April 2, 2013

The Secret of the Metropolitan Who Died at the Feet of the Pope

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

With the title "I Had Never Heard Such Beautiful Words", a phrase voiced by Pope John Paul I Luciani ( the "33-day Pope" ), the June-July 2006 edition of the magazine 30 Days, which is run by Italy's former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, published an interview that the Spanish Jesuit Miguel Arranz gave to journalist Stefania Falasca.

To assist in translating, Arranz had accompanied Metropolitan Nicodemus (Nikodim) of Saint Petersburg (Leningrad) to his meeting with the newly-chosen Pope on the 5th September 1978 and, as everyone who keeps track of ecclesiastical affairs knows, Metropolitan Nicodemus after this private meeting left his last breath at the Pope's feet.

This event greatly disturbed the new Pope; in fact, two days later, the Pope himself publicly stated: "2 days ago, Metropolitan Nicodemus of Saint Petersburg died in my hands. I was responding to his address. I can assure you that I had never heard such beautiful words about the Church in my entire life, like the ones he had uttered. I cannot repeat what was said; it remains a secret."

What were those words about the Church, which had so enthused the new Pope and have remained a secret?

In the interview that Miguel Arranz gave to Stefania Falasca, who was present during that meeting as translator, he mentioned the events that took place on that day in front of the Pope, during the official reception of the Orthodox delegates who had come to congratulate him after his election and enthronement and, as already mentioned, the interview was published in the magazine 30 Days.

In her introductory comments before the interview, Stefania Falasca mentions that Metropolitan Nicodemus of Saint Petersburg was 49 years old at the time, and "one of the most brilliant personalities of Orthodoxy, but before all else, one of the most important figures in the history of Ecumenism. He had a delicate ecumenical conscience, which had led him to intensify his communications with the Catholic Church and to visit the Vatican several times to meet with the Pope of Rome during the post-Synod period (Vatican II) in the 60's and 70's, a time when the paths of Ecumenism and politics had crossed frequently."

Metropolitan Nicodemus was Chairman of the Department of External Ecclesiastic Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, founded in 1946. Its first Chairman was Metropolitan Nicholas and his successor was Nicodemus.

Also written in the prologue to her interview are the following:

Miguel Arranz, an old defender of Ecumenism and currently retired, remembers that period after the Synod quite accurately, like a broken promise: "Without openly proclaiming it, the Bishops of the East had in fact recognized the Pope's status as successor to Peter. Their travels to Rome were true visits on Peter's threshold (ad limina). Their countries had pressured (urged) them, and they came to the Pope with a filial faith, like sons of a sister Church. Perhaps that association (bond, confession) between Peter's successor and the Christians of those countries can find a way of prevailing. The entire thing may have been a deception, but the return to the union at times seemed far too easy."

Apparently the words that the Pope heard from Metropolitan Nicodemus pertained to "the union of the Churches" within the framework of ecumenism.

On reading the entire interview, one is able to notice certain interesting points.

The first point is that Metropolitan Nicodemus had visited Rome for the funeral of Pope Paul VI and had officiated at the memorial service in the basilica of Saint Peter, where "many delegates of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church had participated." The head of the Jesuits, P. Arrupe, had proposed to offer him hospitality for the entire month of August at the Villa Cavaletti at Frascaci, until the election of the new Pope and Nicodemus had accepted the invitation and had indeed remained in Italy until the election of the new Pope.

The second point is that - as we know from other texts also - on the 26th of August of 1978, the new Pope Luciani was elected as John Paul I, contrary to the expectations of many people. Of course he remained on the throne for a short time, because only a short time after his enthronement - and in fact when he was about to make radical changes to leading Vatican officials - he was found dead in his room. Much has been said about his death, but it is not my intention to go into these matters, except only to present whatever was said at this interview.

The fact is that Luciani was not the favorite choice for this sovereign office and that is why his election had caused such a big impression and surprise. In fact, as Arranz narrated, while on the way to Saint Peter's Square together with Nicodemus to listen to the new Pope's first speech, Cardinal Willebrands - Chairman of the Secretariat for Christian unity - happened to be passing by and "came out of his car and began to shout out to the Metropolitan Nicodemus: 'It was the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit!'." The Metropolitan Nicodemus listened to these words in amazement. In fact, that day the Pope himself during his first speech had said: "I went to vote yesterday morning... I would never have imagined... never."

