He died, one Jesuit said, ‘like a flower in the field that closes at night’. Some time in the evening of 28 September 1978 Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I, abandoned his tenure of the throne of St Peter. He had been Pope for only 33 days. The news was entirely unexpected. Unlike his predecessor, John Paul had shown no signs of ill-health during his brief reign, and very soon it began to be rumoured that he had been poisoned. Having inadvertently landed themselves with the wrong man for the job, a man who seemed to be about to sanction birth control and who had once remarked that God was more of a mother than a father, the Curia, it was said, had removed him by the traditional means – the only means open to them. Most of these rumours were not, at first at least, meant to be taken very seriously. The behaviour of the Vatican hierarchy, like that of the Government of Italy, is frequently an object of ridicule – or of shame – to most of those who are compelled to live with it. But there certainly were some peculiar circumstances surrounding John Paul’s death. The cause of death was given as ‘myocardial infarction’ – heart failure – but this diagnosis was supported only by an external examination carried out by Renato Buzzonetti, deputy head of the Vatican health service, a man who, on his own admission, had little knowledge of the Pope’s previous medical history and who seems to have refused to put his name to any death certificate.
Myocardial infarction, as Buzzonetti must have known, can only be properly diagnosed by an autopsy. The Vatican embalmers had been summoned in the early hours of the morning, presumably so that they could go to work before anyone asked for an autopsy: but John Paul’s body was in fact first put on display at noon in its natural state. Because someone in the Vatican believed that an autopsy might become inescapable? In the event, no autopsy was performed and when embalming began, at six that evening, the embalmers were instructed not to remove any blood from the body, something which considerably complicated their task, and which Yallop darkly suggests was done because even a small quantity of blood ‘would have been sufficient for a forensic scientist to establish the presence of any poisonous substances’. Some of the Cardinals who had gathered in Rome now began to demand an autopsy – although by then the embalming fluid would have destroyed all evidence of poisoning – and on 1 October the conservative Corriere della Serra ran a frontpage article asking ‘in humble words why there was no autopsy’. The Church’s reply, that the Apostolic Convention of 1975 forbade autopsies being performed on dead Popes, turned out to be untrue. On the evening of 3 October, a group of 150 pilgrims from Luciani’s birthplace, who had been granted a private view of their dead compatriot, were suddenly hurried out of St Peter’s. Large crimson screens were then set up around the body, ‘preventing any onlooker who chanced to be within St Peter’s’ (chanced to be after the Basilica had been closed for nearly an hour?) ‘from seeing what they were doing’, and a team of doctors went to work on the body. What they did no one knows, but, Yallop says, ‘many believed’ them to have performed an autopsy – though why they should have done this at such a late stage and on an embalmed body he does not say. Faced with what the journalist Vittoria Zucconi called a ‘vast dissatisfaction with official sources’, the Curia made hurried preparations for the next Conclave. The voting began on 15 October and two days later the Church had another leader. It was, as the London Times said, ‘the Year of the Three Popes’.
That much, at least, is common knowledge. Yallop claims, however, and his claims have been fully substantiated by the witnesses he interviewed, that there were other mysterious circumstances surrounding Luciani’s death. John Paul was discovered by a nun, Sister Vincenza, at 4.45 in the morning. Fifteen minutes later, Cardinal Jean Villot, the Vatican Secretary of State, arrived. He removed a bottle of medicine the Pope had been taking for low blood pressure, some papers that were clutched in his hands, his will from his study desk and, inexplicably, his slippers and glasses. None of these things has been seen again. When the Vatican’s official bulletin was issued at 7.27, the time of the death had been moved forward to 5.30 a.m. and it was now claimed that the body had been found by Father John Magee, one of the Pope’s private secretaries. Another bulletin also claimed that when he died, Luciani had had a copy of The Imitation of Christ in his hands. Later, however, the press was told that the Vatican was ‘now in a position to state’ that what Luciani had in fact been holding was ‘certain sheets of paper containing his personal writings such as homilies, speeches, reflections and various notes’. On hearing this, ‘some reporters openly laughed.’ What Yallop claims he was holding was something different again and, for Villot and his cronies, far less innocuous.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.