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Chapter 46

John Paul I
26 August 1978 — 28 September 1978


The brief reign of a mere 34 days of Pope John Paul I meant that he had no time to make any significant impact upon the Papacy.

Albino Luciani was born in Forno di Canali on October 17, 1912. He took a dual name for the first time in Papal history in honor of John XXIII who created him a bishop and Paul VI who appointed him a cardinal.

One hundred and eleven cardinals attended the Conclave. Seventy-five votes were required for election. At the first ballot Luciani received less than one third of that number of votes—twenty-three. The Archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, the Curia’s favorite, had topped the voting with twenty-five. Cardinal Sergio Pignedoli, a close friend of Paul VI, had scored eighteen; Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, Archbishop of Porto Alegre, Brazil, twelve; and Cardinal Sebastino Baggio, nine. Even Karol Wojtyla received a few votes. The second ballot saw Siri thirty-five, Luciani twenty, Pignedoli, the bookmaker’s choice, fifteen and Lorscheider twelve. It was on the third ballot that Luciani’s stocks soared. He had gathered sixty-eight votes. Siri had dropped to fifteen and Pignedoli to eleven. Only three cardinals received votes on the fourth and final ballot—Luciani ninety-nine, Siri ten and Lorscheider one. That single vote for Lorscheider was confidently believed to have been cast by Luciani.

Luciani was appointed a bishop in December 1958 as Bishop of Vittorio Veneto. On December 15, 1969, he was appointed Archbishop of Venice largely due to popular demand, and a cardinal on March 5, 1973. The five popes between Pius X and him had all worked either as scholars or diplomats. But like Pius X, John Paul I was from a pastoral background. When, as Cardinal Albino Luciani, he was elected pope, there was general satisfaction in the Roman Catholic Church.

His sudden, unexpected death after such a brief term of office, from what was said to be a heart attack, despite the fact that no autopsy was performed, led to numerous conspiracy theories. The best known evaluation was that of English author, David Yallop, in his book, In God’s Name, London, 1984. The general theory of this book was that Cardinal Luciani was elected pope because the Curia judged that it could easily manipulate him. Yallop theorized that when John Paul I showed himself to be a man of unwilting integrity he was murdered at the behest of wicked men of the Roman Curia. Of course, in the absence of an autopsy report and there being no confession from any theoretical perpetrator, all that Yallop offered was a web of rumors, suspicion and circumstantial occurrences.

A joke around the Vatican circulates that the most important institution there is the Sacred Congregation for the Dispersion of Rumors. In company with this rare touch of humor is the question—"Can anything be believed in the Vatican that is not proclaimed first by rumor?" Jokes sometimes possess a measure of truth, as do rumors.

What Yallop’s book did document was a level of corruption of undreamed proportions within the Vatican Bank led by Bishop Paul Casimir Marcinkus, the American Chief Executive of the bank to whose Lithuanian ancestry Yallop referred.

The book also cast a cloud over Paul VI’s administration, for Marcinkus was promoted during his pontificate and was thought to be in line for elevation to cardinal, until the Bishop’s highly questionable banking operations were unmasked.

Yallop was also scathing in his revelation of priestly sexual improprieties in high places. The Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago’s relationship with a parishioner was extensively explored and exposed. Cardinal John Patrick Cody was little loved by Chicago Catholics. He ruled the archdiocese as a despot and many calls for his release from office had been received in Rome. Paul VI even considered bowing to these requests, but eventually decided to leave this Papal embarrassment in place.

Cody had been Bishop of New Orleans prior to his elevation to the see of Chicago. One New Orleans priest recalled,

When that son-of-a-bitch was given Chicago, we threw a party and sang the Te Deum [a hymn of thanksgiving]. As far as we were concerned, our gain was Chicago’s loss. (David Yallop, In God’s Name, Bantam Books, 1984, p. 187)

Yallop reported (page 188) that,

In the years that followed Cardinal Cody’s appointment to Chicago it became fashionable in the Windy City to compare him with Mayor Richard Daley, a man whose practices in running the city were democratic only by accident. There was one basic difference. Every four years Daley was, at least in theory, answerable to the electorate. . . . Cody had not been elected. Short of a very dramatic action from Rome, he was there for life.

