Published May 14, 2020
Students of the Cold War’s dark arts know that Communist intelligence services deeply penetrated the Vatican in the 1970s. Yet few know that Pope John Paul II, whose centenary will be marked on May 18, had his own secret agent in the Soviet Union during the 1980s. That relationship led to a remarkable personal encounter that helps explain what made the pope the man he was.
John Paul’s unlikely 007 was Irina Ilovayskaya Alberti, the Russian-born widow of an Italian diplomat. A former personal assistant to Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Vermont, she met the pope quite by accident during a papal audience in the early 1980s. A friendship quickly developed between them. As the Gorbachev thaw made access to the U.S.S.R. easier, Alberti traveled to the country several times a year. “If I learned anything interesting,” she told me years later, “I’d call the pope, we’d meet, and I’d tell him.” Vatican diplomats, who liked to keep such matters on close hold, didn’t appreciate that kind of back channel. But John Paul had a habit of going around his mandarins when he thought doing so might yield useful information. He ignored the traditional managers and kept in touch with his clandestine operative.
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Mr. Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a biographer of John Paul II.