Pope John Paul I appears on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica following his election Aug. 26, 1978. Pope Francis has advanced the sainthood cause of Pope John Paul I with a decree recognizing his heroic virtues. CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

John Paul I takes first step to sainthood as book tries to debunk conspiracies

  • November 16, 2017
VATICAN CITY – Two women may hold the key to clearing up questions still surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I and speed his journey to canonization.

John Paul I cleared the first hurdle to sainthood when Pope Francis declared him “venerable” on Nov. 9. 

John Paul I, elected as pope in August 1978, was very popular and much less formal than his predecessors. However, his pontificate lasted only 33 days, setting off conspiracy rumours when he died Sept. 28. But a journalist who is also the vice postulator of the sainthood cause for the  pope believes the rumours were helped by a lack of transparency from the first hours of the pope’s death.

“Remember, it was 40 years ago,” said Stefania Falasca, a journalist for Avvenire, the Italian Catholic daily newspaper. The pope’s priest-secretaries thought it would appear unseemly that women entered his bedroom and found him dead, so instead of acknowledging that the women religious working in the household found him, it was reported that the priests did.

“That was one of the elements that helped unleash the ‘noir,’ ” or the series of conspiracy theories and books that read like murder mysteries, she said.

Falasca has countered with her own book, Pope Luciani: Chronicle of a Death, which was released in Italian Nov. 7. Pope John Paul’s given name was Albino Luciani.

Two days after the book’s release, Pope Francis started him toward canonization by declaring he led a life of heroic Christian virtue.

Before beatification, the Pope would have to recognize as a miracle attributed to his intercession one of the “presumed extraordinary healings” the postulation forwards to the Vatican. A second miracle is needed for canonization.

According to Falasca’s book, Pope John Paul and his secretary, then-Fr. John Magee, were reciting night prayer together at about 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28, 1978, when the pope experienced chest pains. He refused to allow a doctor to be called, and the pain went away.

At 5:15 the next morning, as every morning, Sr. Vincenza Taffarel, now deceased, put the pope’s cup of coffee outside his door. He would drink it on the way to his private chapel for early morning prayers.

Falasca’s book includes an interview with Sr. Margherita Marin, now 76, a member of the Sisters of the Holy Child Mary, who worked alongside Taffarel.

“That morning the coffee was still there,” Marin said. “After 10 minutes, Sr. Taffarel said, ‘He still hasn’t come out? What’s going on?’ I was in the hallway. I saw her knock once and knock again. There was no response.”

Taffarel went into the room, she said. “I heard her say, ‘Your Holiness, you shouldn’t joke like that with me.’ ”

Marin entered the pope’s bedroom. “The Holy Father was in bed, the reading lamp on the headboard was on.”

She said the pope had his arms above the sheet, holding some typewritten pages. He was wearing his glasses, but his eyes were half-closed. “It really seemed like he was asleep,” she said. But his body was cold. 

Nothing had fallen to the floor, she said. And there were no signs of thrashing, extreme pain or any disturbance.

The sisters immediately called the pope’s priest secretaries and, after saying a prayer with the sisters, the priests called the Vatican doctor. He determined that Pope John Paul had died of a heart attack late the evening before.

“Fr. Magee told us not to say it was we sisters, me and Sr. Vincenza, who found him dead in his room, because they had decided to say it was his secretaries who found him,” Marin told Falasca.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, wrote the preface to Falasca’s book. 

“After so much conjecture, so many reconstructions based on rumours without confirmation, we can now know what happened in the last hours of this pope’s life.”

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