The archdiocese possessed assets of more than one billion dollars, but obtaining an accurate statement of finances from the wily cardinal proved to be all but impossible—a sure sign either of incompetence or, more seriously, misappropriation. Some of these funds were traced to the Vatican Bank, where his friend Bishop Marcinkus presided. During Cody’s more than one hundred trips to Rome he distributed lavish gifts to bishops whom he judged could assist him.

But, despite his largesse, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith received so many letters of complaint from the clergy, nuns and laity of Chicago that Archbishop Jean Hamer, who headed the Congregation, had to take notice. But eventually, it appears, he put the matter of the removal of a cardinal in the "too hard basket."

But Yallop’s claim that Cody was a co-conspirator in the postulated murder of John Paul I remains undocumented.

What is documented is that when John Paul II arrived at O’Hare International Airport in October 1979 on his first visit to the United States as pope, Cody presented the pope with a personal gift, a box containing $50,000.

It was not until the United States government in September 1980 launched an official investigation of Cody, investigating the diversion of church funds of one million dollars to his "friend" Helen Wilson, and it was discovered that he had secretly paid her a salary for many years and later a pension, providing her also with a $90,000 home in Florida, that the news broke publicly after a federal grand jury served Cody with several subpoenas in January 1981. Cody’s defense was "This is not an attack on me. It is an attack on the entire Church." This was simply self-serving rhetoric. Many of the almost two and a half million Roman Catholics in the archdiocese thought otherwise. The shame for Roman Catholicism in Chicago was eased when Cody died of a heart attack in April 1982. No doubt the Vatican breathed a little easier too.

Despite possessing no banking experience, Paul Marcinkus, consecrated a bishop by Paul VI, was immediately appointed Secretary of the Vatican Bank, and in practice its head, since the titular head was Cardinal Alberto di Jorio, who at eighty-four years of age was too advanced in years to run the day-to-day operations of the bank. Marcinkus had been a close associate of Paul VI, travelling with him on many of the Pope’s overseas trips, acting as interpreter and an advisor on security matters. He proved to be a poor choice for a post requiring the strictest standard of fiscal integrity.

In the contemporary corruption in Italy only a man who displayed much fidelity could resist the pressures of the wealthy and disreputable bankers of the country who would permit nothing to stand in the way of adding to the bottom line of their financial statements.

Marcinkus became embroiled with men who were to make headlines in the press of the world, men who freely intermingled with the Italian Mafia and pursued ruthless fiscal courses.

Men such as Michele Sindona, Roberto Calvi and Licio Gelli came within Marcinkus’ orbit. None were men of good character. Further, in 1971 Marcinkus accepted a post on the Board of Banco Ambrosiano Overseas, located in the Bahamas. This had been set up by Sindona and Calvi and these men were not slow to use Paul Marcinkus’ name in order to provide an ambience of credibility in their otherwise questionable financial dealings.

On June 17, 1982, Calvi’s body was found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge over the Thames River; the cause, murder or suicide, was never determined. Sindona was sentenced to twenty-five years imprisonment and fined more than $200,000 by a United States court on June 13, 1980. Gelli was arrested in Switzerland pending extradition procedures to return him to Italy for trial. He escaped from the Swiss prison on August 10, 1983. Such were the banking associates of Marcinkus.

His leadership of the Vatican Bank was so full of unethical activities, unanswerable to Italian authorities, that some have marvelled that the financial structure of Italy did not collapse. Yet John Paul II retained him in his post. He was involved in the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, which had boasted that it wielded so much influence that it controlled the Milan Stock Exchange. Marcinkus was also involved in the sale of Banco Cattolica del Veneto to Calvi.

That corruption was rife in the Vatican Bank is indisputable. What is in serious doubt is that John Paul I, seeking to cleanse the Bank, proposed to replace Marcinkus and paid for that intention with his life.

It is likely that we shall never be able to verify or totally dispel Yallop’s claims. Even those who have attempted to counter them, have been bereft of absolute proof.

That John Paul I’s brief reign upon the Papal throne contributed nothing significant to the healing of the deadly wound is one matter which is beyond dispute, as was the fact that he took over a Vatican administration that called into serious question the adjective in the designation, Holy See.


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