Pontiff: The Vatican, the KGB, and the Year of the Three Popes

Pontiff: The Vatican, the KGB, and the Year of the Three Popes

by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan-Witts

Pontiff unravels one of the last unexamined mysteries of the modern world

The Vatican has remained one of the last unexamined mysteries of the modern world. For centuries, pomp and pageantry have hidden from view the dramatic, sometimes sinister, realities that haunt the office of Supreme Pontiff and the men who make up his papacy. GordonSee more details below


Pontiff unravels one of the last unexamined mysteries of the modern world

The Vatican has remained one of the last unexamined mysteries of the modern world. For centuries, pomp and pageantry have hidden from view the dramatic, sometimes sinister, realities that haunt the office of Supreme Pontiff and the men who make up his papacy. Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts now bring their tremendous investigative talent to this most secret of institutions, offering us an unrivaled portrait and day-to-day account of the lives, personalities, and relationships of the three most recent popes: an equally fine account of the hour-by-hour deliberations of the closely guarded conclaves at which two popes were elected in the fateful year of 1978; and a remarkable rendering of the concrete issues facing the institutional papacy—in foreign affairs, economic matters, and the human factor—the highly individual ambitions, loyalties, and hatreds that characterize the men and women who serve the Holy Father.

The result is a book that is ahead of the world’s headlines, a book that makes headlines of its own. Not only have the authors brought the world of the Vatican into the open, their sleuthing has uncovered several major news stories. Pontiff includes a day-to-day account of the assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca upon John Paul II: Agca’s history and family, his right-wing political connections, his activities and jailing in Turkey, his escape from jail aided by the KGB, his movements through terrorist training camps in Libya and Syria, and a complete investigation of the Bulgarian connection that led to the shooting in St. Peter’s Square. Here, also, is the story of John Paul II’s involvement with the creation of Solidarity in Poland, and his almost-daily secret contacts with Lech Walesa, as well as the unprecedented letter to Brezhev threatening his resignation from the papal throne. In addition, owing to the authors’ intricate web of connections at the Vatican (including many cardinals), the book contains previously unknown information about the man entrusted with the Church’s money, Paul Marcinkus, and his relationship with the shadowy Michele Sindona. Pontiff is a fascinating revelation of a world previously unknown to us, and an intimate view of a few men in Rome trying to lead an increasingly unwilling world to their own vision of salvation.

Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts are authors of four previous books, all highly successful in bookstores and book clubs, all acclaimed in the United States and abroad. The Day the World Ended and Voyage of the Damned were made into major motion pictures; Shipwreck won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1973; and The San Francisco Earthquake has been hailed as a major achievement of reporting and writing. 

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By Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts


Copyright © 1983 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts Productions, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-5889-9


From the time Jesus said to Simon, "You are Peter. On you I will build my Church," there have been popes. Some were holier than others; many found the office a high-risk occupation. Each of the first eighteen popes was a victim of violence, either crucified, strangled, poisoned, beheaded or smothered to death. Some found no peace even in the grave. Formosus (891–96) was disinterred nine months after burial, his rotting corpse robed in pontifical vestments and placed on a chair to face trial before a religious court presided over by his successor. The corpse of John XIV (983–84) was skinned and hauled through the streets of Rome. Other popes have been imprisoned, exiled and deposed. Some were confronted with rival claimants, faced intense secular interference, heresies, mass defections and schisms.

Yet few institutions in the whole of history have displayed a greater capacity for survival. Roman Catholics often believe this longevity to be striking theological testimony to the divinity of the papacy; much is made of the power of the Holy Spirit for ensuring that the highest office of the Universal Church continues the ministry given by Christ to Peter. The papacy, called by Toynbee the greatest of all Western institutions, exerts a fascination for everybody. Believers find it a comforting symbol of Catholic identity. The rest are mesmerized by its complexities and contradictions.

Popes have civilized barbarians yet encouraged the Inquisition. They condemned torture yet approved it against heretics. Popes, the apostles of peace, have waged war. A few— John XII (955–64) and Alexander VI (1492–1503)–led shocking lives. The papacy, the epitome of unity, has itself been a significant barrier to Church unity.

