Albino Luciani, known as smiling Pope John Paul I, died on Sept 28, 1978 after a papal reign of only 33 days. He was 65 years old.
Lack of clarity
The death of Albino Luciani (Oct 17, 1912 – Sept 28, 1978) has long been one of speculation, intrigue, conspiracy, and wild accusations involving the mafia and other (religious or governmental) organizations.
It didn’t help that the Vatican didn’t immediately try to denounce the gossip. It also didn’t help that the Vatican didn’t clarify Albino Luciani’s health issues.
For the longest time, the vagueness of the Vatican seemed to fuel the wild stories of hired killers, conspiracies, and poisoned materials. Even now many people feel we do not know the truth about Luciani’s death. I agree.
I remember that Luciani’s death was devastating for Roman Catholics. From all the news, I heard the least about his medical condition. As I grew older and read up about the smiling Pope, I felt continuously conflicted, lied to, even mocked as a reader. In some books, Luciani comes across as a no-nonsense boss who was going to revolutionize the Vatican. He had a plan. He was going to tackle corruption. Heads would roll, people would be replaced, and he would clean up all scandals. In other books, he was weak and humble to the point of being pathetic.
Many authors overwhelm their reader with everything they find out. It feels as if their goal is to show you what a great job they did putting that book together as opposed to inform you. Other books are just conspiracy-based. The angle that interested me most was and always will be, the medical one. When I came across John Cornwell’s book “A thief in the night” I was surprised by the simple set-up of the book and the clarity of the information.
This post is both a book review and the Case of the Month for December 2018. As we approach the Holidays, I thought it fitting to make Pope John Paul I’s death the Case of the Month.
The year 1978
1978 was a tragic year for the Vatican. In March of 1978, Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro and close friend of Pope Paul VI was kidnapped by the Red Brigades. On April 20, Aldo Moro directly appealed to his old friend to intervene like Pope Pius XII had when Professor Giuliano Vassalli was in the same situation. Paul VI begged the Red Brigades to let Moro go free. On May 9, 1978, the remains of Aldo Moro were found in a car in Rome, Italy. They shot him 10 times. A heartbroken Paul VI presided over his friend’s State funeral and Mass. Then, Pope Paul VI died on Aug 6, 1978. Tragedy struck again on Sept 28 with the death of his successor, Pope John Paul I.
The August 1978 Papal Conclave
From La Stampa, the Vatican Insider: “On 21 August, four days before the start of the Conclave, the Archbishop of Fortaleza, Brazilian cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, gave a blueprint for the ideal candidate for Pope: “A man of hope… he should not try to impose Christian solutions on non-Christians. He should be sensitive to social problems,” a man “who fulfils his ministry with patience and readiness to enter into dialogue… The new pope should be above all a good spiritual father, a good pastor… he must respect and encourage the collegiality of the bishops… He should also seek a new solution for birth control, that does not oppose the “Humanae Vitae” but continues it.” He seemed to describe Luciani.
Albino Luciani had informed the Papal Conclave that he did not want to be elected. If elected, he would decline the papacy. But in what is possibly the shortest conclave ever, he was elected. A Cardinal needs 75 votes to be elected Pope so two-thirds plus one to get the majority. On the first ballot, Luciani had 23 votes. In the second round, 53 votes and in the third, 92. He was the new Pope but begged for a fourth ballot. It could not be right. The fourth ballot showed he received 102 votes. If you search for these numbers online you will find slight differences. However, all point to a clear majority vote for Luciani. His papal reign started Aug 26, 1978.
The lack of truthfulness of Vatican Officials, the staff of the Papal Household, and the Secretariat of State all caused, contributed, and perpetuated ten misunderstandings.
These ten misunderstanding are explained in John Cornwell’ book. His book shows thorough research in chronological order. It lists all his contacts, how and where they met, who else was in the room, etc. Most importantly, it lacks speculation. Last, the author honestly tells you everything he didn’t find out.
If the Vatican had been truthful from the beginning, conspiracy theories would not have found a place in this world. The ten misunderstanding are:
- Who found the dead Pope?
- When was the Pope found?
- What is the official cause of death?
- What is the estimated time of the Pope’s death?
- When did the embalming take place and what legalities were involved?
