Year of Three Popes Hardcover – Dec 14 1978
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It dwells, but not really enough, on the story of the nearly forgotten John Paul I--regrettable since he deserves sainthood more than anyone at this point. The book does have good biographies and Hebblethwaite can be trusted with all the basic facts except the precise details of JP I's death. Then again, he only reported what we all heard back then, and Hebblethwaite never disappoints in his accuracy. This is nothing less than an excellent time capsule from 1978. Having reigned for 32 days (the erroneous count is always 33, Hebblethwaite or someone he quoted said 35, but it was 32, trust me) there just isn't much to say about Albino Luciani as pope. Only guesses about what he may have accomplished and hopes that got dashed.
I don't think Hebblethwaite goes deeply enough into Cardinal Luciani's days as Patriarch of Venice, and perhaps you'd do well to read David Yallop's mostly fictional thriller In God's Name (see my review). It has a good biography of Luciani at the beginning with the details Hebblethwaite missed, and is the only part where Yallop is factual.
Hebblethwaite addresses wonderfully the art of the conclave itself and gives a fine definition of the Curia, thought erroneously to be a small body of cardinals only. He writes of the fear, panic and confusion in the pending conclave that was held after John Paul I's sudden death. Hebblethwaite gives a good-and-dull account of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, the Pole who would become Pope John Paul II. Aside from his rock-star qualities, there wasn't much Hebblethwaite could have written about him either. In a way it was like the brief about JP I: dashed hopes and guesses at a time when Wojtyla was fresh and new. John Paul II had a 100-days thing and this book addresses a little of that, but he'd been pope less than a year when this was published.
There seems to have been a misunderstanding, which I recall well, that JP II would carry out the progressive plans of his predecessor. So all Hebblethwaite could do was what we all did: hope. Turns out it was in vain, because what you will not get from this book yet you already know is the maddeningly disappointing papacy of John Paul II, the shattered hopes, the business-as-usual Medievalism which Hebblethwaite clearly never expected. It turned out that John Paul II was no Luciani!
This is a fascinating book to have in your library. Even the little tallies of the theoretical ballot that elected Luciani is fun to ponder. Mainly because Hebblethwaite recorded many things of value, forgotten things, since he was there--and it is a vitally fascinating chapter in world history. If only we had a Hebblethwaite on hand for the next big deal, the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis!
By the way, if you are interested in a good (and only) biopic of John Paul I, get Pope John Paul I: The Smile of God (see my review). I was amused by the way the film took from Hebblethwaite. For THE novel about an abdicated pope, read Morris West's thrilling fictional The Clowns of God (see my review), set in the 1980s, a few years after his The Shoes of the Fisherman (see my review). If you read West closely, you'll discover he was a real prophet about the future of the papacy.
Lastly, there is one funny fact I wish to point out: we are always in the era of three popes. The Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, which includes the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, has its own pope. His lineage goes back much further than the Roman lineage, and has been far more stable. Then we have those goofy Old Catholics or whatever they call themselves, whose pope is named Pius XIII (and will surprises never cease, he is actually an antipope!). To sum that up:
1) "THE" pope is nothing but the bishop of Rome who usurped primacy over all Christendom. Not all Christendom agreed.
2) The Coptic Orthodox Church's papacy goes back further than the Roman--bearing in mind "Roman" does NOT mean "all the way back to Simon Peter". That is a skewed Catholic view, not real history.
3) The Copts established their pope-as-a-pope (who is nothing more than the Archbishop of Alexandria and the head of the Ethiopian Church) LONG before there actually was any such thing as the Bishop of Rome. For generations even the Bishop of Rome bowed (slightly) to the Coptic pope.
Paul VI died in August, 1978 after an agonizing end to an often painful papacy. The story of how the virtually unknown Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani, who would become John Paul I, is a book in itself. In fact, several have been written about this fascinating man and his month long pontificate. The Sacred College didn't quite get what they expected, a quiet conservative who wouldn't make waves, but before Papa Luciani's September Revolution really took off he unexpectedly died. His cause of death and the circumstances surrounding it are still shrouded in mystery and there are several books and television programs on the subject if one is so inclined to investigate further.
Hebblethwaite doesn't go into that here, wisely. Instead he rolls onto the October Conclave that elected the Archbishop of Krakow who would become John Paul II. As this book was written less than a year into his papacy there's not much to analyze about his pontificate, only if he'd outlive his predecessor.
This book is utterly fascinating and Hebblethwaite was an international authority on the Vatican during his lifetime. One needs only to be interested in politics to be consumed by this book.
