he excellent play The Last Confession opened this week at the Theatre Royal Haymarket after being on tour. I saw it recently in Malvern, Worcestershire, and found it intensely interesting.
It thoroughly deserves its favourable reviews and confirms the position of David Suchet as one of our leading character actors, if not, indeed, our leading one. He portrays the part played by Cardinal Benelli in the sensational events surrounding the sad and mysterious premature death of Pope John Paul I (who is pictured below).
I cannot claim to have known Bench i well, but met him several times during my various visits to Rome in the 1970s. He was an excellent linguist with a very good memory. I was naturally gratified when, on being introduced to him at an Embassy party, be said: "Oh, yes, of course; the editor of The Catholic Herald and I are old friends."
The play describes the circumstances immediately preceding and succeeding the sudden death of the pope 33 days after he had been elected. A dramatic additional dimension would have been added by the inclusion of an account, or even a hint, of what almost certainly actually happened on that fateful night.
I remember the affair vividly and here refer to some remarks made in my Catholic Herald Scrapbook published last year with reference to events at the time at The Catholic Herald and my reflections as arrived at later about the night the pope died.
Paul VI died on August 6, 1978, and John Paul 11 was elected on October 16, 1978. Pope John Paul I's short intervening pontificate lasted from August 26 to Septem ber 28. Soon after his election The Catholic Herald, through its then Rome correspondent Michael Wilson, got wind of some fascinating "letters" written by the new pope several years earlier when he was Patriarch of Venice. Richard Dowden was our editor at the time and he acted quickly on the tip-off, with the first of the new pope's "letters" being published the following week.
At the time, we commented: "The new pope had been the only Church official to speak out openly in favour of a test-tube birth. He said at the time of the birth of Louise Brown in Oldham last month: 'I extend warmest wishes to the English girl whose creation was produced artificially. As for the parents, I have no right to condemn them... they could even gain great merit before God.'" (This, of course, directly defied what was, and still is, official Catholic teaching.) The previous pope but one, John XXIII, had famously proclaimed: "Let us open the windows." John Paul I went further. He (quite literally) opened the doors. He would wander by himself all over the Vatican and look into different offices without warning in a manner that quite quickly filled the officials of the Curia with fear and annoyance. An unspoken conspiracy uncoiled its way round the Vatican like a stealthy serpent. The pope was plied (quite unnecessarily) with mountains of paperwork and began to become weighed down with anxiety and ... depression. To cut a long story short. he was being slowly destroyed. On the day before he died he had two heart attacks but instructed his secretaries not to call a doctor. (They should, of course, have done so anyway.) He went to bed at about 10 pm on the evening of September 27. Soon afterwards, he died. One of his secretaries passed his door, left slightly ajar (as was customary), on his way to bed just before midnight. Just inside the pope's bedroom door was a heavy curtain. It is inconceivable that the secretary in question, mindful of the pope's two attacks during the day, should not have looked in to his room on his own way to bed. A hypothesis of what then happened, with the help of the searching investigations of John Cornwell (author of A Thief in the Night) has become possible.
On looking into the pope's bedroom the secretary, Fr John Magee, found the pope on the floor, already dead. He had collapsed while undressing for bed. Fr Magee rushed to inform his fellow secretary Fr Diego Lorenzi. After agonised deliberation, they dressed the pope in his night attire and propped him up in bed. The alarm about his death was spread the following morning at about 6.30. Fr John Magee, now a bishop in Ireland, is too compassionate a man to have passed the pope's door. knowing of his condition, on the night in question. He is also too loyal a churchman to contradict the official account of what happened and, quite rightly, is unwilling to be interviewed on the subject. His silence is, however, significant.
The official story of the circumstances of the pope's death bristled with so many inconsistencies and contradictions that suspicions naturally began to circulate. These increased when an autopsy was refused. Was the pope poisoned? Certain sensitive areas were thought to be at risk if the pope lived too long. The poison theory thus gained momentum. It was, in fact, unfounded. The unfortunate pope was destroyed by other more subtle means.