Paul C. Marcinkus, 84, the papal bodyguard dubbed "the Gorilla" and a titular archbishop who led the Vatican bank into a monetary scandal of staggering proportions, died Feb. 20 at his home in Sun City, Ariz. He reportedly had emphysema.
After joining the priesthood near Chicago, Archbishop Marcinkus served in the Vatican's diplomatic corps and soon became a favorite of Pope Paul VI. A hulking 6-foot-4 rugby player, he served as bodyguard and "advance man" on the pope's historic diplomatic outreach trips abroad.
He was said to have safeguarded the pontiff in 1970 from a knife-wielding assailant at the Manila airport. This endeared Archbishop Marcinkus to the church's leader, along with the American's penchant for one-liners and an athletic swagger that did not diminish, even during the most unpleasant moments of his years at the bank.
He was president of the bank, formally known as the Institute for Religious Works, from 1971 to 1989. To visitors, he always had a zinger that explained his work: "You can't run a church on Hail Marys."
With bank customers ranging from clergy to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, he was among the most powerful members of the Vatican elite. It was assumed he would be elevated to cardinal or serve as president of Vatican City.
Archbishop Marcinkus's reputation suffered markedly in 1982 when he was indicted as an accessory in the multibillion-dollar financial collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, once the largest private bank in Italy and an institution with close ties to the Vatican.
Shortly after the news broke, Ambrosiano's chairman, Roberto Calvi, sometimes labeled "God's banker" for his Vatican relationships, was found dead under mysterious circumstances -- hanging from a bridge in London in what was officially ruled a suicide. Calvi was said to have had mafia connections, spurring speculation that he would publicly divulge some nexus between the church and the underworld.
The financial malfeasance and Calvi's death became sensational news carried around the world. Archbishop Marcinkus became a central figure in the affair, and he was also one of the most enigmatic, with his leathery face and habit of chain-smoking his pipe and cigarettes simultaneously.
Largely hidden in the Vatican during the investigation, he declined to answer Italian investigators' questions about the church's role in dummy companies set up abroad to which Banco Ambrosiano funneled more than $1 billion. Later, so-called "letters of comfort" surfaced, reputedly showing the archbishop's guarantee of protecting bank creditors' investments.
While denying wrongdoing, the Vatican paid $244 million to creditors of the Ambrosiano bank in what it called "recognition of moral involvement" in the bank's collapse.
The Italian government issued an arrest order for the archbishop and two bank subordinates as "accessories to fraudulent bankruptcy," but the Vatican, an independent state, refused to comply and cited diplomatic immunity. The Italian high court agreed, allowing the archbishop to avoid standing trial.
"I may be a lousy banker," he said during the height of the probe, "but at least I'm not in jail."
Paul Casimir Marcinkus was born Jan. 15, 1922, in the Chicago suburb of Cicero. He was the youngest of five children born to Lithuanian immigrants who held menial labor jobs.
After his ordination in 1947, he was assistant pastor at a Chicago church before beginning service in the diplomatic corps. He was stationed in Canada and Bolivia, developing a fluency in Spanish.
He studied canon law in Rome and by the late 1950s was assigned to the Vatican secretary of state's office. There, he befriended the future Pope Paul VI, who put him in charge of the bank despite having no previous financial experience.
He developed a following among the Italian media, which bestowed his not entirely flattering nickname. At the bank, his reputation was not improved by links to shadowy figures in Italian finance, including Michele Sindona, a convicted swindler who died in a Milan prison in 1986 after his coffee was laced with cyanide.
British author David Yallop wrote a book alleging that the archbishop was part of a cabal responsible for the death of John Paul I, who died 33 days into his reign in 1978. It was rumored that John Paul I was trying to remove the archbishop from the banking job.
Another British investigative reporter, John Cornwell, won unprecedented access to Vatican archives and personnel, and he dismissed such speculation about the pope's death.
Of Archbishop Marcinkus, Cornwell once wrote: "His most amazing revelation to me was that he had raided the Vatican pension fund to pay compensation for the bank collapse after the Italian government had ordered the Vatican to pay $250 million to the creditors."
He added that the archbishop spoke of his role in getting $32 million to the anti-communist Polish social movement called Solidarity, at the behest of Pope John Paul II.
One thing was certain: Archbishop Marcinkus's career was over. He no longer was asked to handle logistical arrangements for the pope's travels. Furthermore, the Holy See suffered record deficits until Archbishop Marcinkus's successor, Cardinal Edmund Szoka, the former archbishop of Detroit, implemented a far more disciplined approach to finance.
The Banco Ambrosiano scandal was "one of the darkest pages of Catholic history in terms of government and moral issues," church historian Alberto Melloni once told the National Catholic Reporter. "On that basis alone, Marcinkus is the most important American ever to work in the curia."
Archbishop Marcinkus was allowed to retire in 1990 and was never found guilty of wrongdoing. In recent years, he lived in a retirement community surrounded by golf courses and quietly celebrated Mass at a Sun City parish.