Sunday, January 11, 2009

Laghi Dies, Jadot Lives

The leader of American Catholicism's remaking in the image of Pope John Paul II died earlier today in Rome -- Cardinal Pio Laghi was 86.

Named apostolic delegate to these shores by the newly-elected Papa Wojtyla in 1980, the suave, charming, perma-tanned figure was widely viewed to have moved the US hierarchy's center from the perceived progressive excess of his post-Conciliar predecessor, Archbishop Jean Jadot, to a place more reflective of the Polish Pope's priority on doctrinal fidelity, with a more Vatican-centric tilt. And, indeed, his impact wasn't limited to the ecclesiastical realm -- yesterday marked a quarter-century since diplomatic relations between Washington and the Holy See were formally established, and Laghi became the first pro-nuncio, or ambassador-level papal representative, to the American government. Since 1893, Rome had maintained an emissary in the capital who served solely as its legate to (and overseer of) the US church; until 1984, formal relations had been blocked by a prevailing sentiment against diplomatic recognition "of a church," with opponents of normalization citing a stringent view of the principle of church-state separation that sought to ignore both the Holy See's status in international law and the Vatican's constitution as a sovereign state.

Before his 1990 departure to become prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education and elevation to the College of Cardinals months later, the roster of appointments presided over by Laghi reads, even today, as the Stateside church's A-list both past and present: Joseph Bernardin to Chicago and Daniel Pilarczyk to Cincinnati in 1982, John O'Connor to New York and Bernard Law to Boston in 1984, Roger Mahony to Los Angeles and Joseph Fiorenza to Galveston-Houston a year later, Theodore McCarrick to Newark, Francis Stafford to Denver and William Levada to Portland in 1986, Anthony Bevilacqua to Philadelphia and Donald Wuerl to Pittsburgh in 1988, William Keeler to Baltimore in 1989 -- to say nothing of over 130 new bishops, all told. Even two decades later, no less than 11 of the nation's current complement of 16 cardinals were either elevated to the episcopacy or advanced into its top rank by the longest-serving master of Massachusetts Avenue since the Council, and five American priests who worked under Laghi during his tenure went on to become bishops in their own right.

The first African-American archbishop -- the ill-fated Eugene Marino of Atlanta -- was elevated at Laghi's behest in 1988, as were the first two Native Americans ever to join the bench, including a 43 year-old Capuchin who the pro-nuncio personally ordained, now Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. In 1985, the outbreak of the first major sex-abuse scandal to surface in the US church -- the Gilbert Gauthe case in Louisiana's diocese of Lafayette -- birthed Laghi's push for a coadjutor to Bishop Gerald Frey; the eventual appointee, the former rector of Emmitsburg Harry Flynn, would take a lead role in crafting the national church's efforts to restore trust as the crisis' impact widened over the succeeding years.

In March 2003, Laghi's familiarity with the capitol led to his assignment by the pontiff to return there in the hope of persuading President Bush to halt his plans for an imminent invasion of Iraq. Despite a relationship with the First Family dating to George Herbert Walker Bush's Vice-Presidency (when the pro-nuncio was his then-neighbor's tennis partner), and Laghi's delivery of a personal appeal from John Paul during an Oval Office meeting, the mission failed as, in time, Rome's warnings came to reflect the operation's outcome with far greater accuracy than Washington's promises. In November 2007, the cardinal made one final visit to the District, delivering the keynote at the investiture of the Mid-Atlantic Lieutenancy of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre.

Previously papal legate to Jerusalem and Palestine, Cyprus and Greece, Laghi's immediate pre-DC assignment as nuncio to Buenos Aires during Argentina's "Dirty War" led to subsequent accusations based on his ties to the country's military government, whose quest for order led to the "disappearance" of up to 30,000 dissidents in the late 1970s. In the States, however, the founding nuncio's legacy of graciousness, broad consultation and concerted outreach in the ranks has often evoked comparisons to the post's current holder, Archbishop Pietro Sambi -- like Laghi, a veteran of the Holy Land assignment.

The cardinal's former neighbor in the apartment-house for top Vatican officials on the Piazza della Città Leonina, Pope Benedict will preside at Laghi's funeral, scheduled for Tuesday morning at the customary venue of the Altar of the Chair in St Peter's.

* * *
The news of Laghi's passing comes days after his predecessor in Washington was reported to be in grave health.

Now 99, Jadot returned to his native Belgium after retiring from the Roman Curia in 1984. Rome's man in America from 1973-80, the still-controversial centenarian is the lone Vatican emissary to the US never who never received the cardinal's red hat after taking up another post.

SVILUPPO: This afternoon, the White House released the following statement from the President and Mrs. Bush:
Laura and I send our deepest condolences to Pope Benedict XVI and all Catholics on the passing of Cardinal Pio Laghi. Cardinal Laghi was a friend who, in his more than 60 years of service to the Catholic Church, worked tirelessly for peace and justice in our world. As the Papal Nuncio to the United States during the final years of the Cold War, and in his many other assignments, Cardinal Laghi always strove to unite people of all religions and promote reconciliation, religious freedom, and tolerance. Cardinal Laghi holds an especially important place in the hearts of the American people, having served as the first Papal Nuncio to the United States, following the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See in 1984.

On behalf of all Americans, Laura and I join Catholics around the world to offer our gratitude for the courageous service and life of Cardinal Laghi, and commit ourselves to carrying his peaceful message forward.