Pope Benedict XVI delivers his blessing after an audience with the Roman clergy in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican last week as part of his farewell tour.
There I was, watching Pope Paul VI make his way down the aisle of his plane, greeting those accompanying him on his trip to Bogota, Colombia, to attend the World Eucharistic Congress.
It was August 1968. I was the new ABC News Rome bureau chief, based on my work during and after the recent Middle East war. That region was to be my beat. But for the second time that summer there was a major story involving the pope and the Vatican, and I was way out of my comfort zone. (The first story, later.)
At that moment I was watching everyone bow and kiss the pope’s ring as he made his way in my direction.
The Rev. Edward Heston, a Vatican press adviser, was at his side doing the introductions. I was a lapsed Protestant and had no strong feelings against kissing the ring — it was just something I had never done, and it felt awkward. And so, when the pope put his hand out toward me, I shook it.
The Rev. Heston immediately said, “Your Holiness, this is Mr. Dunsmore. He is now the ABC News man in Rome after having been based in Paris” (or words to that effect — it was fast, in Italian).
The pope smiled and said to me in French, “Then you speak French.” I muttered, “Oui,” and we had a short exchange on the relative merits of living in Paris or Rome. That was my one and only personal interchange with that pope or any other.
Over the next six years my Vatican reporting was mainly Christmas and Easter ceremonies. Yet these memories came flooding back to me in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s historic resignation. Many of the stories this past week have emphasized the scandals of Benedict’s papacy. I can add nothing to that except to say that based on my own experience, scandals in the Vatican may be more the rule than the exception. I found some of the people close to the pope to be exemplary human beings. Others, not so much.
The Rev. Edward Heston was one of the very good guys. He was born in Ravenna, Ohio, and had ties to Notre Dame. He was a remarkably warm man. My first contact with him came just after my arrival in Rome when one Sunday morning in July 1968, Time magazine scooped the world on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life). This was a huge story because Vatican Council II had left open the possibility for change in the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude toward birth control. This new official doctrinal document from the pope to the clergy slammed the birth control door shut.
On this and future stories, Heston turned out to be invaluable in guiding me through the thicket of Vatican politics with no proselytizing and remarkable frankness. During my years in Rome he became a real friend. He also became an archbishop and was named president of the Pontifical Commission for Social Communications. As such, he was the Vatican’s principal spokesman.
Monsignor Paul Marcinkus, a Lithuanian-American, was born in Cicero, Ill. After his ordination as a priest in the diocese of Chicago, he went to Rome and in 1955 joined the Vatican Diplomatic Service, where he worked for Pope John XXIII.
Marcinkus was a physically imposing man, who organized papal trips abroad, acted as translator and occasional papal bodyguard. While Pope Paul was visiting Manila, Marcinkus fended off an attack on the pope by a knife-wielding would-be assassin. In 1968 Pope Paul made him secretary of the Vatican Bank and the next year a bishop.
This was the period in which I casually knew Marcinkus. I used to see him with the pope, talked to him occasionally, and I heard a lot about him from an old-timer in the ABC Rome bureau who was a buddy of his since the 1950s. The New York Times said of Marcinkus that he was “an ecclesiastic maverick, unceremonious to the point of bluntness.” This rang true to my experience and what I had heard from those who knew him well. When I left Rome in 1974, after the pope, Marcinkus was arguably the most powerful man in the Vatican.
However, later that decade Marcinkus was linked to a banking scandal involving the Sicilian financier Michele Sindona who had been his adviser in handling the Vatican’s assets and investments. When Sindona’s own financial empire collapsed, the Vatican suffered losses in the tens of millions of dollars. It later became known that Sindona was a member of the Gambino crime family and was sentenced to life imprisonment for the contracted murder of his onetime lawyer. Four days after his sentencing he died of cyanide poisoning. Suicide or murder? Apparently a mystery.
In 1978 after Pope Paul VI’s death, Marcinkus was reconfirmed as Vatican Bank president and made an archbishop by Pope John Paul II. But in the early 1980s a new financial scandal erupted, involving the collapse of the Banco Ambrosiano, which was partly owned by the Vatican. Ambrosiano’s president, Italian financier Roberto Calvi, the man known as “God’s banker,” was tried and convicted of corruption but disappeared during his appeal. He was later found hanging from a bridge in London in what the British ultimately ruled a homicide.
Archbishop Marcinkus was never convicted of anything, though he was indicted in the Ambrosiano banking scandal and holed up in the Vatican for a long time to avoid arrest by Italian police. His case was eventually dropped. Until the day he died, Marcinkus maintained his innocence. But critics claim he implicitly admitted the corrupt nature of the world of politics, money and the Mafia within which he had long operated, when he said near the end of his time in Rome, “You can’t run the church on Hail Marys.”
Or as Pope Benedict XVI may have also implied with his resignation, the physical and spiritual compromises demanded by the modern papacy make the job almost unbearable.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.
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