VATICAN CITY — In the early 1990s, college friends of Carlo Fusco, a law student in Rome, introduced him to Paolo Gabriele, an amiable Roman with dark hair and chubby cheeks. The two young men recognized one another as kindred Catholic spirits and chatted in pizzerias and coffee bars. After college, Fusco lost track of Gabriele but happily ran into him years later at a night mass at Santa Maria in Via Lata, a 17th-century church built atop the warren of rooms where tradition holds the apostle Paul lived under house arrest. (“Verbum Dei non est alligatum — The word of God is not chained” is etched on a column in the crypt.)
Gabriele would later become a prisoner himself, after being convicted in the pilfered-documents scandal known as “VatiLeaks” that has cast a pall over Benedict’s last year in office. But back then, he talked intensely about his relationship with God to Fusco, who by then had become the equivalent of a divorce lawyer on the church court. Gabriele’s career had taken a turn across the Tiber. He told Fusco that his parish priest, a man with Vatican connections, had recommended him for a maintenance job in the Holy See. His rise there has since become the stuff of legend.
“Who cleaned this bathroom?” Fusco said one powerful cardinal asked Gabriele upon exiting the spotless facilities. Gabriele was the Mr. Clean in question, and he moved up to polishing the Vatican’s ornate marble and got ever closer to the pope. Fusco said over lunch in an upscale Rome restaurant that he was surprised to run into Gabriele again in the early 2000s, after an audience Pope John Paul II held for lawyers credentialed to the Vatican, in the frescoed Clementine Hall.
In April 2005, John Paul died after the second-longest reign in church history. His doctrinal watchdog, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, followed him as the 264th successor of Saint Peter. A less celebrated transition occurred the next year, when Angelo Gugel, John Paul’s studiously reserved silver-fox butler, retired after serving three popes over nearly three decades.
The Italian media had other explanations for Gabriele’s rise. One report claimed that Communion and Liberation, a powerful conservative lay movement within the church, had recruited him. (Both the movement and the Vatican called that nonsense.) Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, set the Vatican buzzing when it reported that Argentina’s powerful Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, a potential Vatican secretary of state who has also emerged on shortlists of Benedict’s possible successors, had sponsored Gabriele’s introduction to the pontifical household.
Once in place, Gabriele became a fixture at the Vatican. On most mornings, he left his apartment on Via Porta Angelica, just inside the Vatican walls, before 7. He walked past the plumed Swiss Guards and into the Apostolic Palace, where he worked in the third-floor papal apartments, laying out Benedict’s white vestments and red shoes, serving his decaf coffee and praying with the pontiff in a private chapel. When it rained, Gabriele held Benedict’s umbrella. When they traveled, he rode shotgun in the popemobile. His black gelled hair, dark suits and fleshy cheeks clenched in a cherubic grimace became so familiar around the Vatican Gardens that clerics affectionately called him Paoletto.