Bronx, NY, December 1, 2015 – Pope John Paul I is often thought of as the “unknown Pope.” His life and death have been reduced to fodder for conspiracy theorists. But new details about his life, soon to be published in the papers of a recent conference, seem set to change that. Among the revelations: A priest who was at the Vatican on the morning John Paul I’s body was found gives some unknown medical details on the possible cause of his death; the late Pope’s niece comments on his health and debunks the murder conspiracy theories; and an historian uncovers then-Bishop Luciani’s previously unsuspected role in the writing of one of the most important documents of Vatican II.
John Paul I was born Albino Luciani to a poor family in the northern Italian village of Canale d’Agordo on October 17, 1912, and was ordained in 1935. Throughout his life as a priest, bishop and cardinal, he was deeply concerned for the poor and the workers. When he was elected Pope on August 26, 1978, he refused to be crowned with a tiara. As Pope, he was loved by the whole world for his captivating smile and his simple speaking style. He died suddenly just a month after his election, on September 28. The cause for his beatification was begun in 2003.
The international conference, called “The True Pope John Paul I,” was organized by a group that has since become The Pope John Paul I Association, and that is now editing the conference papers for publication.
Fr. Joseph Curran, now pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Watertown, MA, related his experiences in September 1978, when as a young priest he accompanied a group of pilgrims to Rome. He and his group were among the very first to be admitted to the Sala Clementina, where the Pope’s body was lying on a bier. He said: “You could clearly see he was not shaven, and his hands were discolored in places, and the side of his face was as if he were blushing.” He said that some doctors among the pilgrims were looking at the body and commenting on the possible cause of his death: “They would say: ‘Oh look at this finger, look at this vein, it’s obvious — it’s a stroke.’ . . . They said, ‘Look at the right hand, look at his index finger, at the discoloration on the side of his face.’” Fr. Curran added, “It was obvious they had just taken the body from the bed, dressed it, and then brought it and put it on the platform . . . I think the cardinals were very anxious to stop any speculation about what had happened, by just showing you what they found.” They wanted to prove that there was no cover-up, but the Vatican “mishandled the public statements and it got all messed up.”
Pia Luciani, the Pope’s niece, debunked the murder theory. She denounced those like David Yallop (In God’s Name), who wrote books in search of “easy profits.” She pointed out that one of Yallop’s main contentions, that Secretary of State Cardinal Jean Villot participated in the murder plot because he wanted to maintain his position of power in the Vatican, is deeply flawed. “In reality my uncle told me that he had begged [Villot] almost on his knees for him to agree to be reconfirmed in his post, at least temporarily, until he succeeded in finding someone just as capable who could replace him!
“All this [speculation] falls to make way for the truth of a death that was indeed premature and sudden, but certainly due to natural causes. And it is our conviction, my family’s and mine, in fact, for us it has always been clear, that it was a natural death.” They believe that the cause of death was thrombosis or an embolism, in line with his medical records.
She also discussed the theory of John Cornwell (A Thief in the Night), who has said that Luciani was not up to the demands of the papacy: “He possessed a very strong character, in spite of his apparent fragility; I had seen him capable of carrying very heavy burdens of administration, and facing great problems, with courage, capability, strength of mind, and above all, with great trust in Providence, both during his the time of his episcopate in Vittorio Veneto, and in Venice as Patriarch. He had faced even the weight of the papacy, considered by some to be too heavy for him, in the same way, demonstrating that he was perfectly capable of carrying it and in a capable and intelligent way — there are many positive testimonies in this regard from his co-workers in the Vatican!”
Dr. Lori Pieper, one of the founders of the Association, spoke on “A Prophet as Pope,” in which she demonstrated how John Paul I anticipated the work of his successors. One was his emphasis on the evangelization of a now increasingly secularized Europe, long before the New Evangelization of John Paul II.
Another was in the area of inter-religious dialogue, especially with the Jewish people. Pieper described the hints that Luciani gave in a friendly conversation with Abramo Piattelli, the chief Rabbi of Venice, which suggest that while attending Vatican II as bishop of Vittorio Veneto, he took part in talks with Cardinal Bea and other theologians who collaborated on the writing of Nostra Aetate, containing the Council’s famous declaration on the Jewish people, and that he had argued strongly for removal of the term “deicide” from Christian language in regard to the Jews. “This is particularly important,” says Dr. Pieper, “because it is generally thought that Luciani took little part in Vatican II; after all, he never gave any speeches from the Council floor, and made only one written intervention. But the evidence of his behind-the-scenes role fits his personality, because though he was eager to be a part of the Council’s work, he was modest and disliked calling attention to himself.”
Luciani was known especially for his support for the Church’s social teaching. Loris Serafini, a local historian, working from the archives in Canale D’Agordo, spoke about the influence on him of Fr. Antonio Della Lucia, the parish priest in Canale from 1860 to 1898, who was a legendary exponent of socially conscious Catholicism. In 1871 Fr. Antonio founded a cooperative food store; in 1872 he organized the first cooperative dairy in Italy. He taught Albino’s mother her catechism and oversaw the priestly formation of Fr. Filippo Carli, the parish priest in Canale D’Agordo in Albino’s childhood, who in turn formed him for the priesthood. In this way he became an early influence on Luciani’s thought on Catholic social teaching.
Other contributors included: Stefania Falasca, the writer of the Positio for John Paul I’s beatification, who discussed the significance of his simple speaking and writing style; Paul Spackman, who presented a paper titled “Even More a Mother: Albino Luciani on Women in the Church and in Society”; and Rabbi Marc Gellman, who spoke on friendship in ecumenical relations and the importance to this effort of prophetic figures like John Paul I.
The Pope John Paul I Association is presently running a fund-raising campaign on Indiegogo through December 16, called “Help Rescue Pope John Paul I.” It will finance, among other things, the publication of the conference papers and the audio of the talks. “This will be a wonderful way to help people get to know this little-known Pope,” says Dr. Pieper.