It remains so in 1978, when Paid VI, the 261st pope to hold the office, is still on the Throne of St. Peter. It is the fifteenth year of his pontificate and 740 million baptized Catholics, whatever else they feel about him, agree he is firmly rooted in the nineteenhundred-year-old papal tradition. He is as insistently imperious, magnificently monarchic and absolutely absolute as any pope before him. He is also old, waiting to die, he hopes in bed.

But in this year of violence, of urban terrorism and religious fanatics and senseless brutal killing wherever he looks, not even Paul VI knows with certainty whether his death will be peaceful.

The worry helps to keep him awake at night.


The creeping gray where night ends and another day begins, 4:30 A.M. by the clock, the moment his mother still calls the first dawn, awakens him.

For a moment Mehmet Ali Agca lies motionless. Only his eyes move, small, red-rimmed, watchful eyes, set deep in a long face. He is nineteen years and five months old on this July morning in 1978. But those eyes make him look at least a decade older. They are the eyes of an insomniac, scanning a room which is all too familiar to him. He was born in it and has experienced all his worthwhile memories so far within the confines of its plain whitewashed walls. Here, he cried himself to sleep after his first street fight. Later he experienced his first sexual fantasy on this bed he has slept in since a boy. And here, too, beneath the small window in the wall, he regularly pleads with Allah to make him famous. Agca is still waiting. In the meantime his mind is filled with other thoughts, ugly and dangerous ideas which excite and frighten him.

His eyes continue to scan. The walls are covered with posters. Many bear the photograph of the same man, Colonel Alpaslan Turkes, leader of Turkey's paramilitary Idealists. Modeled on Hitler's S.S. and equipped with a variety of World War II weapons, the Idealists, better known as the Gray Wolves, are becoming as formidable as some of the more well known terrorist groups in Europe. Turkish law forbids the display of such posters under penalty of imprisonment. But Agca does not care about the risk. He has been a Gray Wolf for two years. So far he has killed nobody. Yet he is willing to do so, and to die, for Turkes.

Agca finds nothing unusual in such fanaticism. He was born and raised with it. There are countless thousands of other Turks like him, all caught up in the Anarchy, the generic term for the appalling violence which sweeps Turkey, Islam's last free society, a democracy of forty-five million persons in a Moslem world of about six hundred million; only the Catholic Church can claim more souls. The Anarchy, for all its tentacles which feed off the interstices of Turkish life, is concerned with one ultimate goal: the end of the present system of authentic elections and multiple parties. Violence, insane and numbing and continuous, has been chosen as the means to do this. Entire cities are now closed citadels controlled by either the right or the left. During the first six months of this year there have been six hundred murders; there is an average of twenty armed bank robberies a day. Nobody knows who is behind the Anarchy; most likely, no single hand any longer controls it, no one voice issues threats, demands, communiqués, chooses the victims. The Anarchy makes no special effort to gouge out the heart of the Turkish state– as the Red Brigades concurrently do in Italy. In Turkey, army officers, judges, politicians and policemen are not specifically singled out; the killing is far more indiscriminate. Nor is it a straight clash between right and left. There are as many as forty-five Marxist revolutionary groups in Turkey fighting each other. The right is dominated by the hard profile of Turkes and his Gray Wolves, who howl when their Leader addresses them. Agca regularly practices the chilling animal sound in his bedroom.

The only furniture in the room, apart from his iron bedstead, is a rickety old table and chair. A strip of carpet is on the bare concrete Boor that is icy cold in winter but pleasantly cool in the hot summers. On top of the strip lies a smaller and grander rug. It is handwoven with an intricate pattern of gold and red threads. It belonged to Agca's grandfather; when he died it was passed on, in a family tradition, to his eldest grandson. It is Agca's prayer mat, one of his two most prized possessions.

Above his head is a shelf. It contains a row of books: an English primer, well thumbed, its pages repeatedly folded at the corners to mark important passages; the others are paperbacks, thrillers for the most part, including a reprint of The Day of the Jackal. Agca has read it at least ten times, fascinated by the details of how to assassinate a public figure. Beside the books is an old cigar box. It contains his second treasured keepsake, an old Mauser pistol, oiled, wrapped in rags. There are several bullets in the box.