- What, if anything, did the Pope held in his hand?
- What was the true state of the Pope’s health?
- Where are the Pope’s missing personal belongings?
- Was there a secret autopsy and if so, who performed it and where are the notes?
- When exactly were the morticians summoned?
Three sources of information
Before we address some of these ten misunderstandings, I wish to point you to three people who for me brought clarity to this case:
- C. Francis Roe, a cardiovascular expert. He passed away in April 2018.
- Bishop John Magee, who served as Secretary to Albino Luciani.
- Dr. Lina Petri, Albino Luciani’s niece. Lina is the daughter of Albino’s sister Nina.
1: Dr. C. Francis Roe
The cause of death according to the Vatican was myocardial infarction. Cornwell asked Dr. Roe to explain in simple English what myocardial infarction means. I quote (page 192): “a main branch of the arteries that nourish the heart, the coronary arteries, get shut off. These arteries provide the muscle of the heart with oxygen and nutrients, and if there’s no blood getting through, the muscle will die. Infarction simply means death of the muscle – the nutrients being blocked off.” You can find more information about myocardial infarction here.
Then Cornwell asked Dr. Roe to combine this with the position in which the Pope’s body was found. Would the official cause of death (myocardial infarction) then still be possible? Remember that the official version is that the Pope was found sitting in bed, his eyes still open, he was wearing glasses as if he was reading the documents he held in his hand, and he had a faint smile on his face.
Dr. Roe’s reaction: “There is something very suspicious about the posture you describe, whatever the cause of death. Dead bodies do not sit up smiling and reading in death. People have been known to die in their sleep, but I have never known, or seen, anybody die in this way in the middle of an activity like reading.”
Now the crucial piece of information: Dr. Roe estimates that the Pope would have had enough time to sense that something was very wrong. He would have made some sort of effort to get out of bed, to get help. Dr. Roe said “I’ve never known anybody die unresponsive to what was happening to them. Life, in my experience anyway, doesn’t just stop. And someone with a massive heart attack, or a massive brain hemorrhage, moves around or makes some reaction, because they would be in mortal discomfort if not severe pain.”
Dead people don’t smile
About the faint smile on the Pope’s face, Dr. Roe said that people don’t smile when they die. The facial muscle activity dies too and the face goes back to a resting position with the jaw dropping. That is normal. “It is hard to imagine somebody with a dropping jaw maintaining a smile at the same time.”
Dr. Roe: “There is always, unless they are already unconscious, some reaction to, or awareness of, what’s happening to them. The same would go for any of these poison theories; had he [the Pope] been poisoned he would be conscious of some terrible, mortal trauma going on.”
Abnormally coagulable blood
After Cornwell found out that Albino Luciani had a retinal thrombosis three years before his death, he asked Dr. Roe what this meant if you combine that with the Pope’s swollen ankles. Dr. Roe: “For some reason his blood was abnormally coagulable. The other main cause of swollen ankles would be congestive heart failure. But this is usually accompanied by breathlessness and consequent difficulty with mobility. Not only would his legs be full of fluid but also his lungs.”
Cornwell notes there were no reports that the Pope had trouble breathing. In fact, earlier on the evening that he died, he ran down the hall. To Dr. Roe that ruled out congestive heart failure.
One explanation that would fit was if the Pope took an anticoagulant and had neglected the systematic taking of that medication. Then his blood would have been more coagulant than before. That could have put him at an increased risk for another thrombosis.
Possible cause of death
Cornwell added that on the day of his death, Albino Luciani was walking around in the Papal apartment to aid his swollen ankles. While walking, his Secretary John Magee heard him coughing harshly and when he checked up on him, the Pope told him he had felt a sudden pain in his chest. Dr. Roe explained that by walking, the Pope probably dislodged a thrombus, a prop. This prop then travelled upwards to his lungs causing the sudden chest pain. The prop however, was not big enough to cause instant death but it is an indication, supportive of a massive and fatal pulmonary embolus that came later in the evening.