The third point is that Metropolitan Nicodemus had strived to meet with the Pope in private and have a personal discussion with him, even though this was not a provision of the program or of the strict protocol for those days. It had been arranged for the Pope to meet with all the Orthodox delegations who had come to his enthronement on the 5th of September, however that was to be a formal and general meeting. "Personal discussions with the delegates were not in the program for that specific visit." However, "Nicodemus wanted to speak to the Pope confidentially. He had asked for a non-protocol hearing, so that the Pope might benefit from his meeting with the delegates. He had persistently pressured Casarola to give him an opportunity, in fact stating that 'there was an urgent need'. Then, after the necessary arrangements, he received reassurance that 'it would be permitted for him to speak to the Pope' shortly before his meeting with the Orthodox delegations."

Immediately after this reassurance, Metropolitan Nicodemus "retired early to his room, because he knew that the following day was to be a tense and important day." In the morning, shortly before the meeting with the Pope, Arranz, his translator, noticed that Nicodemus was "very uneasy" and was told that "he hadn't slept", because of the heat and the confinement and in fact added that he «felt as though he were suffocating». Archmandrite Lev, the Metropolitan's secretary, checked his blood pressure and Nicodemus "immediately took some nitroglycerin  as he had problems with his heart". The fact is that the previous evening, the car that he had borrowed "in order to go to the Vatican was stolen. That incident had upset him". Another incident also occurred on the way to the Vatican for his meeting with the Pope, which had equally upset him, because he was "made to understand that he was the one who was given the privilege of being the first who would see the Pope".

In the waiting room, while Arranz was explaining "the paintings that were hanging there", the Metropolitan was not paying attention to him, "as his mind was obviously preoccupied with other thoughts at that moment". In fact, he was holding the vial with the nitroglycerin open, then gave it to his translator saying: "Keep it open - I may need it".

The fourth interesting point is whatever took place during Nicodemus' meeting with the Pope. Let us follow Arranz's narration, who, as his interpreter, was present during the entire meeting and an eye and ear witness of events.

As soon as we entered the room, John Paul I smiled immediately and approached the Metropolitan. He greeted him most cordially. Nicodemus extended the warmest wishes of Poemen, the Patriarch of Moscow, the Synod and the entire Russian Church to the head of the Roman Catholic Church, and wished the new Pope many years of popehood. He expressed the sincere hope that the sisterly relations between the two Churches - which had begun well during Pope John XXIII and continued with Paul I - would continue towards a deeper mutual understanding by both sides; in the mutual endeavors of both Churches to encourage peace. The Pope thanked him for his greetings and his wishes, and asked the Metropolitan to convey to Patriarch Poemen his hope for a fruitful collaboration for the benefit of the Russian Orthodox Church. He (the Pope) said that he always kept track of his ecumenical activities with great interest and also expressed his desire for his labors to continue. Following this exchange of greetings, they sat down for a confidential discussion.

When the journalist asked Arranz exactly what Nicodemus told the Pope, he replied:

"I am not permitted to tell - it is a secret. But his words were an expression of complete trust. Like someone going to his father." When he then asked about Nicodemus' behavior towards the Pope, he replied: "And I also remember that he spoke in a low voice to Pope Luciani. In fact, there were moments when he spoke in an even lower voice, as though he didn't want any indiscreet ears to hear him. He didn't want anyone eavesdropping."

After the conclusion of this confidential conversation, Archmandrite Lev was invited to enter the room. Let us see the entire scene, the way that the translator Arranz had recorded it:

When the conversation ended, Archmandrite Lev was invited to enter. Nicodemus introduced him to the Pope. He told the Holy Father that Lev was studying in Rome, at the Gregorian Institute, and that he knew Italian. Then the Pope, standing up, began to converse with Lev about his studies. And Nicodemus was standing near him.

Eventually, as the conversation with Lev was nearing its end, Nicodemus sat down without saying a word, and as he sat, he leaned forward in a calm and dignified manner - as though prostrating himself, with a deep prostration - in such a way that I was amazed. Being aware of how fastidiously he upheld protocol, I imagined that it was his gesture of respect.... He collapsed at the feet of the Pope. We tried to lift him to his feet. Even the Pope bent over him and tried to lift him up. At that disturbing moment, Pope Luciani did not immediately realize what was happening. I informed him of his (the Metropolitan Nicodemus') heart problem as Archmandrite Lev ran back into the room holding the briefcase with the medicines and attempted to give him a resuscitative injection for the heart, but without success. Nicodemus' eyes were still slightly open. So I whispered to the Holy Father: "Grant him absolution of sins....". The Pope knelt down beside him and recited the absolution in the Latin language. Shortly after, the doctor arrived but could not do anything except declare that Nicodemus had passed away.

