul I was killed by the KGB…No, the KGB was spreading false rumors to make it look like a killing…No, it was the CIA, which wanted to make room for its candidate, John Paul II.

Perhaps the most popular explanation entailed Freemasons and fraud at the Vatican Bank involving scandals that erupted a few years after John Paul I’s passing (see the sidebars on pages 15 and 17). This scenario was made famous by David Yallop’s bestselling book, In God’s Name: An Investigation into the Murder of Pope John Paul I (1984).

Three years later, in an effort to stem the rumors, Archbishop John Foley of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications asked English journalist John Cornwell to investigate the issue. No conditions were placed on the project, which received full Vatican support all the way up to Pope John Paul II himself. Cornwell’s conclusions were published as A Thief in the Night: Life and Death in the Vatican (1989).

Because Yallop and Cornwell are the best spokesmen for their positions, I’ll frame the story of John Paul I’s death as a debate between them. Both authors are British and lapsed Catholics. Yallop, who displays more overt hostility toward the Church and openly disparages Pope John Paul II, got his start writing true crime accounts for a popular audience. The sophisticated Cornwell, on the other hand, later worked at Cambridge. While Yallop presents his findings as the product of his research, Cornwell dramatizes the research process.

Presuming the existence of what he expects to find, Yallop has a vested interest in arguing for murder; Cornwell does not. Yallop’s shrill editorializing against what he sees as a rich, sex-obsessed Church—”Vatican Incorporated”— clearly slants his book. He piles on peripheral material about Mafia hits, the sins of John Cardinal Cody, and political corruption to heighten the luridness. His ugly, badly reproduced photographs distort the people they represent, even his hero, John Paul I.

Both writers tape-recorded their interviews and took notes. Neither provides a bibliography or footnotes, although Cornwell has documentary appendixes. Yallop employed at least two research assistants; Cornwell worked alone. Yallop reconstructs conversations that are unknowable and uses blind sources. Cornwell anchors his interviews with crisp personal descriptions of his subjects. Only informants sampled for gossip go incognito. Overall, as a specimen of historical writing, Cornwell’s book commands greater trust. The grave deficiencies of his more recent work, Hitler’s Pope, do not taint A Thief in the Night.

Who Was Albino Luciani?

The whole controversy hinges on the character of John Paul I himself. The “Smiling Pope” was born Albino Luciani on October 17, 1912, near Belluno in northern Italy. His working-class family was poor due to the erratic employment of his Socialist father. Luciani was ordained in 1935 and taught general subjects at the Belluno seminary until 1958, when he was made bishop of Vittorio Veneto. He became patriarch of Venice in 1969 and received his cardinal’s hat in 1973.

At every level, Luciani was noted for his simplicity and his zeal for social justice. He wanted the Church’s wealth pared down and shared with the poor, at home and abroad. Although pastoral, not cerebral, in style, he took special interest in catechetics and ecumenism. Besides service in the Italian bishops’ conference, Luciani drew popular attention after publishing Illustrissimi, a book of letters to real and imaginary figures from Jesus to Figaro.

When Pope Paul VI died in 1978, Luciani was elected pope on the second day of the conclave, chosen over conservative Guiseppe Cardinal Siri of Genoa and liberal Curia member Sergio Pignedoli. The warm, humble, and highly reluctant man from outside the Curia was hailed as “God’s candidate,” a handpicked surprise by the Holy Spirit. John Paul initially lived up to expectations by refusing to be crowned with the papal tiara or to be carried in the gestatorial chair. The public admired his evident holiness.

Yallop glorifies John Paul as a brilliant, strong-willed, decisive campaigner for justice—a saintly crusader. He praises Luciani’s literary skill and breadth of culture, telling us at least three times that he’d read Mark Twain. Yallop’s pope is a liberal reformer—even a friend of Hans Kiang— who was on the verge of reversing the Church’s position on contraception and cleaning up the Vatican Bank (not to mention flushing Masonic cardinals out of the Vatican).

Unfortunately, this image is rejected by Cornwell’s sources, both by hostile clerical observers and fond intimates. To the Roman clergy, John Paul was “a gauche and incompetent figure of fun.” An Australian reporter who tried writing his biography summed him up as “an extremely anxious, nervous little man.” His secretaries Rev. Diego Lorenzi (who came with him from Venice) and Rev. John Magee (whom he inherited from Pope Paul VI and who is now bishop of Cloyne, Ireland) both describe a terminally meek man. Magee tells a pathetic anecdote about finding John Paul huddled in a fetal position on his bed frantically praying the rosary because he had dropped some papers off his roof garden. He also insisted on serving as Magee’s altar boy three times.

Cornwell cites witnesses as diverse as John Paul’s long-time housekeeper and Leon-Joseph Cardinal Suenens on John Paul’s self-doubts. The huge responsibilities of the papacy overwhelmed him. His household recalls that “God, please take me away” was his daily prayer. (Intriguingly, he reportedly foresaw being replaced by a man he described as “The Foreigner”—later identified as Karol Cardinal Wojtyla).

