Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sad for the smiling pope

I've always been fascinated by the Vatican -- the bureaucracy, the opulence, the inhabitants. If you've read Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, then you have plenty to unlearn. What Dan Brown fails to present in his hack of a novel is what John Cornwell exposes in his non-fiction book, A Thief in the Night. In Cornwell's book, the Vatican becomes real, not just a symbolic place that is the center of Catholicism. You get a feel for why, first and foremost, it's a state. The real Vatican is terribly bureaucratic, secretive to a fault, occasionally corrupt, and peopled with very ego-centric men in vestments. Despite these negative images, there's an unavoidable romanticism to the place. And there have been several times throughout history when Vatican has been thrust to the limelight.

The subject of Cornwell's well-researched book is the mysterious death of John Paul I on September 28, 1978. John Paul I, just 33 days into his reign, was found dead in his room, seated and clutching a book entitled Imitation of Christ. What makes the death of John Paul I so mysterious and intriguing is that people don't seem to agree with the important details of his death including the person who found the body, the exact time the body was found, the official cause of death, the details of the embalment (or if there ever was a secret autopsy sanctioned by the Curia), and the pope's health before his death. Cornwell decides to investigate these details, hoping to shed light on this unfortunate event. What Cornwell discovers is far from all the conspiracy theories surrounding the untimely demise of John Paul I, the smiling pope.

If you've developed a taste for atmospheric crime novels, then you wouldn't have any problems shifting to Cornwell's non-fiction work. The book reads like an engaging mystery. Cornwell delves into the lives of the significant players as if treating the whole scenario like a closed room murder mystery. Who's likely to benefit from John Paul I's death? Who stands to lose? Why the need for all the secrecy? Cornwell's conclusion to the whole affair, while purely speculation, is very probable. He ties every thing together in one bravura chapter, which literally breaks your heart with its details.

I picked up this book because I wanted to know about John Paul I's death and about the man who was the leader of the Catholic church when I was 4 years old. My parents can hardly remember John Paul I; all they do remember are all the conspiracy theories surrounding his death, which is a bit unfortunate. Albino Luciani, the man who would be John Paul I, was elected to the throne of St. Peter against his wishes. He was very vocal about how he wasn't fit to lead all the Catholics in the world. His background was on catechetics (oral instruction of religious dogma), and his ministry was most often described as being grass roots and pastoral. Further, he was physically unfit to the task, a fact not unknown to all the bishops during the conclave. During his reign, his legs became really swollen that he couldn't even wear proper shoes. I finished A Thief in the Night with an admiration for John Paul I. Here was a pope who had no interest in finance, administration, and politics but who willingly fulfilled his role. Here was a pope who was elected by bishops who just seemed to want a respite from Pope Paul VI's long and arduous reign. As one person close to the smiling pope said, "We did not deserve him."


Rhett said...

he seems like a nice guy.