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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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 http://www.amazon.com/
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111