John Paul I, the pope remembered for his mysterious death

VATICAN CITY — Stefania Falasca remembers the moment the black telephone on the wall of her home rang on the morning of September 29, 1978.

Falasca, who was 15 at the time, remembers that his father answered and heard the voice of his uncle, a priest who worked in the Vatican, who told him: “The pope is dead!”

“But he was already dead!” his father responded excitedly.


Like so many others around the world, his father had a hard time understanding how it could be that John Paul I, elevated to the papacy a month earlier –on August 26, 78–, could have died and initially he thought they were talking about Pablo VI, who had died in early August at the age of 80.

Albino Luciani (John Paul I) is remembered for his mysterious death shortly after being named pope.

Falasca, an Italian journalist for a Catholic publication, has been trying for a decade to convince the Vatican that he deserves to be sanctified for the way he lived his faith, as a priest, bishop, cardinal and, for a very short time, as pope.

On Sunday, Pope Francis will beatify John Paul I, the last formality before possible sainthood.

The beatification process can begin five years after the death of a pontiff. In the case of John Paul I, 25 years passed.

John Paul I “was a figure overshadowed by two pontificates,” Falasca said. He was referring to the pontificates of his successor, John Paul II, one of the longest-serving popes, and his predecessor Paul VI, who in his 15 years as pope presided over the Second Vatican Council, which modernized the church with its reforms. . Both were sanctified.

“No historian was interested” in John Paul I, Falasca said, because of the brevity of his pontificate.

Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s “devastating” policy of forcing indigenous children into boarding schools, saying it destroyed native cultures.

Writers looking for a gripping plot, however, were interested.

The sudden death of Luciani, whose body was found in his room at the Apostolic Palace and who was known as “the smiling pope” for his optimistic expression, immediately aroused suspicion.

In the first hours after his death, the Vatican offered different versions. First he said he was found by a secretary, then he was found by a nun bringing him breakfast.

“They could have said from the outset that she was a nun and no doubts would have arisen. On the contrary, they would have given more guarantees,” said Falasca.

A nun, Sister Vincenza, was a friend of Luciani’s family.

Pope Francis asked that these tragedies not happen again.

The nuns said they had been told by the Vatican not to reveal that they found him for fear it might be thought inappropriate for a woman to enter the pope’s room.

At the same time a huge financial scandal was brewing involving an Italian bank that had ties to the Vatican bank.

There were suspicious links between a deceased American prelate who chaired the Vatican bank and an Italian financier known as “God’s banker” whose body was found hanging under a London bridge in 1982, in what was cataloged. like a homicide.

Was Luciani about to put an end to the activities of officials linked to the secret finances of the Holy See? Was he waging a battle against corruption in the Vatican bureaucracy?

They were shot to death in a temple in the state of Chihuahua.

“In the Name of God: An Investigation of the Assassination of John Paul I,” a book by David A. Yallop published in 1984, sold millions of copies.

The Vatican said Luciani died of a heart attack after suffering chest pains before going to bed the night before, to which he paid no attention.

But Yallop, who stressed that an autopsy had not been performed, concluded that he had been poisoned by individuals associated with a secret Masonic lodge linked to the Vatican and its bank.

In 1987, another British journalist, John Cornwell, came to the Vatican to investigate reports that there had been an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Yugoslavia. But he found that a Vatican bishop asked him to write “the truth” about the death of John Paul I and promised to give him access to the pontiff’s doctor, his embalmers and other persons of interest.

Cornwell wrote a best-selling book, “A Thief in the Night,” in which he said that Luciani had “deceased by negligence.”

Pope Francis arrives in a wheelchair during the audience of the Participants to the Plenary Assembly of the International Union of Superiors General in the Paul VI Hall of the Vatican, on May 5, 2022.

“Within the Vatican there was psychological neglect,” Cornwell said in a telephone interview. “They gave him a lot of work without proper assistance. They didn’t take good care of his health.”

“In other words, they didn’t respect him, they thought he was a derisive pope, they compared him to Peter Sellers,” Cornwell said, referring to the British actor who often played clumsy characters.

Cornwell said some people were disappointed that no evidence of a murder had been found, including a bishop.

“In the Vatican I ran into people who were convinced” that there was a conspiracy to eliminate Luciani.

Falasca believes that John Paul I “is not being beatified because he was a pope.”

“He made a life with an exemplary method, faith, hope, charity,” he said. “He is a model for the whole world, precisely because he witnessed the essential virtues.”

John Paul I cast aside some molds and said “I” in papal speeches, instead of the traditional “we.”

“It was like a gentle breeze that ended centuries” of formalities, Falasca said. “His decision for him to be colloquial was a theological choice.”

The journalist marvels that her favorite books were secular literature, by Mark Twain, Willa Cather and GK Chesterton, a British author famous for creating a character who was a priest with the air of a detective.

For a Catholic to be beatified, the pope must approve a miracle attributed to an intercessory prayer. In Luciani’s case, the miracle was a medically unexplained recovery of an 11-year-old girl admitted to a Buenos Aires hospital with brain swelling and septic shock in 2011.

His parents went to look for a priest in a neighboring parish. As she headed to the hospital, Reverend Juan José Dabusti wondered who he should ask for the girl’s life. He decided to ask John Paul I.

Why invoke the name of a largely forgotten pontiff? Falasca said that Dabusti had told him that when he was 15 years old, he heard John Paul I speak shortly after being elected pope and that was what pushed him to the priesthood. Luciani, he affirmed, was a “very simple and very happy” person.

John Paul I, the pope remembered for his mysterious death