National Catholic Reporter ®

July 12, 2002 
Vol. 1, No. 46

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Last July 4th with the pope; Vatican finances; Swiss Guard murder update; Law’s in town; the Order of St. George

John Paul once joked that he’d like to outlast Pius IX, who reigned 32 years, leaving him eight to go. Though I’d call it a long shot, I’m not running out to place a bet against him either.

While most Americans were eating hot dogs on July 4, I was working the press pool for the visit of Hungarian Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy to John Paul II. These events represent a valuable opportunity to observe the pope at close range in the library of his apartment, from perhaps five feet or so away.

     I find that three minutes of being in John Paul’s presence like this, unfiltered and unedited, can cut through reams of speculation about the state of his health.

     Sometimes after the visiting dignitary is finished introducing his family and entourage to the pope, journalists also present themselves. This time, however, it was clear that Bishop James Harvey, the Milwaukee native who runs the papal household, wanted us to scoot. Thus we began to file out.

     But out of the corner of my eye, I happed to catch a glimpse of Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s Polish private secretary, waving at us. I stopped, and signaled to a colleague from Hungarian Radio. By this time everyone else had left, but we looked again and, indeed, Dziwisz was signaling us forward. Hence we approached the pope, and had a fleeting few moments to shake hands and say hello.

     John Paul was having a good day, and I suspect that’s part of the reason Dziwisz wanted us to see him. He was sharp and in good humor, with a clear voice and sparkling eyes. 

     So what do I make of the pope’s overall condition? 

     John Paul is 82, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, an unsuccessful hip replacement surgery, aggravated arthritis in the right knee, hearing loss, and the continuing effects of the 1981 assassination attempt. Given his age and relative weakness, a bolt could come along out of the blue anytime — an infection, a serious fall — and cause rapid deterioration.

     But short of something dramatic, none of his conditions are life threatening, and I suspect John Paul could bear them for some time to come. My personal sense, formed by experiences such as July 4, is that the pope is considerably sharper mentally and psychologically than occasional anguished glimpses of him on television may suggest.

     John Paul once joked that he’d like to outlast Pius IX, who reigned 32 years, leaving him eight to go. Though I’d call it a long shot, I’m not running out to place a bet against him either.

     As for the hypothesis that John Paul might resign, fresh confirmation that it’s not going to happen came June 29 with an article in Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera, by veteran journalist Vittorio Messori, who collaborated with the pope on the 1994 book Crossing the Threshold of Hope

     Messori, in a front-page article, assured readers he could paraphrase the pope’s thinking this way: “The force to continue is not my problem but that of Christ, who wanted to call me, though unworthy, to be his vicar on earth. In his mysterious design, he has brought me here. And it will be he who decides my fate.”

     Unfortunately, Messori chose to add a rather catty comparison with the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, heading off into retirement to “putter in his garden,” while the pope heroically trudges on. Nevertheless, I believe the substance of Messori’s analysis is correct.

     As far as John Paul is concerned, the choice of how long to continue is out of his hands.

* * *

     Every year around this time, Cardinal Sergio Sebastiani, head of the Prefecture of Economic Affairs of the Holy See, along with his secretary Bishop Franco Croci and chief Vatican accountant Ivan Ruggiero, hold a press conference to present the Vatican’s consolidated financial statement. It offers a window, albeit incomplete, onto the financial condition of the headquarters of Roman Catholicism Inc.

     The headline from the July 5 session was that for the first time in nine years, the Vatican is in the red, by some $3 million. It took in $173,525,000 last year, and spent $176,587,000. The deficit, Sebastiani said, is attributable to the general post-Sept. 11 global economic downturn.

     The report presented July 5 doesn’t cover everything. For example, because the Jubilee Year of 2000 was run out of a separate Vatican office, and because its major event (World Youth Day) was actually administered by the Italian bishops, its total expenses and income have never been reflected in a consolidated statement. (Sebastiani once again deflected questions July 5 about how much the Jubilee Year actually cost).

     As always, the biggest single expense was personnel, meaning the salaries of some 2,700 Vatican employees. Opening up new diplomatic missions has also put a strain on resources. In 1939, the pope had 38 representatives overseas. When John Paul II took over that number was 108, and today it is 172. These embassies don’t come cheap. 

     I asked Sebastiani about the impact of the sex abuse scandals in the United States, and if the Vatican is worried about a drop-off in contributions. 

     Sebastiani said the Vatican does not yet have an estimate for contributions from bishops, associations, and individuals this year. He noted, however, that these contributions have gone up every year since 1993, usually at an annual clip of some $1 million. The Vatican said the contributions, known as Peter’s Pence, reached $51.9 million in 2001.

     Sebastiani told us that his office does not receive these donations, since they go directly to the pope, but merely records them as totals, hence he could not provide a breakdown of which countries give the most. In the past, however, Germany and the United States have been identified as the largest donor nations.

     One final curiosity: Sebastian told us that the total value of the Vatican’s productive real estate and other holdings, as opposed to artistic and religious patrimony it could never sell, is $650 million. That’s hardly the deep pocket that some have always assumed the Vatican must possess.

* * *

     Fans of Vatican conspiracy theories will be pleased to know that the 1998 Swiss Guard murders are back in the news. 

     For those who don’t recall the story, I’ll recap. On May 4, 1998, the new commander of the Swiss Guards, Alois Estermann, 43, his Venezuelan wife, Gladys Meza Romero, and 23-year-old Vice Corporal Cedric Tornay were all found dead in Estermann’s Vatican apartment. Within 12 hours, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls held a press conference to suggest that Tornay had killed Estermann and his wife in a “moment of madness,” caused by anger at being passed over for a decoration, then killed himself.