According to Lorenzi, “Luciani wasn’t interested in big issues,” including financial matters. To Magee, “He was a man who worried about little, small things.” Yallop tries to wish away such opinions as hindsight, but they’re confirmed from too many directions.

Yallop’s thesis that John Paul was about to approve the birth-control pill and do it in a statement to an American congressional delegation visiting Rome is simply ludicrous. Popes don’t reverse major moral judgments on the spur of the moment, much less to visiting politicians. Although as patriarch of Venice, John Paul had urged pastoral lenience toward contraceptors and sent cheerful greetings to the first baby born by in vitro fertilization, he had also supported Humanae Vitae. His alleged disagreement on the pill rests on an unpublished report Luciani made to Paul VI.

Yallop’s second thesis that John Paul was going to clean house at the Vatican Bank on the basis of a few conversations is likewise untenable. His 33-day reign was deluged by papers from the secretariat of state—a situation that gave him no time to master the labyrinthine complexities of the banking system. In any event, he was a man noted for prudence and slow decision-making, according to his official biographer, Msgr. Guilio Nicolini. Yallop fails to consider that cardinals keeping secrets might have deliberately elected a man too mild to bother them, one whose health would deteriorate in office.

To speed up the timetable, Yallop claims that John Paul arrived in office harboring a grudge against Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, president of the Vatican Bank, for having facilitated the takeover of a Venetian Catholic bank by Roberto Calvi’s Banco Ambrosiano. (Marcinkus denies both the offense and the feud.) John Paul is also presumed to have believed a newspaper account published right after he took office that accused prominent prelates of being Masons.

Yallop sees a murder motive in the series of dismissals and new appointments John Paul was supposedly on the verge of making. He pictures the pope dying with a list of the new appointments clutched in his hands. Yallop claims the pope was a day away from sacking Marcinkus and his subordinates, shipping Sebastiano Cardinal Baggio out to be patriarch of Venice, and replacing Cardinal Villot with Cardinal Benelli as secretary of state. The targeted prelates had been named as Masons, so their Masonic brethren would be offended as well. Villot is also imagined to resent the imminent reversal of Humanae Vitae as a betrayal of Paul VI’s legacy. Predictably, Yallop adds Cardinal Cody of Chicago as a suspect because he was supposedly going to be removed for financial and other misdeeds.

But the Masonic angle is unproven, and discovering the scope of the Vatican Bank scandal in the time allotted is improbable. Villot was already slated to retire and died six months later. Would a cardinal kill for the right to name his successor? Cody is a red herring, brought in to trade on the gangster image of Chicago, a silly trick Yallop pulls with Marcinkus, too. No one heard the conversation between John Paul and Villot about personnel changes, and both papal secretaries insisted to Cornwell that the pope died with a booklet of sermons in his hands.

Was the Pope Poisoned?

Yallop fixed on digitalis as the poison, administered in liquid medicine that John Paul was taking for low blood pressure. Haifa teaspoon of digitalis would indeed cause a fatally frantic heartbeat. Essential to this theory is Yallop’s repeated assertion that the pope was otherwise in “perfect health,” so only poison could have stopped his strong heart. Unfortunately, Yallop neglects to mention the eye embolism the pope had suffered in 1975 and the blood thinner (probably warfarin) he subsequently took to prevent a recurrence. Switching these pills with placebos or simply forgetting to take them would have proven lethal within a few days. Additionally, John Paul’s niece and present papal press secretary, Joaquin Navarro-Valls—both physicians—confirm the severe swelling of the pope’s legs due to circulatory problems. The pope’s Venetian physician refused to talk to Cornwell and is unlikely to have spoken with Yallop.

As for opportunity, Yallop’s theory would require someone to penetrate the papal apartments and substitute digitalis without alerting the Swiss guards at both access points, plus the two secretaries and four housekeeping nuns inside. He doesn’t try to implicate the staff—not even disgruntled former papal valets—in spite of cruel whispers spread about Magee at the time.

Yallop also fails to consider where the papal medicines were stored or who administered them. Cornwell mentions the housekeeper, Sister Vincenza, bringing the pope unspecified “tablets” from the kitchen on his last day. She routinely dispensed medication with dinner. No new prescriptions were filled at the Vatican pharmacy during the pontificate.

Resolving the Contradictions

Unfortunately, errors and obfuscations by Vatican sources gave rumors room to grow. A key problem, from the initial report issued by Cardnal Villot to a memorandum from the Commission for Social Communications in 1984, was the Vatican’s prudish unwillingness to admit that the Holy Father had been found dead by Sister Vincenza and not by a secretary. The public might be scandalized by a nun—however elderly—in the papal bedroom.

Cornwell examines Yallop’s points of suspicion and refutes each one. To allow for a cleanup of the evidence, Yallop’s murder theory requires that the pope’s body be found at 4:30 or 4:45 A.M., one hour earlier than official reports estimated. He bases this on an early story by the Italian news service ANSA that garbled the time and misrepresented the layout of the papal apartments. Yallop also claims to have had testimony from Sister Vincenza to this effect but refused to show Cornwell his transcripts.

