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 CNS Story:

VATICAN LETTER June 5, 1989 (1,170 words) Backgrounder.


By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (NC) -- The most popular book being passed around the Vatican these days is providing bittersweet reading for Curia officials.

The sweetness comes in seeing discounted, in as final a way as possible, speculation about a "plot" to murder Pope John Paul I, who died in 1978 after only 34 days in office.

The touch of sourness lies in the way the Vatican is sometimes described in 300 pages of narrative. It is a portrait with as many warts as beauty marks, drawn in part by Curia officials.

The book, "A Thief in the Night," by British author John Cornwell, was encouraged by the Vatican and received the full and open cooperation of many Vatican officials -- including that of Pope John Paul II, according to the author.

That alone makes it unique among the many volumes written about the brief reign of Pope John Paul I.

In one big way, the Vatican's cooperation was productive: The book dismantles, in devastating fashion, the murder theory made popular in 1984 by David Yallop's best seller, "In God's Name." As Cornwell methodically interviews the main "witnesses," including those cited in Yallop's book, the would-be poisoning plot dissolves into a pool of factual mistakes, false suppositions, misquotations and missing motives.

U.S. Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, described as a prime suspect in "In God's Name," ably defends himself in the new book. It hardly seems necessary, though, because the accusations against him seem to fall apart by themselves.

But Archbishop Marcinkus spent some 14 hours talking to Cornwell, and his reported comments at times provide an unflattering view of the church's central administration.

In the archbishop's words, Vatican City is like "a village of washerwomen" who spend their days gossiping about other people's problems, "squeezing all the dirt out" because "there's nothing else to talk about."

"It's supposed to be a place where you find joy" and love. Instead, "you get three or four priests gathered together and they're criticizing other people," he is quoted as saying.

The archbishop, who is head of the Vatican bank and propresident of Vatican City State, told National Catholic News Service that the book was "substantially accurate." The Vatican has not officially commented on the work, published in late May.

In the book, Archbishop Marcinkus expresses discomfort with the "exaggerated bureaucracy" and gossipy environment he says he has experienced firsthand during his 20 years at the Vatican.

"This is the reason why I don't mix in a lot of these places, because somebody gives you stories, you've got to tell stories back. I don't want to work for J. Edgar Hoover, pick up dirt -- pass it on," Archbishop Marcinkus is quoted as saying. The archbishop later said this quotation was slightly wrong -- that he was referring to the Hoover vacuum cleaner, not the former head of the FBI.

Archbishop Marcinkus, who for years organized foreign visits for Pope Paul VI, described how he had to referee Curia quarrels over who got to sit next to the pope on the airplane and added: "On these trips I'm sure I made an enemy or two among our own people."

Besides Archbishop Marcinkus, Cornwell was eventually given interviews with Pope John Paul I's two private secretaries, his undertakers, his niece, officials at the Vatican pharmacy, Vatican Radio and the Vatican press office, and other assorted Vatican officials and employees.

U.S. Archbishop John P. Foley, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, helped set up interviews and arrange meetings after the author provided a letter of recommendation from Cardinal George Basil Hume of Westminster, England, and after the Vatican secretary of state approved the project.

Sometimes help from above was necessary. When he had trouble lining up an interview with the Vatican doctor, Renato Buzzonetti, Cornwell was told to come to a papal Mass at dawn. Afterward, Cornwell relates, he was greeted by Pope John Paul II, who told him: "You have my support and blessing in this work of yours."

The pope's Polish secretary then assured him, "Everything will be all right now."

The pope, Archbishop Marcinkus explained later to Cornwell, had wanted to get a look at him before directing the doctor to cooperate with the author. Eventually, Cornwell got his interview with the reluctant Dr. Buzzonetti.

Throughout the book's pages, the Vatican sometimes comes off as a setting for comedy.

Bishop John Magee, secretary to Pope John Paul I, related that one day the pope's personal physician was expected to arrive from Venice. Bishop Magee instructed Swiss Guards at the Vatican gates to admit the doctor, a tall man with a beard.

By coincidence, that very afternoon a madman matching that description walked in off the street and demanded to see the pope. He was shown through with ceremony and taken up to the third floor of the apostolic palace just as the pope was leaving his apartment. The man burst out of the elevator, fell at the pope's feet and started kissing his toes. The pope screamed, "Get him off! Get him out of here!"

Regular Vatican journalists are seen as less than serious at times. The author discovered, for example, that the false report that Pope John Paul I had died reading "The Imitation of Christ" -- at one point reported even by Vatican Radio -- was made up as a joke in the Vatican press room.

Another journalist nonchalantly, and wrongly, reported that the papal undertakers had received a call before the pope's body was discovered -- which later became a key point in murder theories. In the book, the undertakers themselves -- two brothers -- describe their decades of experience in Abbott-and-Costello-like dialogue, mixing up pontiffs, papal funerals and times of death.

The portrait of Pope John Paul I that emerges from this book is touching and at times sad. Bishop Magee recalls how on three occasions the pope asked to serve his secretary's Mass. Bishop Magee agreed to this unusual act of humility.

The "smiling pope," according to Bishop age and others closest to him, felt unwell and talked repeatedly of dying. The pope questioned why the College of Cardinals had chosen him and spoke of "the foreigner" who would replace him.

One of the book's most striking anecdotes comes from Bishop Magee, who relates how on the evening of his death the pope's dinnertime conversation was fixed on dying and the need to accept it. Bishop Magee was so struck that, later that night, he joined nuns from the papal household in the kitchen and thumbed through the Vatican yearbook, looking for papacies that had lasted fewer than 34 days.

The next morning, the pope was found dead in bed.

Cornwell concludes that, given the signs of illness, the Vatican might have done more to prevent his passing. Vatican officials reject that reading of events, noting that the pope himself protested that he did not need a doctor.

That issue, too, is one reason why this book is seen as a mixed blessing in Vatican City.


Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
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