Staring around the room, the dull heaviness he feels is more pronounced. Fear? Expectation? The residue of the malaise which had once again gripped him? He does not know. He is aware only of the tightening in his chest, the queasy feeling in his stomach. But at least he no longer snows any surface anger, no clenching and unclenching of his hands or sudden curling of his lips to expose discolored teeth. His mother has shown him how to control such indications of inner torment, just as she taught him, in the shrill voice people call intimidating but which he finds comforting, that at first dawn he must scramble from bed and recite one of the five daily prayers.

Agca's nervous energy is evident as he gets up, clad in the undershirt and shorts in which he always sleeps. Standing, he is an unprepossessing figure; hands and feet seem out of proportion to his puny body with its concave chest, protruding shoulder blades and thin arms and legs. He looks painfully undernourished. In addition to insomnia, Agca suffers from anorexia nervosa, a severe psychological illness more usually found in teenage girls, and crippling bouts of depression. Not even his mother can fully understand his suffering.

Just as she first showed him years earlier, he now spreads his prayer rug, prostrates himself three times, each time touching his forehead to the ground, murmuring the name of Allah, Master of the World, the All-Meaningful and All-Compassionate, the Supreme Sovereign of the Last Judgment.

Then he begins quietly to recite his long list of hatreds.

The eldest son of the widow Muzzeyene will need a long time to get through his list.

The light is still too diffuse to identify the bleakness of this room. There are four others similarly austere in the house. The largest is his mother's bedroom with its double bed no one has shared since the day her husband died eleven years ago; two smaller bedrooms, one for Fatma, Agca's seventeen-year-old sister, the other for Adnan, his fifteen-year-old brother. There is also the family room, where they eat, squatting on the floor around a potbellied wood-burning stove and, at nights, watch television on an old black-and-white set.

Muzzeyene has painted the living-room walls a sickly green from a tin of paint she found on a local refuse dump she regularly scours. The ceiling is dirty from the stove. There is an outside toilet and water from a pump. For this hovel Muzzeyene pays an absentee landlord the equivalent of one U.S. dollar a week. When he learned the amount, Agca felt it was extortionate. From then on all landlords, absentee and otherwise, were put on his hate list.

The list is extraordinary in its diversity and implication. It includes: all the long-dead Russian tsars and their imperial dreams; NATO, whose bases are scattered throughout Turkey; Sheik Yamani, for refusing to use Arab oil to totally destroy the West On a more personal level Agca hates hamburgers, ketchup, Levi's, I Love Lucy, Time and Newsweek–anything connected with the most powerful nation in the world, its way of life, values and customs, the very wellsprings of its existence. He needs a full five minutes to remind himself of everything he hates about America.

He especially hates those Americans who buy the staple of village life, and not just the staple of his village, but of hundreds of other villages scattered from end to endless end of Turkey: the poppy. For a thousand years–Agca dates it from the time Alp Asian defeated the Byzantine emperor at the battle of Manzikert and ancient Anatolia became Turkish–the poppy has been tilled, its oil used for cooking, its leaves in salad, its seeds in bread, its pods fed to cattle, its stalks in building. Only its gum remained untouched by villagers. The Americans have found a special use for it, converting the gum into a morphine base which in turn is refined into heroin.

Officially, this no longer happens. On June 30, 1971, the United States government and the Turkish regime signed an agreement banning all opiumpoppy growing in Turkey. The last legal crop was to be harvested in 1972. America paid $37.5 million to Turkey to compensate the poppy growers while they sought replacement crops. President Nixon hailed the agreement as a significant step toward stemming the heroin crisis in the United States. The farmers took the money but went on growing the poppy.

Agca knows what heroin can do. Fresh in his mind is the incident in Istanbul. A drug courier had been caught cheating by his employers. The man was held down and forcibly injected with high-grade pure heroin. The process was repeated every day for a week. By then he was an incurable addict. To complete his punishment his employers arranged that he would receive no further heroin. In another week the demented courier jumped into the Bosporus, drowning in its pollution. Agca finds the episode exhilarating in its violence and deeply satisfying–the way the courier was finally driven to kill himself.

Months afterward the details have lost nothing in his repeated retelling of the story. What he does not add–preferring instead to keep it for this time at dawn when he rekindles all his other hatreds–is his burning resentment for those unknown American drug bosses on the other side of the world. Indirectly, they employ him; he occasionally drives a truck on the heroin trail. He gets only a fistful of Turkish liras for each trip. But it is not that which fuels his anger. It is directly related to his discovery of the vast profits made by the Americans. A poppy farmer might get $15 for a pound of gum. On the streets of New York, refined and processed, the price was $200,000 a pound. All profiteers are now on Agca's list.