2: Bishop John Magee
Magee was Secretary to Pope Paul VI. He was asked to stay on by Albino Luciani. Magee’s first remarks about Luciani are telling for the attitude the entire Vatican seemed to have about Luciani: timid, awkward, out-of-place, and not familiar with Papal protocol. Instead of helping transition the Cardinal to become the Pope and Head of State, some chose to mock. Others chose to remain silent and inwardly criticize Luciani for being clueless. This is the mindset you need to remember as to me, this is the prelude to the Pope’s death: neglect.
From Magee we learn about the Pope’s daily rhythm: bedtime around 9pm, rising around 430am, bathroom routine while listening to an English language course on tapes, in the chapel by 530am, prayer, Secretary Don Diego Lorenzi joins them for mass at 7am, then they all had breakfast together. In the morning the Pope would work, break for lunch at 1230pm, take a short nap, and then take a two-hour walk in the rooftop gardens. Walking was his exercise to help his swollen ankles.
The day the Pope died
The day the Pope died he took a short nap but didn’t walk on the roof. He told Magee he wasn’t feeling well. Magee offered to call the Vatican Doctor Buzzonetti but the Pope said no, he’d walk inside the apartment for a bit. Magee didn’t tell anyone that the Pope didn’t feel well. No heads-up to anybody, nothing.
After Luciani became Pope, Dr. Buzzonetti spoke to Luciani’s doctor in Venice but according to Cornwell’s book no immediate exchange of medical files took place. This is incomprehensible as we are talking about a Head of State, the Pope.
Magee hears the harsh coughing as mentioned before. Magee rushes to the Pope. Luciani is standing near a table and explains he has chest pain. The Pope tells Magee to get Sister Vincenza Taffarel as she knows what to do. Sister Vincenza Taffarel had been with Albino Luciani for more than 10 years. She is a trained nurse. The Sister says this has happened before, grabs something (most likely an inhaler), and tends to the Pope. Magee wants to call the doctor, the Pope refuses, and he leaves it at that. This is something a doctor should know about especially as we are talking about a 65-year-old Head of State with sudden chest pains.
Despite the fact that the Pope told Magee he didn’t feel well Magee leaves the Papal apartments for about two hours without another Secretary present there to watch over the Pope. What happened in those two hours? Did Luciani cough some more?
The evening of his death
Around 630pm, Cardinal Villot comes the see the Pope. Villot tends to overload people with work. Despite the coughing and the chest pain, the Cardinal works with the Pope until 735pm. The other Secretary, Don Diego Lorenzi now arrives at the Papal apartments. Magee tells him what happened. Lorenzi wants to call the doctor. They both ask the Pope how he feels. The Pope answers he’s well and that he wants to go for supper. Neither of the Secretaries gave a heads-up to the Vatican doctor. I find this strange. They just lost Paul VI, Luciani is a senior, and he had unexplained chest pains.
The Pope eats well, says he feels well, and when Cardinal Colombo calls the Pope runs down the hall to pick up the phone. Dr. Roe thinks that this may have triggered a massive, fatal embolus.
His last bedtime routine
Magee says good night to the Pope in the Papal study. The Pope picks up a homily (a small brochure with a sermon on it) to read in bed. He did that often as inspiration for his own services the next day. It is now 920pm. As if he feels tragedy coming, Magee walks into the Papal bedroom showing the Pope the two alarm buttons. The Pope acknowledges that and says good night. Magee leaves him alone.
Lorenzi is out and Magee goes to the sisters in the kitchen. He tells them that he is worried but Sister Vincenza Taffarel calms him. She has seen this before. At this point I would expect a Secretary to show some interest in the Pope’s health and ask the sister: when did that happen, how did he feel afterwards, what was the diagnosis, what medication did you gave him, etc? Nothing. Cornwell’s book doesn’t mention anything like this. Instead it mentions that Magee talks about how terrible it would be to lose another Pope. With the sisters, they check if any Pope ever reigned less than 33 days.
Magee leaves the sisters around 10pm. He reads and sorts through his papers in his room until 11pm. All is quiet. He prepares for bed knowing he needs to be up at 5am. Did he ever consider checking up on the Pope one more time?
3: Dr. Lina Petri, MD
Lina Petri is the daughter of Albino’s sister Nina. She was also the first family member to see the dead Pope.
