Thursday, August 03, 2006

In Paradisum

After three months of farewell parties on the occasion of his retirement, when Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo left the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington for the last time, he took an individual moment with each member of the staff in the entryway before heading out into the late winter night.

The final goodbyes completed, the departing Nuncio donned his traveling hat and, opening the door, turned to face the household, saying simply, "I hope to see you all again one day, whether in Rome or in Paradise."

Already suffering at the time from lung cancer, Archbishop Montalvo died "a very prayerful and peaceful death" at 11.10 last night, Rome time. He was 76. With him to the end were his two sisters resident in the Eternal City, through whom the updates on their brother's condition would be given these last couple months. Montalvo remained alert to the end, able to celebrate Mass and spend time with the steady trickle of friends who dropped into the Alma Sisters hospice where he had been staying.

For seven tumultous years, Archbishop Montalvo served as the Holy See's liaison to the church in the United States at the most cataclysmic period in its history. Such was his effectiveness and grace that he was always able to keep himself above the fray and out of the headlines as the appointments prepared under his guidance gradually cast the future of the American episcopate in a new direction.

Ordained to the episcopacy in 1974, Archbishop Montalvo served the Holy See as its chief of mission in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Yugoslavia and Belarus before being named to head the Accademia, the Holy See's diplomatic school, in 1993, and then to Washington in 1999.

In the United States, he presided over a return to native-son appointments to dioceses -- an option his two predecessors shirked. The "Montalvo bishops" were by and large younger than those appointed by any nuncio since the controversial Jean Jadot in the 1970s and, in the aftermath of the abuse revelations which rocked the American church, Montalvo's shortlists signalled a marked departure from the traditional path of naming high chancery officials to the episcopacy.

Behind the scenes, he leaves behind a cadre of loving friends and devoted proteges who saw in his quiet strength a model of priestly service and faith well-lived. For all the crucial policy moves and trends set during his tenure as papal representative here, it might just be that the example and personal kindness which inspired and moved many, something given out of the limelight, is the greatest legacy he leaves in this land and beyond.

The archbishop's funeral Mass will be celebrated Saturday morning at 9 in St Peter's Basilica. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Secretary of State, will serve as principal celebrant.