Having followed Albino Luciani for thirty years of his ministry and for as many years after his death, I thought it might be helpful to set forth the historical record of investigations into the unwitnessed death of a man whose physical exam just three months earlier had declared him to be in exceptional health.
On the heels of the sudden and unwitnessed death of the youngest pope to die in four hundred years, Zottola & Pena published `They Have Murdered the Pope: Operation Pigeon' driven by what was at the time the most obvious motive for murder: John Paul's threat of economic movement toward Marxism in the west and liberal reformation within the Church. The book--a novel--came remarkably close to the truth in its fictional creation of `Operation Pigeon'--a blend of curia cardinals and capitalistic powers and the disappearance of Vatican Bank money in Central America.
In 1984, Yallop made the case for murder. In `In God's Name' he offers the hypothesis: three archbishops--Marcinkus, Cody and Villot--conspired in the Vatican bank scandal to the benefit of three Mafia types--Calvi, Sindona and Gelli. John Paul was murdered because an audit he ordered of the Vatican bank would have exposed transactions which exploded in the press four years later as the `Great Vatican Bank Scandal'--the Vatican transferred hundreds of millions of dollars to Nicaragua (believed to have gone to the Contras to overthrow the communist Sandinistas government). Much to his credit, Yallop revived the liberal identity of the 33-day Pope particularly as it concerned itself with contraception; something the Vatican had gone out of its way to annihilate.
In 1985, the Vatican fabricated a `bio-brief' and distributed it through anonymous clergy in Catholic countries to dispel Yallop's claim of murder. To support death due to natural causes, the `fraud' claimed he had lived his life in such poor health as if a respirator was required to keep him alive from day to day. Conversely, he was an accomplished mountaineer requiring a powerful respiratory system; the six mounds in his coat-of-arms represent the six peaks for which holds the speed record. Nevertheless, this `fraud' has served as the framework for a flood of `biographies' written by various clergy since.
In 1988, Avro Manhattan wrote `The Dollar and the Vatican' in which he presents the hypothesis: The conspiracy that planned the Great Vatican Bank Scandal was the same conspiracy that plotted the Murder of John Paul I. Unfortunately, Manhattan died before tribunal and other investigations into the surreptitious goings-on in the Vatican 1978-1981 proved his case. Manhattan wrote the all-time Vatican-bestseller The Vatican and World Politics.
In 1989, John Paul II commissioned John Cornwell to write A Thief in the Night: Life and Death in the Vatican to dispel rumors caused by Yallop and Manhattan. In exchange for access to Vatican witnesses, Cornwell would conclude John Paul died of pulmonary embolism; heart attack having been roundly ruled out by the medical community. Whereas Cornwell fails to prove embolism, he does poke a hole in Yallop's motive. He cites the testimony of courts that tried the Great Vatican Bank Scandal that proved the first transaction in the bank scandal took place under the reign of John Paul II--a month after the death of the 33-day Pope. The audit could not have uncovered transactions which had not yet occurred.
In 2013, Lucien Gregoire (The Vatican Murders: The Life and Death of John Paul I) --employing a barrage of testimony of the courts together with medical and criminology advancements not available to the others when they wrote their books--proves Avro Manhattan's thesis: The conspiracy that planned the Great Vatican Bank Scandal was the same conspiracy that plotted the Murder of Pope John Paul I.
This makes sense. Early in his papacy John Paul I announced his support for the revolution of the poor in Central America against the ruthless coalition of the United States and ruling Juntas going so far as to announce that he himself would lead the upcoming Puebla Conference in Mexico. Too, it was clear he was on rapid path to change doctrine in those cases it imposes unfair restrictions of the lives of innocent people: women, homosexuals, illegitimate children, etc. As he so profoundly put it in his acceptance speech: "...for God-given human life is infinitely more precious than is man-made doctrine."
John Paul II was just the opposite. Shortly after his election, the Polish Pope raised the first $383 million from unsuspecting investors in the Great Vatican Bank Scandal and transferred it to Nicaragua to finance the rising of the Contras to crush the revolution of the poor in Central America. What's more, he toured Central America telling the people to stop supporting the revolutionaries and defrocked priests who had led the revolution. Too, for the 27 years of his papacy he kept women, homosexuals and other oppressed peoples in their place.
By a remarkable turn of events, all this has come back to the first thing that came to mind on the heels of his assassination: John Paul's threat of economic movement toward Marxism in the west and liberal reformation within the Church.
Except for the Vatican fraud, these are all good books. Gregoire--a one-time acquaintance of the 33-day Pope--includes a complete biography of this pope in his book consistent with the bio-briefs in `In God's Name' and `A Thief in the Night.' The reason it is a much bigger book--two books in one book. Out-of-print Zottola-Pena novel is in Spanish only.