     The speed with which Navarro presented the Vatican’s version of events led some to charge a rush to judgment. It should be recalled, however, that in September 1978, when Pope John Paul I died suddenly, the Vatican came under heavy criticism for not offering an explanation quickly, and Navarro obviously wanted to be more responsive. Nevertheless, rumors spread about Opus Dei connections, of a homosexual affair gone wrong, even of Estermann being a former spy for the Stasi, the East German secret police.

     The story is back in the news thanks to Tornay’s mother, Muguette Baudat, who retained one of France’s best known (some would say “infamous”) defense attorneys, Jacques Vergès. His clients have included terrorist Carlos the Jackal, ex-Nazi Klaus Barbie, and now former Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic. 

     Baudat’s team has concluded that Tornay did not commit suicide but was murdered. Their autopsy of the corpse, the attorneys say, revealed that the murder weapon could not have been the gun identified by the Vatican. Further, they say a suicide note attributed to Tornay was a forgery. Among other particulars, they say the person who wrote the note used a last name for Baudat that she had dropped, and left out several relatives in his list of farewells. 

     Baudat, along with Vergès and associate attorney Luc Brossollet, were in Rome on July 5 for a press conference at the foreign press club to present their request that the Vatican formally reopen the investigation, entrusting it to an outside tribunal. The attorneys have written a book, Assassinated in the Vatican, which collects their evidence. Issued in Italian, it is published by Kaos Edizioni, a house known for such strongly anti-Vatican works as Gone with the Wind in the Vatican and In the Shadow of a Sick Pope.

     The press conference was not devoted so much to the evidence as to a j’accuse against the Vatican, directed at what Brossollet called its “secrecy, silence and disrespect.” 

     Brossollet complained that Baudat has asked to see the case files on the investigation into her son’s death six times, without response.

     “If [secrecy] doesn’t hide a fight among diverse factions in the Vatican, we don’t understand why Madame Baudat isn’t invited to become familiar with all the acts of the investigation, so she can be convinced,” he said.

     The lawyers charged that the Estermann/Tornay case has followed a trajectory similar to other Vatican mysteries, such as the disappearance of 15-year-old Emanuela Orlandi in 1983, the so-called “final secret of Fatima,” and the death of John Paul I. All of these cases, they said, involved a forged letter. 

     A journalist from the popular Italian magazine L’Espresso was on hand to point out that the secretary of Vatican magistrate Luigi Marone, who handled the Swiss Guard investigation, is the sister of Emanuela Orlandi. What that proves I’m not sure, but many of the 100-plus journalists on hand seemed to find it riveting.

     As so often happens in these conspiracy cases, the “smoking gun” always seems just out of reach. Where, for example, is the deacon who allegedly told Baudat he had proof that Tornay was innocent, then disappeared? Where is the man named Trauffer, described as an “ecclesiastic,” whom Baudat says tried to convince her to have her son’s body cremated immediately — before an independent autopsy could be performed? Both are now incommunicado.

     Whatever one makes of the new “revelations,” Baudat and her lawyers are determined to press on. They have threatened to take the case to a Swiss court if the Vatican does not respond.

     For its part, the Vatican put out a statement late on Friday saying Baudat’s petition to reopen her son’s case was under examination. “However, the offensive statements directed at the Holy See, the Vatican City-State and its judicial organisms, beyond lacking any foundation, are completely unacceptable,” it said.

* * *

     Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was in town last week for meetings in the Vatican. American journalists obviously wanted to know whom Law might be seeing, and whether he’d be discussing his situation in Boston with John Paul.

     I don’t know the substance of Law’s meetings. I do know, however, that he and fellow American Bishop James Harvey dined together July 4 at a restaurant called Cecilia Matella outside of Rome on the Via Appia Antica. It’s hard to imagine that the cardinal didn’t say at least something about current events, points that might find their way back to the pope via the head of his household.

* * *

     I went to a book presentation July 2 at the Palazzo Spada, headquarters for the Italian judiciary. The new book was about the Sacred Constantinian Military Order of St. George, which traces its origins back to the Roman Emperor Constantine, though the earliest document associated with it dates to 1190.

     Today the Order of St. George, in addition to being a place where superannuated royalty and other VIPs can mingle, is devoted largely to charity work. Among other projects, it runs a home for HIV-positive mothers and children in Naples.

     The central point of the new book seemed to be resolving a dynastic dispute as to who can legitimately claim to be the Bourbon duke of Calabria, heir to the throne of the “two Sicilies.” The rival claimants are Italian and Spanish, and the book comes down decidedly on the side of the Italian. The question is important for the order, I gathered, because this particular royal dynasty is its sponsor.

     My interest in going was to hear Cardinal Mario Pompedda, who is the Grand Prior of the Order of St. George, but more importantly is the prefect of the Apostolic Signature, the Vatican’s equivalent of a Supreme Court.

     If someone were to call up central casting at a Hollywood studio and say, “Send me up a curial cardinal,” I suspect somebody looking very much like Pompedda, 73, would step out of wardrobe and makeup. He has a patrician bearing, seeming sober and composed and always in control. 

     Pompedda spoke about our moral responsibility to the truth.

     “When we find ourselves before the truth, no matter who carries that truth to us or by whom it is proved, we have a duty of intellectual honesty to submit ourselves to it. For the truth, as Christ says, will set us free,” Pompedda said.

     Pompedda is a jurist with no real pastoral experience, and hence I don’t think he’s in the running to be the next pope. But I suspect that if he makes an argument for (or against) a candidate when the time comes, more than a few cardinals will be inclined to listen. 

* * *

     My new book Conclave: The Politics, Personalities and Process of the Next Papal Election (Doubleday) is available at

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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