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The Vatican Mafia under John Paul II

Editor’s note: read part 1 of this series here. Purchase The St. Gallen Mafia by Julia Meloni.

In the last months of 1980 I received an unexpected visit from a priest who was seriously concerned about the future of the Church. This priest was Don Mario Marini (not to be confused either with Archbishop Piero Marini or with Msgr. Guido Marini, the current Bishop of Tortona).

I then lived in Via della Lungara, next to Porta Settimiana, and the priest lived a few hundred meters from me as the crow flies, in the residence of the Lebanese priests in Via Fratelli Bandiera, on the Janiculum Hill. Also living there were the Canadian Cardinal Edouard Gagnon (1918-2007) and the Syrian Archbishop Hilarion Capucci (1922-2017), linked to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Also living with them was another young priest, Fr. Charles Murr, who rightly recalls how they were “in the most secure spot in all of Rome.” The Israelis, in fact, after having arrested Monsignor Capucci for arms trafficking, had released him on the condition that he would never return to the Middle East and his residence was guarded by both Israeli and Syrian agents. Father Murr’s lengthy interview and his book The Godmother, dedicated to Sister Pascalina Lenhert (especially pp. 223-265) adds interesting details to the memories I recorded in my journal.

Don Mario Marini was born in Cervia, on the Riviera Romagnola, on September 13, 1936. When I met him, he was forty-four years old, with a vigorous physique and two intelligent and penetrating eyes. He entered the seminary after graduating in civil engineering at the University of Bologna and in theology at the Gregorian University. He was ordained a priest in November 1966 and carried out his first pastoral commitment as a fidei donum priest in northern Mexico. In 1974, Monsignor Giovanni Benelli (1921-1982), substitute for the Secretariat of State, had called him to work with him in the Vatican.

In August 1967, Paul VI, with the apostolic constitution Regimini Ecclesiae, had centralized the powers of the Curia in the Vatican Secretariat of State, through whose offices would pass all that concerned the relations of the Pope with the Roman Dicasteries and with the bishops. The Secretariat of State, whose powers had become very extensive, was the instrument that Paul VI intended to use to defeat the “Roman party” in the Curia, which opposed the Council reforms.

Msgr. Benelli helped him in this work, but the defeat of the Christian Democrats in the referendum against divorce in 1974 weakened his position, while the reputation of his rival, Agostino Casaroli (1914-1998), was rising. The Vatican Secretariat of State was divided into two sections: General Affairs and Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, which became, with the reform of the Curia, Council for the Public Affairs of the Church. These two sections corresponded analogously to the ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs of a modern state and were directed by Msgr. Benelli and Msgr. Casaroli, under the direction of Cardinal Secretary of State Jean-Marie Villot (1902-1979).

These were the years of the tumultuous transition from the pontificate of Paul VI (1963-1978) to that of John Paul II (1978-2005), with the brief interregnum (September 1978) of John Paul I. The Roman Curia was home to strongly conflicted personalities. In 1977 Paul VI removed Benelli from Rome, appointing him archbishop of Florence and elevating him to the dignity of cardinal. This removal deeply wounded the new cardinal, but did not diminish his pugnacious activity. When the law on abortion was approved in Italy on May 22, 1978, Benelli defined it as “an infected boil” to be eradicated from the legal system and supported the birth of the “Movement for Life” in Florence, encouraging its ecclesial recognition. Meanwhile, Cardinal Villot died and John Paul II appointed Cardinal Casaroli as Secretary of State. This appointment aroused much perplexity, because Casaroli had been the greatest architect of the Vatican Ostpolitik, certainly not appreciated by John Paul II (as Wojtyła while a cardinal seemingly disobeyed Paul VI by secretly ordaining priests). Some have suggested that the new pope’s decision could be explained by the fact that Ostpolitik reflected that of Paul VI rather than Casaroli’s strategy. Casaroli would have been only a faithful executor, ready to go along with Pope John Paul II’s policy, as he had applied that of Pope Montini. By appointing him Secretary of State, John Paul II would have cleverly reassured the Kremlin, demonstrating an apparent continuity with the previous Vatican policy, only to adopt totally different guidelines. However, if John Paul II’s type of “dialogue” with Eastern Europe appeared, from the beginning, to be different in nature from that of Paul VI, those who believed that Casaroli’s role was only that of an executor were mistaken. Don Marini was convinced that this was not the case, and the facts and documents proved him right.[1]

Don. Marini, who had left the Secretariat of State in 1978, was not a traditionalist but, like Card. Benelli, had a strong pro-life sensibility and detested the progressive wing of the Curia, which Casaroli personified. He therefore decided to enter the field discreetly.

