Review:  Murder in the Vatican

by Lucien Gregoire

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The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson

The Vatican Murders by Lucien Gregoire

Scissors, Paper, Rock by Fenton Johnson

The Mysterious Death of a Potential Revolutionary


The Vatican Murders

By Lucien Gregoire


pages, 6x9 Paperback, $19.95


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The Vatican Murders: The Life and Death of John Paul I

Also available for Kindle and ebooks.

5 stars

This review appeared in White Crane Journal, #69 in 2005. It is for an earlier version of this book, released as Murder in the Vatican. The author, Lucien Gregoire, has revised, rewritten, and rereleased this book several times. A search at will show the various editions. This review serves to introduce all of them.  Click here for the list of books by Lucien Gregoire.

Reviewed by Toby Johnson

    On August 26, 1978, Albino Luciani, bishop of the minor diocese of Vittorio Veneto, Italy, was elected Pope. Having been a counselor to (and perhaps the man who radicalized) Pope John XXIII and a friend to (and perhaps the chosen successor of) Pope Paul VI, Luciani took the combined name John Paul. Just a month later, on September 28, he was found dead in his bed in the Vatican. According to Lucien Gregoire, Pope John Paul I was murdered.
    The book, Murder in the Vatican, is some 25 years in the making. The author explains he had good reason for delaying its publication. His connection with Albino Luciani came through his boyhood best friend, Jack Champney, who’d become a priest, was stationed in Italy, was appointed to an out-of-the-way seminary in the mountain village of Vittorio Veneto and from there was selected to be secretary to the Archbishop, Luciano Albino. So Fr. Jack Champney knew the man who would become pope very well, and in fact, had introduced his old friend Lucien to his boss, who proved to be a very down-to-earth man who went by his own childhood nickname Piccolo (“little one”). Jack Champney was killed by a hit and run driver the day after John Paul I died. And he was only one of some ten Church or Italian government officials who died in similarly mysterious fashion around the time of the Pope’s death. Gregoire could only imagine that he’d be among the dead if he told what he knew.
    Now in 2005 a 65 year old man, Gregoire has written down and published what he knows.

    Lucien Gregoire is not the only person who has believed the first Pope John Paul was murdered. Indeed, at the time there were rumors and other books have been published making these accusations, though for the most part the previous theories all held that the motive involved the Great Vatican Bank Scandal. That’s partly because also among the mysterious deaths were those of Roberto Calvi, President of the Banco Ambrosiano, and his secretary Teresa Corrocher, both of whom were found hanged on the same day (and ruled suicide by the authorities), and the Italian politician Aldo Moro who been kidnapped and murdered by “extremists” shortly before the Papal death, or perhaps, deaths. For Gregoire suggests that not only John Paul I was murdered as part of this scheme to control Catholic doctrine, but also his predecessor Paul VI.
    Both popes died with similar symptoms: a week or so of uncharacteristic fatigue and inexplicable lethargy followed by a “heart attack”—in men with no history of heart disease, symptoms Gregoire suggests might have indicated some sort of poisoning. Arsenic, he says, could produce just those symptoms.
    Also in both cases, the details around the deaths are confused. Vatican statements and press releases do not square with medical reports as to time of death or circumstances. Officially, John Paul was supposed to have died, fully dressed, sitting in bed reading the pious text The Imitation of Christ. But according to the people who found him, he had in his hands copies of his own writings from his bishopric in Vittorio Veneto, writings that might well have gotten him in trouble with the doctrinally arch-conservative forces in the Church. The slipper socks he was wearing (which his sister-in-law asked for after his death) had disappeared. And his reading glasses were missing (so how was he reading?) The facts don’t square with the official story.
    Gregoire dismisses the theories that the Pope(s) murder was over money missing from the Vatican bank (in fact, he supposes that the money disappeared because it was used to pay for the assassinations); he thinks the reason was doctrinal.

    In the Foreword he writes:
   On the evening of September 23, 1978, the newly appointed Pope called together the twenty-one Vatican cardinals who hated what he stood for so much that they had refused to vote for him on the recount that had been taken to render his election unanimous. He talked of the problems of the world: that the Church’s ban on contraception was the driving forced behind the spread of disease, poverty and starvation in third world countries, and abortions in first world countries. He told them it was morally wrong for ‘holy’ men to stand in the way of long term loving relationships between any of God’s children, whether it be a matter of race, creed, remarriage or homosexuality. He told them it was morally wrong for ‘holy’ men to stand in the way of a woman’s right to minister the will of Christ. He told them many other things. And then he told them one thing more. He told them that the following week he would go to the podium and tell the world, “Mother Church will cease to be the cause of many of the world’s problems and rather will begin to be the answer to them.”
       A week later he was dead.
    The most interesting things in this book are Gregoire’s portrayal of Albino “Piccolo” Luciani. He reports him as saying some of the most radical things you can imagine a cleric saying: that the Church is a cause of evil and a force for Fascism, that sexual attraction is a sign from God whom one should develop a long term relationship with (and so homosexuality is a sign of a message from God), that the Bible is phony. And he portrays Luciani was the most humble and down-to-earth of men: he declined to coronated in pomp and circumstance, but simply donned a stole to mark his assumption of new responsibilities; he never put on the Fisherman’s Ring of a pope and never allowed any man or woman to bow before him or kiss the ring; he preferred to embrace visitors; he ate at the same table with the nuns who prepared his food and even served them. (Indeed, he sounds like the fictional Pope Kiril in Morris L. West’s novel of an idealized Vatican The Shoes of the Fisherman.)

