12 Mar 2013

For whom the white smoke calls

I am in Rome standing overlooking the place where the papal conclave opens today. St Peter’s Square offers a glorious sun-kissed backdrop to a system of religious governance that has sustained since before the Middle Ages.

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I was based in Rome for a year of two dead Popes – 1978.

Paul, the last in a long unbroken line of Italians, had died just five weeks after my arrival. My cameraman – Mario Rosetti, a fully paid up member of the awkward squad, had, at the age of seventeen worked as a deputy photographer for Mussolini.

The stunted dictator told Mario to photograph him from the ground so that he would appear taller. Italian Labour laws made getting rid of Mario impossible, so he had to be “utilised” and I had been sent as his utiliser.

In the late seventies it was easy to be captivated by the pomp, the spectacle, the unbroken link – supposedly – with St Peter. It was possible to be seduced, not thankfully by wandering priestly hands, but by the romance, history and quaintness of Vatican life.

Yet even whilst I was there, scandal enveloped the Vatican Bank and its laundering practices. The chief mover and shaker, the corrupt Archbishop Marcinkus reigned ruthlessly over all. One’s Vatican press pass was at risk should one write of his doings.

Unable to agree on one of the big Italian cardinals to follow Pope Paul, the conclave that year settled on the sweet and harmless Albino Luciano – then Archbishop of Venice – very much a second-tier Italian prelate. He had a penchant for talking to the animals and birds.

So humble was he that he chose the names of his two predecessors – John and Paul – for his name as Pope. But he lasted just 33 days. He died of a heart attack – I believe brought on by the pressures exerted upon him by the Curia (the Vatican administration) who resented his simplicity.

If the red hatted cardinals hadn’t come up with Polish John Paul II, those scandalous times might have been addressed.

But JPII was a Pope for the world. And within days we were aboard Popeforce One heading for Santo Domingo and Mexico.

On that first flight I remember the jumbo’s intercom squawking into action, and the Polish tones of Pope announcing “this is your Pope speaking” – and so it was. Then it was to Africa, Poland and beyond.

His charisma overwhelmed his theological and catholic conservatism, and the world and the church were blinded to the unadressed problems lurking beyond the Vatican walls.

When Benedict ascended to the Papacy in 2005 we witnessed the coming of an insider, a man who knew precisely where the bodies of the catholic system were buried.

But the very first time we saw him – 40 minutes after his election had triggered the white smoke – we knew that at 77, heading for 78, he was too old to achieve any of the changes the church so urgently needed.

Several Cardinals told me then that Benedict had been actively keen to become Pope.

But amid God’s refusal to “call him home”, exhausted, he seems to have simply given up. His was a dim Papacy many critics believe.

The madcap evangelicals stormed across Latin America and Africa, gobbling up traditional catholic communities. The rot inside the Vatican bank (of which more in my next Snowblog) continued and worsened.

Benedict’s going has been preceded by arrests, swoops by the Italian Finance police, charges of widespread money laundering and worse.

And I have not even mentioned, the unnatural vow of priestly celibacy, the role of women in the church, and above all the sexual abuse that climaxed in the resignation of Scotland’s Cardinal O’Brien confessing inappropriate sexual conduct.

Today the romance is dead. The wonderment is stilled to that which might accompany the filming of some old epic, like Ben Hur.

The 115 cardinals have to find someone – not to live as St Peter did – but to cast out the money launderers, and the sex pests, and bring the church to a place that is compatible with our 21st century world.

Does such a man – it won’t be a woman – even exist?

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8 reader comments

  1. Philip Edwards says:


    David Yallop has a different view of the death of Albino Luciano. See his book “In God’s Name.”

    Needless to say it has been ignored by mainstream media.

    As for the Vatican – do you suppose they will be discussing Hitler’s first diplomatic agreement, their concordat with the Nazis? Or their endorsement of Italian Fascisim? Or their support for Franco Falangists during the Spanish Civil War? Or their part in Operation Paper Clip, the post-war ratline for Nazis and Fascists from Europe to the Americas? Or their support for neofascist regimes throughout Latin America and elsewhere? Or their ignoring of paedophilia by their corrupt priests? Or their support for neocon governments everywhere?