Even though he knew that not all of our ideas coincided, he asked for my help in making known the existence of a real “Mafia” that controlled power under the pontificate of John Paul II. When he used the word “Mafia,” Don Marini always made it a point not to confuse the Holy Church, divine and unfailing, with the men of the Church who serve or betray her. These were the “mafiosi” to whom he referred, many years before the “Mafia of St. Gallen” was mentioned.

According to Don Marini, to understand what was happening in the Vatican, it was necessary to go back to the death of Paul VI, August 6, 1978, when two strong regional groups or “clans” were vying for power in the City of the Popes. Don Marini defined them as the Lombardy-Piedmontese “family” and the Romagna “family” (attributing to the word “family” the meaning with which the Mafia indicates the “cosche,” clans or Mafia groups that control a territory).

The first “cosca,” the Lombardy-Piedmontese one, hinged on the private secretary of Paul VI, Msgr. Pasquale Macchi (1923-2006) and included the future cardinals Msgr. Giovanni Coppa (1925-2016), assessor to the Secretariat of State, Msgr. Francesco Marchisano (1929-2014), undersecretary for Catholic Education, Msgr. Luigi Maverna (1920-1998), secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference, and Msgr. Virgilio Noé (1922-2011), master of papal ceremonies.

The second “cosca,” the one from Romagna, was formed by four companions at the regional seminary in Bologna. They were the future cardinals Msgr. Achille Silvestrini (1923-2019), Msgr. Pio Laghi (1922-2009), later appointed apostolic nuncio to Argentina, Msgr. Dino Monduzzi (1922-2006), prefect of the Papal Household, and Msgr. Franco Gualdrini (1923-2010), rector of the Capranica College and then bishop of Terni. The spiritual master of this “quadrilateral” was Msgr. Salvatore Baldassarri (1907-1982), “resigned” in 1975 by Paul VI from his position as Archbishop of Ravenna because of his ultra-progressivism, and in turn linked by close friendship with the “red bishop” of Ivrea, Msgr. Luigi Bettazzi, with whom he had studied at the seminary in Bologna.

At the death of Paul VI, the two “families” made a “pact of steel” for the control of the Vatican. The architect of the agreement was Msgr. Monduzzi, but the director was Msgr. Achille Silvestrini, who had succeeded Msgr. Casaroli as Secretary of the Council for Public Affairs of the Church, while Msgr. Edoardo Martinez Somalo (1927-2021) had become a substitute for the Secretary of State. The two “under-ministers” were Msgr. Audrys Juozas Bačkis, undersecretary for Public Affairs and Msgr. Giovanni Battista Re, assessor for General Affairs, both future cardinals and still living.

“Every morning at nine o’clock,” Don Marini explained,

the political group that runs the Vatican, composed of these characters, meets and prepares its reports for the Pope. But the real decisions have already been taken by an occult ‘directorate’ that effectively controls all the information, kept in inaccessible archives and appropriately filtered in order to guide the choices and propose appointments under apparently obvious pretexts.

At the head of this directorate was Monsignor Achille Silvestrini, the same person who, twenty years later, we will find again as the “grey eminence” of the “St. Gallen Mafia” whose history Julia Meloni has reconstructed  in her book The St. Gallen Mafia.

Read part III of this article here.


Translated by Kennedy Hall.

[1] See, for example, the reconstruction by Giovanni Barberini in L’Ostpolitik della Santa Sede. Un dialogo lungo e faticoso (Il Mulino, 2007; Id., La politica del dialogo. Le carte Casaroli sull’Ostpolitik vaticana, Il Mulino, 2008).

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