Luis Miguel Rocha’s novel The Last Pope seamlessly weaves facts and fiction into a compelling story centered on the actual mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978. Newspaper accounts by a Spanish journalist at the time of the Pope’s death painted a cloudy picture of what actually happened to His Holiness. Even reports of who found his body were controversial. The Last Pope emerged from these inconsistencies. Although there have been several nonfiction books that address the question of whether Pope John Paul I was murdered, Rocha’s book develops these conspiracy theories into an exciting thriller. The author delves into the life of Albino Luciani, who became Pope John Paul I, and Vatican history well. Historically, the Vatican ordered all involved on the morning of the Pope’s death to take a vow of silence. The Vatican’s official response: His Holiness, a man of delicate health, died of unknown causes, “possibly associated with a heart attack.” He was embalmed within 24 hours, preventing an autopsy which would have revealed the actual cause of his death.
The story begins in the Vatican as a clergyman dressed in a black cassock furtively dashes through the sacred halls of the Secret Archives. The reader immediately is caught up in this intriguing scene. The Monsignor stops momentarily to put some yellowed papers into an envelope and addresses it. When he leaves the Archives, he encounters a stranger who follows him out of St. Peter’s Square into the streets of Rome. After being shot by the stranger but before he is whisked away in a car, the Monsignor slips the envelope into a mailbox.
Meanwhile, in the early hours of the same morning, Sister Vincenza prepares coffee to take to the private quarters of the new pope, John Paul I, elected only 33 days earlier. When she returns about 15 minutes later to give the Pope his medication, the silver tray with coffee she had left outside his door is undisturbed. After she goes into the quarters to check on him, she finds the Pope unresponsive and, upon finding no pulse, determines that he is dead.
The fate of the mysterious envelope mailed by the Monsignor is brought to light when Sarah Monteiro, a journalist in London, returns from vacation to find this envelope stuffed in her mailbox. The yellowed pages in the envelope contain a list of unfamiliar names and a coded message. Initially she is not terribly concerned about the list until a stranger breaks into her home, and she realizes the list has put her in danger. When she tries to find the meaning of the list, she discovers it also holds the key to murder and corruption at the highest levels of the government and the Church. The list includes perhaps the name of her father.
She flees to escape what might be her demise for having the list and joins up with a shadowy figure, code-name Raphael. He promises to reveal the meaning of the list and why she is involved. They are drawn into a vortex of terror and double-crosses as they try to find what really happened during the brief reign of John Paul I and who really benefited from the Pope’s sudden death.
The actions of the CIA and the Italian Mafia are disconcerting as they are involved in the Vatican politics. The author assures in an interview that this involvement is not the same today. Their involvement historically occurred in the decade of 1971-1981 in the financial, not religious, area of the Holy See. The religious organization P2 has extreme power in the Vatican in this story. Sarah Monteiro, Raphael and JC, however, are fictional. Although the P2 still exists today, the author notes that there are other religious organizations more powerful in the Vatican today.
Although The Last Pope is a fictionalized account of the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I, the author learned two copies of his book in Portuguese were delivered to the Vatican. To date the Church has not reacted to the book, which gives the presumption that they respect the work. The author was born in Portugal in1976 and was a young child at the time of the Pope’s death in 1978. Luis Miguel Rocha still lives in Portugal and writes for television and film. He dedicates the book to John Paul I (Albino Luciani) who lived from October 17, 1912 to September 29, 1978.
John Paul I’s own words after he was elected Pope on August 26, 1978, turned out to be prophetic: “May God forgive you for what you have done to me.” Who God may need to forgive, however, may always remain a mystery.