Died in his sleep

VATICAN CITY — Thirty years ago today I walked into the office of the Rome Daily American at 6:45 in the morning and began ripping the AP and Reuters newswires for a 7 o’clock radio news show. When I saw the teletype machines, I froze. At the top of each were two bulletins announcing the death of Pope John Paul I after only 34 days in office.

A few minutes later I found myself announcing on Radio Daily American that the “smiling pope” had died in his sleep the night before, at the age of 65. The news show was not much more than a headline service, but I promised details to come, and then ducked out of the building for a quick espresso.

When I walked into the corner bar, the first words I heard were: “L’hanno ammazzato.” “They killed him.” I can’t remember whether the phrase was pronounced by Sergio, the barista, or one of his customers, but it seemed to be the general consensus of the Roman street that day. The pope was known as a good and decent man, and the popular imagination was already conjuring up a plot to explain his untimely demise.

And in Rome, the popular imagination tends toward poison. Hadn’t a Russian Orthodox Church leader, Metropolitan Nikodim, dropped dead a couple weeks earlier during a meeting with the pontiff after drinking a cup of coffee? Perhaps the coffee had been meant for the pope. Or so went the thinking in Sergio’s bar.

It turned out that John Paul I had serious circulation problems — so serious, in fact, that his legs were badly swollen, he complained of pain and his closest aides wanted to summon a physician shortly before he died. The medical facts did not, however, stop the rumor mill from turning. In 1984, British author David Yallop published an investigative book, “In God’s Name,” which hypothesized that the pope’s death may have been an inside job.

In 1989, another British writer, John Cornwell, wrote a book that took Yallop’s theories apart. Written with Vatican cooperation and titled, “A Thief in the Night,” it found that the late pope felt unwell throughout his month at the Vatican and talked repeatedly of dying. Sources quoted by Cornwell said the pope questioned why the College of Cardinals had chosen him and spoke of “the foreigner” who would replace him.

For some reason, I saved those AP and Reuters bulletins from Sept. 29, 1978. I found them recently, tucked inside a book of Italian poetry. With them was a third item, heralding the arrival of John Paul I’s successor, the foreigner.

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