Lina paints a more balanced picture of the Pope as a human being: shy but strong, humble but determined. She spent a lot of time with him and he cared for her deeply. He never forgot his humble upbringings. Lina’s mom Nina never got an education. At the age of eleven, she had to work to help pay for Albino Luciani’s seminary. He never forgot.
In Cornwell’s book, Lina describes the scene: “His head was turned towards the door and looked as if he had been smiling at someone the moment he died. His face showed no sign of suffering.” Someone gave her a chair and she sat there for about 20min just staring at him. She noted his sleeves were torn. And then this thought: “I was convinced somehow in my own mind that he had died working at his desk.”
Lina told Cornwell that the missing personal items such as his slippers and glasses were not stolen as suggested in other books. One of Luciani’s sisters has them.
Cornwell discussed the Pope’s health. Lina confirmed Luciani had an eye thrombosis in 1975. “This is really significant because it means the blood doesn’t circulate properly.” She continues to explain the dangers of blood coagulation: “It indicates that what happened in the eye could occur in the leg, the intestines or, the pulmonary artery. If there is a precedent it is serious, and one must be very careful, because a person can no longer be considered in full health.”
The Vatican knew this so how could they have neglected Luciani as they did? Remember that Dr. Buzzonetti had spoken to Luciani’s doctor in Venice. He was aware of the eye thrombosis. So critical a detail yet nobody gets up, copies the medical files, and takes them straight to the Vatican’s medical bay. Luciani was aware a thrombosis could happen again and that he needed to take medications for the rest of his life, said Lina.
Lina’s explanation of a pulmonary embolism differs from Dr. Roe: “One is not aware of death with pulmonary embolism; it’s a question of a fraction of a second.” Dr. Roe had insisted a person feels it hence shows some reaction. I am still trying to gather reactions from others in the medical field about this.
Lina states that maybe due to the stress Luciani could have neglected to take his anticoagulants. Was his staff not there to remind him?
Lina also cleared up that Dr. Buzzonetti had never been Luciani’s doctor. He “had never seen him.” I understand that to mean that he never examined Luciani. And she continues “He was a Pope without a doctor to all intents and purposes. It was only a month, but it was a crucial month.”
This is what the author thinks happened that night: Magee watched over Pope Paul VI like a hawk and nursed him till his last breath. The same man now hears the new Pope complain of chest pains plus he commiserates with the sisters about short papal reigns.
How probable is it that Magee does not quickly check in with the new Pope before retiring to his own room?
If you have just lost a Pope and fear you might lose another, how likely are you to not quickly check? Even if it was just listening at the door for signs of breathing?
Is it possible that Magee did check, saw the lights were still on, went in, and found the Pope dead on the floor? The Pope was then too far away from the alarm buttons near the bed so that’s why they never heard the alarm go off. He never pushed the buttons.
Magee then waits for Lorenzi to return. They formed a plan based on panic and remorse for which Pope dies alone on the floor with one Secretary out and the other didn’t notice? How will they ever explain that yes, they knew the Pope complained about chest pains but no, they didn’t give the Vatican Health Services the heads-up?
Cornwell thinks the Secretaries staged the Pope’s death scene. Lorenzi said in interviews the Pope’s back and legs were still warm. That goes to time of death. They took off his cassock. The Pope still wore his day shirt and underwear. They have trouble dressing him and accidentally tore the sleeves. This is what Lina saw, the torn sleeve. The men then placed the Pope half-dressed in bed and propped him up with pillows until his chin fell to his chest slightly to the right. To make his death look sudden, they put his glasses on his nose and the homily in his right hand. A sudden death but it happened while the Pope was going about his normal routine. Hence, nobody knew something was wrong.
Cornwell asked Lorenzi if the Pope was not really found on the bedroom or bathroom floor and was then moved to the bed. His response and I quote: “It is not possible to pick up a dead body by oneself!”
After staging the death-scene, a new round of panic sets in: how do you eventually tell people that the Pope died? If the Pope died suddenly during his normal routine then maybe he should be found during his normal routine. Maybe they thought that if he doesn’t show up in the chapel the next morning that it would set the discovery into motion.
What ultimately set the discovery into motion was that Sister Vincenza Taffarel did not leave the Pope’s coffee outside in the hallway as the Vatican made us believe. She actually enters the Pope’s bedroom as she always has to bring him coffee. She is the one who finds him dead in bed.
