John Paul I

jp1-sm John Paul I was pope for barely a month before he died. There are many theories about why he died. The most widely promulgated of these is that J.P. was killed by Masonic cardinals and/or to cover up a gigantic Vatican banking scandal. Other suspects include Mafia, Nazis, extraterrerstrials and/or the Antichrist, or possibly in connection with a Catholic mind control cult linked to Pius XII. The murder of John Paul I may or may not have been predicted by Nostradamus and/or the Virgin Mary.

Albino Luciani was born in 1912 in Northern Italy. He entered the seminary when he was just 11 years old and embarked on a life that could be called "distinguished" only by a resident of Vatican City. He never held a job outside of the church, and his resume reads like top-ten list of semi-meaningless but very important-sounding titles -- deacon, curate, vice-rector, chancellor, pro vicar-general and patriarch of Venice, among others.

Basically, you never would have heard of this guy if he hadn't become pope. His overall blandness is attested to even by the small, loud cult following that sporadically demands his canonization as a saint. According to his hometown bishop, "Luciani is not a holy saint characterized by many miracles or works of who-knows-what extent. His holiness consists in the exercise of daily virtues, in the ordinary character of life."

On the death of Paul VI in 1978, however, boring Albino Luciani became the exciting new pope. He took the name John Paul, to honor his two immediate predecessors. Although his selection by the College of Cardinals was a relatively quick affair, it mostly reflected the fact that the quiet bureaucrat was one of the few cardinals who had managed to pass his career without pissing anyone off.

Or rather, his career so far. Albino Luciani might have been a mild-mannered Clark Kent, but when Pope John Paul stepped out of the phone booth, the holy fur began to fly.

John Paul was not your ordinary pope. He referred to himself as "I" instead of the traditional royal "We." His beaming demeanor earned him the nickname "The Smiling Pope" and gave him cachet with the little people. John Paul immediately began planning out reforms he perceived that the church needed, including revisions to the long-standing absolute ban on contraceptives and fertility treatments. He was apparently also planning to shake up the Vatican power structure.

And therein lies a story, because Pope John Paul didn't get the chance to do any of these things. Instead, he died just 33 days after his election.

The most obvious explanation for this turn of events is obvious -- a vengeful God having the usual sort of spiteful fun with a man who had spent his life kowtowing to God's every whim. Historically, God tends to screw over those who love him best. Just ask Abraham (punk'd out when God asked him to sacrifice his own son), Job (tormented by Satan in order to prove a philosophical point), Lot (forced to offer up his daughters to a rape gang in order to protect angels), Jesus (crucified despite asking nicely to be excused) or Moses (followed a pillar of flame in circles for 40 years in order to make an 6-month journey through the desert, then killed just before he got to the Promised Land).

But the obvious is never good enough for some people. There are a number of alternative theories about exactly what happened to J.P. the first. It's difficult to know how credible these notions are, because the Vatican has no sunshine laws, no Freedom of Information Act, no Warren Commission, no Cardinal Woodward and no Monsignor Bernstein.

The first conspiracy theory sprang up in France, the same country that brought you 9/11: The Big Lie. These were a hodgepodge of the usual French mindset, speculating that the pope had been killed by either the CIA or the KGB, but the French weren't the only ones who smelled a rat in the Vatican.

There were conflicting accounts about the scene of the pope's death, whether he died in his bed or at his desk, and who found the body. The offical story was that John Paul had died of a heart attack, but no autopsy was performed and the pope was embalmed before anyone could raise a question.

Rumors began to fly that John Paul had been poisoned, but these were only speculation until the 1984 publication of In God's Name, an investigative book by David Yallop, a reasonably credible crime writer, who outlined a labyrinthine plot to assassinate John Paul in order to protect a Masonic cabal of cardinals engaged in a massive banking fraud. The theory was dramatized unmemorably in The Godfather: Part III.

The Vatican authorized an investigation into Yallop's charges, which concluded -- shockingly -- that John Paul I had not been murdered. Instead, the new investigation (published as a book in A Thief in the Night) concluded that J.P. had been the victim of near criminal neglect of his health. Meanwhile, other "Vatican insiders" began leaking a tale that the pope had accidentally overdosed on some sort of medication.

After these relatively mainstream looks at the death of John Paul I, the conspiracy nutball machine takes over, with the usual assortment of zany fun. Some speculate that the killing had to do with the Catholic church's ties to the Nazis under Pius XII; others cited UFO reports in the weeks before John Paul's death. And let's just say that the word Antichrist is bandied around pretty freely during some of these discussions.

You may also choose to believe the assassination was foretold in the Third Secret of Fatima, a hush-hush prophecy attributed to the Virgin Mary (which the Vatican later interpreted as relating to a 1981 assassination attempt against John Paul II.) Nostradamus may also have foretold the killing, although he had plenty to say about popes and death over the course of many centuries, and it's not like this was the first time that intrigue had hit the Vatican.

Since the church isn't a democracy, the odds are quite good that we'll never know exactly what, if anything, happened to John Paul I. As conspiracy theories go, we award bonus points for eschatological significance, but these are more than offset by the lack of obvious social relevance.

The story's glamour has faded in recent years, as the long tenure of John Paul II has eclipsed the fleeting term of John Paul I. Only a few diehard Catholic and anti-Masonic theorists are still interested. Without a major hook explaining why this issue is important, the conspiracy is destined to be forgotten. Unless it involves pedophile priests, no one really cares what a bunch of anachronistic cardinals are scheming behind closed doors.

If you're looking for more constructive ways to indulge your paranoia, suggests you try fluoridation or the HAARP Project. The ship appears to have sailed on Pope John Paul I. Rest in peace, smilin' guy.

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