John Paul I

A suitable case for Hercule Poirot?

by John Mackrell

from Signs of the Times, No. 27 - Oct 2007

'The Last Confession' about John Paul I, at The Haymarket in London, is both good theatre and a fascinating 'who dunnit?' David Suchet and his fellow actors, supported by the subtle direction of David Jones and Roger Crane's witty dialogue, provide a highly entertaining and thought-provoking experience. It is the director's achievement that the dialogue - some shrill exchanges with John Paul apart - appears chillingly authentic. That probably owes much to the actors' conscientious preparation, intriguingly described in the programme, which for once is under priced at £4.

David Suchet for his role as Cardinal Benelli, immersed himself in the part by visiting Rome's churches and taking a five day retreat in a Benedictine Abbey. Before rehearsals started, every actor confided to the company his own religious experiences - a convincing gauge of serious intent. As the play spirits the audience to a world far outside their experience, its credibility is enormously enhanced by the ingenious stage set, which evokes simultaneously the claustrophobic Vatican, the expansive grandeur of St Peters and the encroaching world outside - never distant enough for the cardinals. The play, in short, is to be enjoyed, though the discreet cleric may feel more comfortable without a dog-collar.

The play reopens a brief period in the Church's history, to which a helpful introduction is the biography of Pope John Paul I by David Yallop, on which the play is loosely based. [1] John Paul's election is believed by many, including the author, to have been one of the Church's great potential turning-points. If that's true, why? Those for whom history is determined by events believe a return to the ideals of Vatican II was frustrated by the Pope's sudden death on his thirty-third day in office. Others, with an eye to the long term, see the failure as proof that the Church is irreformable while ruled by the Roman Curia.

Was John Paul murdered? When Bianco Luciani was elected with a towering majority it was mainly as a pastor, to heal the Church's divisions exacerbated by Paul VI's indecision. The shock to the curia was palpable when he proved disconcertingly radical. His wish to rescind Humanae Vitae , Paul VI's ban on artificial contraception, for some amounted to rank heresy. The army of some 3000 curialists was probably more worried by the Pope's determination to realise Jesus' mission to the poor, which they rightly sensed could jeopardise their own comfortable life-style. Of a piece was the Pope's intention to purge the Vatican's own bank of the corruption fomented by Roberto Calvi, Bishop Marcinkus, Sindona and others linked to the Italian mafia. The curia itself appeared to be implicated, by the press accusation that over 100 members, from priests to cardinals, belonged to the mafia's infamous P2 masonic lodge, which had already dissipated the dwindling integrity of the Italian Government. Vatican bankers, freemasons, curialists, there was no shortage of people with a motive to welcome the Pope's departure. [2]

When Sister Vincenza at 4.45 am found the dead Pope seated in bed, holding some papers, lips parted with an agonized expression on his face, had he suffered a heart attack, as the Vatican was quick to claim without a proper medical examination? It could be argued that events the day before had strained the Pope's stamina. John Paul's anger was early aroused, when the Vatican's own newspaper, L'Observatore Romano, had deliberately sidelined his views on birth control. Later he had battled for two hours with Cardinal Villot, who had tried unsuccessfully to deter him from making the dramatic changes in curial personnel, recorded, almost certainly, in those very pages he clutched as he died. On the other hand, John Paul was only 65 and had low blood pressure, which considerably reduces the risk of heart disease. His personal physician after a recent health check had pronounced him 'not fit, but very fit'. John Paul had a healthy life-style as a non-smoker, light drinker, sparing eater, whose exercise included mountain climbing. His two secretaries had pronounced him calm and in good spirits when he retired to bed that night at 9.30. [3]

The obvious murder suspect was Cardinal Jean Villot. He had shown himself to be totally opposed to rescinding Humanae Vitae and may well have considered John Paul a heretic. He was on the list of curialists to be replaced and by a man he particularly disliked, Cardinal Benelli. Villot even qualifies apparently as a mason - adoptive name Jeanni, Lodge number 041/3, enrolled at Zürich, 6th August 1966. [4] On the morning of the Pope's death, Cardinal Villot seems almost to have gone out of his way to attract suspicion to himself. Before 5 am he had swept away almost all potentially compromising evidence. After taking the papers from the Pope's hand, he pocketed the bottle of effortil used to counter John Paul's low blood pressure. As it disappeared completely, no one will ever know if it contained a poison, such as the colourless, odourless digitalin which could have induced a heart attack. The Cardinal also removed the Pope's slippers and the glasses he was wearing - both of which may have borne traces of vomit from the poison. Before 5 am, Villot had already rung the embalmers, who were given strict instructions not to drain the body of blood, which might have contained traces of poison. By arranging the embalming so swiftly, an autopsy, later demanded when suspicions grew, was ruled out. The papal apartments were sealed in record time to keep them from prying eyes. Villot even added his own pious touch to the death-bed scene. The faithful were told that the Pope had died reading The Imitation of Christ - a truly miraculous feat, as John Paul's copy was still in Venice! [5]

Readers of detective novels may feel that Villot is too obvious a suspect. The Cardinal's behaviour on other occasions, especially with John Paul, was unfailingly correct, if cold. Was the Cardinal an accomplice? It seems unlikely that the murderer would have risked confiding in the Pope's right-hand man, his Secretary of State, who might be expected to feel at least some loyalty towards his master. Did Villot, innocent of involvement in the Pope's murder, suspect the hands of the mafia - perhaps, welcoming the deed while dreading the scandal? If so, in view of the Catholic hierarchy's obsessive preoccupation with suppressing scandals - shown recently so often in cases of clerical sexual abuse - Villot may have felt compelled, as a loyal churchman, to remove anything which could feed speculation about foul play.

Natural death or murder, the failure of John Paul's attempts at reform shows the strength of the Roman Curia. Within days Cardinal Wojtyla had succeeded as John Paul II, who, as arch-conservative, immediately swept his predecessor's instructions aside. [6] The mafia, therefore, continued to hold the Vatican bank to ransom, while curialists, whether masonic or not, remained secure.

The scandalised are told by historians that events were far worse in the past, as in the tenth century, when two enterprising ladies created and destroyed eight popes in a single decade. [7] Yet, the papacy's situation is different today. For much of the past, popes shared the life-style of secular rulers and their escapades remained hidden from the general public. Today the papacy is a prey to publicity, even when it does not court it. The Church's increasing centralisation, reinforced by the revolution in communications, have imposed Rome's view on Catholics almost everywhere. Can the Church afford to be ruled by a tyrannical and inefficient curia, unaccountable to either the faithful, or even to the pope? John Paul, however he died, was the last great reforming pope.


  1. David A. Yallop, In God's Name , 1984 [back]

  2. Yallop, 93-154. [back]

  3. Yallop, 211-57. [back]

  4. Yallop, 175. [back]

  5. Yallop, 215-57. [back]

  6. Yallop, 261-2. [back]

  7. Peter De Rosa, Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, 1988, 48. [back]

John Mackrell is a retired lecturer in French History and a member of Catholics for a Changing Church.