The hypothesis continues with the sisters calling Magee and Lorenzi for help. Magee calls for Vatican Doctor Buzzonetti. What he thinks about this death I do not know but after talking to Cardinal Villot and the two Secretaries, Buzzonetti sets a diagnosis of myocardial infarction. Remember that Lina said he never saw the Pope and I take it that meant he never examined him. He doesn’t now either. He doesn’t consult any other doctor and sets the cause of death without an autopsy.
In the press, the Vatican feels the need to hide the fact that it was Sister Vincenza Traffarel who found the Pope dead in bed. No woman can be inside the Pope’s bedroom so Magee is listed as finding the Pope.
Like Cornwell, I wish to believe that Magee did check on Albino Luciani especially after losing Paul VI, knowing the new Pope had chest pains, and especially after having heard him cough so badly. I do believe that Sister Vincenza Traffarel walked in as usual with coffee and found the Pope dead in his bed.
Dr. Roe said dead people do not smile. I did an online search for “what happens to my muscles if I die” and all medical sites came up with this: “At the moment of death, all of the muscles in the body relax, a state called primary flaccidity. Eyelids lose their tension, the pupils dilate, the jaw might fall open, and the body’s joints and limbs are flexible.” Remember what Dr. Roe said: “It is hard to imagine somebody with a dropping jaw maintaining a smile at the same time.”
In hindsight you have to wonder what the Cardinals were thinking at conclave. Your next Pope is not just the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Roman Catholic Church. Since 1929, the Pope is also Head of State of Vatican City, a city-state entirely enclaved within Rome, Italy. To be qualified as a candidate you would want a person with experience in diplomacy, having managed a city of a good size, and experience on the international stage as your next Pope is your Head of State. You also need a candidate with the physical stamina to travel and endure the long hours of work.
I can see why based on fidelity and integrity they voted for Albino Luciani. But from what I read about him, he was not a CEO and that is seems to be a huge part of being a Pope.
From all the books, you get the feeling that Pope John Paul I was blamed for being exactly what they found so lovable about him at conclave: he was a simple man. And when that simple man did indeed turn out to be a simple man who needed guidance to transition into a Head of State, all failed him. Cornwell’s book will fill you in on those details. I do not mention those here as the medical angle is my main interest.
No Head of State, in fact nobody, should be left alone after complaining of sudden chest pains. The book gives you the impression that Luciani was overwhelmed with work. It is possible that due to stress he may have forgotten to take his anticoagulant. However, he knew the risks and Sister Vincenza Traffarel was a nurse.
I do not think there was a conspiracy to kill Luciani or that the mafia killed him. Neither do I believe that a hired killer passed by the Swiss Guards. Luciani had not been Pope long enough to make the kind of waves that sets organizations into motion to plot murder. And, I have not read about one person who had a motive to kill the Pope either themselves or, through a hired killer.
The Vatican isn’t blameless in Luciani’s death. I do believe they dropped the ball in not tending to its new Pope properly. In that sense it is guilty of neglect.
I hope that one day the Vatican will come clean about the exact cause of death of Albino Luciani and his health. Until that day, the cloud of suspicion remains.
What also remains is the dream of Pope John Paul I. After finding his way, what kind of Pope would he have been? Would his Papal reign have been more or less inclusive than Paul VI’s? How would he have dealt with financial scandals, challenges to the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings, how would he have encouraged people to do research, and what would his message have been when it comes to evolution? Would he have embraced science, technology, and medical advances? We will never know.
There are many books written about the Pope’s death and I encourage you to look them up. I am aware I do not mention or link to other books here as I normally would do with the Case of the Month. As this post is also a book review, I chose not to do that.
John Cornwell wrote an excellent book. He discusses much more than I covered in this post however, I wrote about the parts that interest me most. Highly recommended reading!
In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cases. These posts are not an in-depth analysis and of course, more information can be found online and in newspaper archives. The goal of this particular post is to remind people that we still do not officially know why this Head of State, this Pope, died.
Thank you for remembering Albino Luciani, smiling Pope John Paul I with us.
John Cornwell “A thief in the night; life and death in the Vatican”