This tragic incident greatly disturbed the Pope, who kept saying: "My God, my God, did this have to happen to me?." And indeed, "he was at such a loss at that moment, that when the doctor arrived and with Nicodemus lying on the floor, he (the Pope) was picking up the granules of nitroglycerin that had fallen to the ground during the turmoil. He placed them in my palm...." I said: "Your Holiness, they are no longer of any use."

However, according to the program, the Pope had to receive the Orthodox delegations after this incident. Arranz narrates:

The Pope left the library to go and receive the other delegates who were waiting their turn. But after Nicodemus' body was transferred to another room, I was again invited to interpret for the Bulgarian delegation. Thus, I found myself again in the presence of Pope Luciani. The Bulgarian Primate was supposed to immediately offer his warm wishes, but the elderly Orthodox Bishop and the Pope were unable to utter anything. So I began to then read the text of the address that I had been assigned to translate into Italian. And I continued to read, as they both wept silently, without uttering a single word.

Two days later, that is, on the 7th of September, the Russian delegation went to Rome to collect the dead body of Nicodemus. The Pope met with the delegation in the same room that Nicodemus died. Arranz narrates:

Prior to the hearing, I spoke briefly with the Monsignor Magee. He told me that the Holy Father hadn't slept for two nights, and that the death (of the Metropolitan) had deeply overwhelmed him. The Pope described to the members of the delegation the last moments of Nicodemus' life and he mentioned the words that had been spoken.

In this revealing interview that we are commenting on there is also a reference to the rumors that had circulated at the time regarding the death of Nicodemus; i.e., that he did not actually die, but that the incident was somehow staged by the Vatican in order to hide him from the people, since "he had embraced the Roman Catholic faith"; "that he inadvertently drank a poisoned coffee that was destined for John-Paul I"; that he died because "the Orthodox Hierarch had said things that he should not have said to this new Pope"; "that KGB spies had killed him from a distance", from the Russian Embassy, from where "the windows of the Pope's apartment are visible". Arranz naturally rebutted all these rumors, saying: "Sheer imagination! Nicodemus' health was seriously impaired, long before".

The Pope himself was very enthusiastic at the words that Nicodemus had entrusted him with before he died, which is why - as mentioned earlier - he confessed publicly that:

2 days ago the Metropolitan of Saint Petersburg Nicodemus died in my hands. I was responding to his address. I can assure you that never in my life have I ever heard such beautiful words about the Church, like the words that he said. I cannot repeat what he said; it remains a secret.

To the question that was posed to Arraz: "After all these years, what is the impression that has remained from that meeting? Could he (Nicodemus) really have indicated the path towards full communion?" he replied:

Nicodemus did not come to counsel the Pope. He had a clear perception (a deep sense) of the position that every person has within the Church. Nicodemus spoke very strongly about the Church, the whole Church... a new vision. Pope Luciani did not back out. Furthermore it was a gesture that expressed his (the Pope's) fearlessness and at the same time his sincerity and his straightforwardness .... that a Pope acknowledges that a non-Catholic can teach him something, and that he confirm this publicly at that moment, with his disarming spontaneity: "I can assure you that never in my life have I ever heard such beautiful words....". And he repeated how he was truly impressed. "An Orthodox" - he said - "but what love he had for the Church!" And I believe that he suffered immensely for the Church and did much for the unity.

The Metropolitan of Saint Petersburg Nicodemus died before the Pope's feet, after a secret conversation which had enthused the Pope. But the Pope himself later, between the 28th and 29th September of the same year, was found dead in his private apartments, under unexplained conditions. He remained on the Papal throne for thirty-three (33) days. And the translator, who was present during that meeting, is keeping his mouth shut and does not disclose "the beautiful words" that Nicodemus said to the Pope who had "never heard such words". All he gives us is the atmosphere of those words: that "his words were an expression of complete trust. Like someone going to his father," and that he was also speaking in a low voice because "he didn't want anyone eavesdropping."

What, finally, was the secret?


The future Patriarch Kirill of Moscow with Pope John Paul I