So, too, are employers, dating from that day his father was killed in a road accident on a Tuesday and his employer had refused to pay the last full week of salary.

When he thinks of his father nowadays, he can only clearly remember his hands, calloused, broad-fingered and practical; violent, too, suddenly lashing out, sending his mother reeling and the cheap crockery shattering over the floor. Agca remembered how he had smiled at his father's funeral; his mother looked at him and they both understood. Only in deference to her had Agca kept his father off his list.

His death had altered the family's position. Already poor, they plunged still further down the village social scale. All three children, from an early age, were expected to find work. By the time he was ten, Agca sold water by the cup to travelers at a bus stop near his home. It was about this time his eating problems began. He deliberately missed meals or ate no more than he had to when at table. His mother did not seem unduly concerned. Perhaps because she was so busy with other problems–finding the rent money and clothes for the children, scouring the refuse bin for a scrap of window curtain or a usable cooking pot–she did not seriously consider her son's eating habits. Nor did she immediately recognize the psychological changes in him, that he was growing into a young man rather different from his companions. Often he would fall into silent, inactive periods, retreating to his room. When she did think about such behavior, like him, she had no idea of the complex process causing it. Part was associated with the guilt he felt at not loving his father. Yet that same guilt stopped him from speaking about the feeling, let alone seeking help. Instead, all the hostility he had felt toward his father he turned on himself during these periods of depression. Eventually he had come to believe he could only expunge this feeling by hatred. He once mentioned this to his mother, and from then on she encouraged him to hate. And so his list was created.

The light was strengthening now. He could hear the sounds of his mother and sister preparing breakfast, and beyond the window the first stirrings of life in the community somebody had cruelly called Yesiltepe, Green Hill.

Only the largest-scale maps of Turkey pinpoint Yesiltepe, 465 miles due east or Ankara. It huddles on the road the Crusaders trudged to and from Jerusalem. Every thirty years or so the buildings begin to crumble into dust, their dung bricks turning to powder under the fierce heat of summer and the biting cold which sweeps the Turkish steppes from October to April. Yesiltepe has clung for six hundred years to the stony ground that extends to the mountains which ring the community. Eleven hundred people live here in 1978, suspicious insular men in dark suits and flannel shirts and women who cling to their veils as they drive the cattle through the unpaved streets and work the fields. There are a good number of children; even the very young ones smoke and hawk and spit. The small mosque has a tall, tapering minaret. Many of the houses do not have electricity or running water. Restrictive Moslem code keeps all women outside the teahouses where the men spend their days talking and playing cards.

In this remote corner of earth, Agca learned the facts of his life. He was an unusually small child, but gifted: he could read and write at the age of five. Yesiltepe School has no accelerated program for advanced children. Instead Agca was "skipped" ahead by his teachers. At eight he was in the fourth grade, sharing lessons with twelve-year-olds. At first he liked to show off his abilities, but after he had been beaten several times by his classmates he learned to disguise his brilliance. Nevertheless, by the age of fourteen he had learned all the school could offer. He stayed another year, coming and going as he pleased. Almost naturally, because of his impoverished background, he drifted into one of the gangs in the nearby city of Malatya. He found himself running errands for the local crime bosses. He was good. He was recommended to the bigger bosses running the local sector of the heroin trail; when they wanted an extra driver they used him. On a trip to Istanbul he casually made contact with the Gray Wolves; he liked what he heard of their plans to overthrow established government. He joined the group. At the same time he made arrangements to continue his studies at the University of Ankara; young though he was, his grades guaranteed him a place. He spent an uneventful year there. Then the onset of one of his periods of depression cut short his studies. He returned to Yesiltepe and discovered the Gray Wolves had a cell in Malatya. He attended their meetings but found he had little in common with his fellow revolutionaries. He drifted back onto the heroin trail. The money he made from smuggling he gave to his mother. She did not ask where it came from. It was another of their understandings.


Excerpted from Pontiff by Gordon Thomas, Max Morgan Witts. Copyright © 1983 Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts Productions, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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