Both papal secretaries and a confidante of the late Sister Vincenza insist that the body was discovered about 5:30 A.M. The nun noticed that the coffee she had left outside the pope’s bedroom door a few minutes earlier, as per his morning routine, had not been touched. She went through two sets of doors and parted a curtain to find John Paul dead on his bed with a light on and reading material in his hands. Magee was summoned first, then Lorenzi. They found rigor mortis already beginning to set in and tore the pope’s cassock while preparing his private laying-out. This supports the official estimate for time of death as 11 P.M. the previous evening. Yallop’s theory requires the pope to be freshly dead at 4:30 A.M. since digitalis administered the night before would have taken hours to work.

The cause of death was listed with unseemly haste as myocardial infarction by Dr. Renato Buzzonetti, now Pope John Paul II’s personal physician. He had never examined John Paul I and asked no questions about symptoms. (Heart attack would be most unlikely to leave a victim in such a composed posture.) No autopsy was performed, as the last pope autopsied was Pius VII in 1830. Yallop suggests a “secret” autopsy while John Paul was lying in state, but what he refers to was a simple retouching of the corpse. Yallop claims no death certificate was issued; Cornwell reproduces it.

Yallop also claims that the undertakers were summoned at 5 A.M. before the official finding of the body, but this is based on an incorrect news story taken from garbled secondhand information. The Vatican carpool log shows the embalmers were sent for at 5:15 P.M. The procedure began about 7 P.M.

Yallop questions the disappearance of incriminating personal effects, supposedly removed by Cardinal Villot. He thinks John Paul’s slippers and glasses might have been stained with vomit caused by the digitalis poisoning. But Cornwell finds that the pope’s sister took them. His last will was a brief document bequeathing his goods to a Venetian convent, not a spiritual testament (as claimed by Yallop).

Yallop’s one damning datum was a Swiss Guard’s observation of Marcinkus on foot lurking near the papal residence at an unusually early hour on the morning of the pope’s death. But the guardsman, Hans Roggen, told Cornwell that his testimony was taken deceptively and misrepresented. Marcinkus was a demonstrably early riser and had driven in at his usual time. And contrary to Yallop’s accusation, Roggen had not been asleep at his post.

Having demolished Yallop’s evidence, Cornwell offers his own explanation. After conferring with a cardiac specialist and a forensic medicine expert, he rules out heart attack, congestive heart failure, and aneurysm in favor of pulmonary embolism as the cause of John Paul’s death. If the pope’s body is exhumed someday during a canonization process, an autopsy could clarify the cause of death, but this would never be permitted.

What Really Happened That Night?

Cornwell clinches his case with symptoms the pope suffered on his last day alive. After a normal morning, John Paul complained of feeling unwell after his siesta but didn’t permit Magee to call a doctor. While taking his daily walk that afternoon, he suffered a violent cough and pain—probably a minor embolism—but again forbade Magee to summon aid. That evening the pope conferred with Cardnal Villot for more than an hour in his study. They did not argue, according to Magee. Afterward, the pope reported great pain that soon passed. Again, he refused to consult a doctor. John Paul dined with his two secretaries just before 8 P.M. Death came up for discussion, and the pope prayed for resignation to death. After dinner, he rushed down the hall to take a telephone call from Giovanni Cardinal Columbo of Milan until 9:15. This run likely triggered the fatal embolism that struck after the pope went to bed. Cornwell summarizes events thus: “John Paul I wanted to die, the conditions conveniently prevailed, [and] the spectators did not rush forward to prevent him.”

After building a plausible case, Cornwell then offers a speculative reconstruction of what happened after the telephone call to account for contradictions in the witnesses’ testimony. Was Lorenzi out after dinner, or did he and/or Magee conduct the pope to his room after compline and call his attention to the newly active alarm buttons?

Cornwell assumes that Lorenzi was out until midnight while Magee stayed up late reading about papal deaths. Magee thought to check on the pope en route to his own room, saw the light on, and walked in to find the pope dead in a pitiful heap on the floor—an unseemly end. He waited for Lorenzi and together they propped the pope up on his bed with pillows as if reading. Without thinking to offer the last rites, they left the body to be found the next morning, not anticipating that Sister Vincenza would make the discovery first.

Though they hotly denied his reasoning, Cornwell suspects that the priests confected a triumph of image over truth—not even an embolism would strike fast enough to leave the dead pope still clutching papers. The tension between truth and image dogged Cornwell’s entire investigation. Evasion, gossip, and equivocation frustrated him at every turn, producing an account far sadder in its sinfulness than Yallop’s fanciful rant. For Cornwell, “the most obvious and shameful fact of all” is “that John Paul I died scorned and neglected by the institution that existed to save him.”


  • Sandra Miesel

    Sandra Miesel is a medievalist and author. She has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography, and has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. She is co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code with Carl E. Olson and The Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy with Catholic journalist and canon lawyer Pete Vere. She holds master's degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois.

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