    According to Gregoire’s account, while Bishop of Vittorio Veneto, Luciani embarked on a research expedition to Egypt to verify—or falsify—the stories of Moses and the Hebrews on which the Old Testament Bible are based. What he discovered he summarized in an acerbicly whimsical comment that there aren’t any Jewish pilgrimages to visit the holy sites in Egypt (as there are to Israel) because there aren’t any holy sites in Egypt, no tombs of Jewish ancestors, no spots historically important for Jews: there’s no evidence whatsoever that there ever were Jews/Israelites/Hebrews in Egypt. The whole story of Moses appears to have been made up. According to Luciani, Moses was the father of Fascism and bigotry, while Jesus was the father of Socialism and interpersonal responsibility. Christianity was supposed to overturn the God of the Old Testament.

As a teenager, Luciani had proposed the government place a warning on the Old Testament, “This book is a work of fiction.” He apparently believed that all his life.

Luciani said Christ taught the “Seven Commandments.” The Ten Commandments of Moses includes the first four about God’s authority (no other gods, no graven images, no use of the name, no work on the Sabbath) and the last about not coveting which Luciani understood to mean divine approval of private property. The “Seven Commandments” are five of the original (honor parents, no killing, no adultery, no stealing, no lying) plus the two Jesus revealed (“love thy neighbor as thyself” and “sell all that thou hast and give to the poor”).

As one reads this book, one can’t help but wonder how this man could possibly have been elected Pope. He sounds so modern, so progressive, so enlightened, so beyond the institution of religion. And so, of course, one can understand why the Vatican officials might have wanted him dead. Though, frankly, it is a little hard to believe that Vatican officials really could commit murder. Priests just don’t do that kind of thing, do they?

One can see why Gregoire kept his silence all these years. After all, his friend Jack had known too much and apparently it had killed him. But that is also the problem with this book. It comes across as the mullings-over of an old eccentric. It’s difficult to determine just what genre it’s written in. Some of it reads like a novel with scene-setting and character introduction and drama. Some of it reads like a “true crime” documentary, with discussion of notices and methods (and a surprising amount about spiders and snakes as weapons). A lot of it reads like a memoir, one written over and over again as if struggling to tell the story better each time. And the problem is that all these narratives, documentaries, and stories are all strung together: an old man’s reminiscences about the most important secret he’s ever known and never been able to tell. Some of the things Albino Luciani seems to comment on, like AIDS and gays in the military, are issues that only came into public consciousness after his death. The reader has to wonder if Gregoire has put these words into his mouth, extrapolating that this is what he would have said. And the account is just too repetitious. Nonetheless it’s unsettlingly convincing.

An interesting fact that Gregoire tells is that it was none other than Karol Wojtyla who officially counted the ballots for the election of John Paul I. The results are known only to the Papal Secretary of State and the two counters; the winner is announced, but not the actual count of the votes. Wojtyla would have been one of the only men in the world who’d know that he himself had come in second—and, of course, that if there were another election soon, he’d be the winner. (The other counter was ultraliberal Cardinal Suenens who in 1979 was removed from his position as Primate of Belgium by Pope John Paul II—Karol Wojtyla—and sent into exile where he died unexpectedly and under identical circumstances as those that surrounded the death of John Paul I and Paul VI.)

Lucien Gregoire is a gay man and so especially sensitive to the Church’s ambivalent but ultimately homophobic treatment of gay people. That he has revealed so much that was gay-positive in Luciano’s thinking is a gift.

This is an interesting book. Hard to believe it’s “true,” but here’s the evidence. Whatever one makes of the mysteries surrounding the decade of deaths that happened in connection with the election of this liberal and progressive man as Pope John Paul I, the wisdom that is presented coming from his mouth is just wonderful. The character Lucien Gregoire describes as Piccolo should be Pope, and what he was saying twenty-five years ago is what the Pope should have been saying all these years that followed, but wasn’t!

The book deserves to be read, whatever the shortcomings of its style and presentation and whatever the “truth” of the True Crime accusations. Between the author’s (gay-inspired?) interpretations of religion and the quotations from Luciani, Murder in the Vatican ends up presenting a wonderful vision of what True Christianity would be.

Opponents of organized religion and ex-Catholics feeling betrayed by the Church may jump on the accusations as proof of the venality of religion, but even so—or precisely because of that—they’d likely be impressed with Albino Luciani and impressed with what Christianity may yet become. By revealing the dark secret that must have haunted him all his life, Lucien Gregoire is helping force that transformation. He deserves our support (and readers with any interest in religion will certainly enjoy the “dish”).

Reviewed by Toby Johnson, author of
The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell, Gay Spirituality, Getting Life in Perspective and other novels and books

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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.

Johnson's Lammy Award winning book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are available now from Lethe Press.

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