    The Vatican is a cesspit of immorality and corruption. It doesn’t matter who they elect as front man, it will still be the same cockpit of organised absurd superstition, hypocrisy and lies it has always been. All the white smoke in the world can’t hide it.

  2. James Gardner says:

    Albino Luciani didn’t die of a heart attack. The media at the time reported the Vatican press release verbatim, without doing any background checks. But his personal physician and lifelong friend refused to sign the death certificate because he was convinced the 33 Pope was poisoned.
    The Vatican refused to carry out an autopsy on the grounds it was against Church law to dissect the body of a dead Pope, but this was a lie — because, in cases of sudden death, Italian law is supposed to take precedence. But before this could be established someone had secretly embalmed the body, removing all hope of establishing the actual cause of death.
    The heart attack line was pure fiction. Publicly the Vatican said the Pope’s death was brought on by stress, but in private certain high ranking members of the Curia were leaking to the press that it was brought on by drinking and smoking. This went against all evidence. The man regularly walked the hills, never smoked, and only occasionally enjoyed a glass of wine. The month before his death, he passed a physical exam with flying colours.
    The night before his death Pope John Paul I had ordered Paul Marcinkus be handed over to American authorities, who were investigating the laundering of Mafia drug money through the Vatican bank, which Marcinkus headed.
    Marcinkus was actively promoted by John Paul II, and the Americans never had the chance to put him on the stand. But his involvement with organised crime, which included personal friendships with members of the outlawed masonic lodge named P2 (of which Silvio Berlusconi is a former member) is beyond any doubt.
    Marcinkus is suspect number one at the centre of an allegation which, alongside many others, the Vatican refuses to discuss: Pope John Paul I, Albino Luciani was murdered.


  3. anon says:

    It is time for a change . Doctrines that have been virtually unchanged for so long and that have resulted in such widespread corruption have no place in the 21st century. The administration of the Catholic Church has had one set of rules for the followers and another for many who control the faith and who have violated the rules. Perhaps a more realistic approach that does not deny human sexuality and the role of women in religion should be paramount to the selection of the spiritual leader. Too much to hope for? Start with an examination of the celibacy requirement, not part of Christian doctrine and which has been abused for centuries.

    As for banking greed does not have religious bounderies. Wealth is power . The Catholic Church is very powerful.

  4. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    John ,do you know I think you are a very good writer despite commencing sentences with conjunctions, however there is an extremely tasteless turn of phrase nearing the end of your article. I always like flavour, context and meaning closely affiliated , but seedy undertones lowers the tone of the piece. There are times when writers should be overtly frank without embroidery and other times where implication turns the writing into the worst of Mills and Boon.Dong!

  5. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    apologies .. JON

  6. alan reardon says:

    How much more airtime is C4 going to dedicate to this story. The majority of UK is not Roman Catholic we don’t really care who is going to be the leader of this corrupt abuse hiding religion.

  7. Robert Parsons says:

    Having just watched this evening’s Channel 4 news, I could not believe that there was not even a one sentence mention of the Falklands referendum result. A 99.8% vote with only three people voting ‘no’ surely can never have happened in the world (possibly excluding North Korea). I think it is a disgrace that you did not refer to it. I guess that all the other news channels have done so. Wake up Channel 4 news.

  8. VJS says:

    “Romance” and awe for the centuries old tradition have not died. Case in point, this article and all the other news reports that keep us updated on the progress of selecting the new Pope. Beneath the color photos, we read the front page captions and listen to the quaint details on TV — e,g., that each cardinal folds the piece of paper twice after he hand writes his nomination and, of course, the white smoke we expect to rise as the selected cardinal ascends the papacy. The mystery of the church continues in these small and deliberate ways which signify the mysteries of God in uniting humanity to Him through His grace and goodness. This tradition gives us a tangible pathway to recognize and experience the eternal and to know God.

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