Cardinal Pio Laghi, whom Pope John Paul II sent to Washington to try to prevent the United States from invading Iraq in 2003, has died at the age of 86.
The Italian cardinal, who served as the first apostolic nuncio to the United States, had been suffering from a blood disorder.
Cardinal Laghi’s death leaves the College of Cardinals with 190 members, 116 of whom are under age 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a papal conclave.
On Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2003, Cardinal Laghi met President Bush and his advisers at the White House in an attempt to avert the Iraq War. Speaking to the Register in 2007, he remembered the meeting vividly.
“When I arrived I tried to insist, insist — I repeat, insist — not to get into what I call an ‘adventure’ as the Holy Father also called it,” he said. “In my opinion, I tried every argument to stress that point: that with peace nothing is lost, but with war you will get caught up in great turmoil, and in the Arab world. … Then what happened after that, you know.”
In a telegram Jan. 12 offering his condolences to the cardinal’s nieces and nephews, Pope Benedict XVI praised the cardinal for “long and generous service to the Holy See, particularly as papal representative in various countries and as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.”
In a statement released by the White House Jan. 11, President Bush offered his condolences to Pope Benedict and to all Catholics.
“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,” Bush said. He added that he “always strove to unite people of all religions and promote reconciliation, religious freedom and tolerance.”
Pope Benedict XVI recalled the cardinal’s life at his funeral Mass Jan. 13 in St. Peter’s Basilica. As well as praising his work in Vatican diplomacy, he noted the cardinal’s “zeal in the promotion of vocations and formation for the priesthood.”
Cardinal Laghi was a seasoned Vatican diplomat who first joined the Vatican’s diplomatic service in 1952. He spent a total of 17 years in the United States, first as an assistant to papal representatives in the late 1950s, then as the Vatican representative. When the Vatican and the United States established full diplomatic relations in 1984, he was named the first apostolic nuncio.
His time as a Vatican diplomat wasn’t without controversy: As nuncio in Buenos Aires from 1974 until 1980, he was accused of being too silent in confronting the crimes of the Argentine military junta. Cardinal Laghi refuted the accusations and insisted the extent of the repression wasn’t known until the end of 1979.
Pio Laghi was born May 21, 1922, in Castiglione, a small town in north-central Italy. His first diplomatic assignment was for two years at the Vatican Embassy in Nicaragua. After assignments as an assistant to Vatican diplomats in the United States and in India, in 1964 he returned to Rome to work at the Vatican Secretariat of State.
In 1969 he was made an archbishop and was appointed apostolic delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine. He would later be given the additional duties of representing the Pope in Cyprus and Greece.
He then served as nuncio to Argentina before moving on to the United States, where he was nuncio from 1980-1990. Pope John Paul then named him head of the Congregation for Catholic Education, a position he held from 1990-1999. He was elevated to cardinal in 1991.
But even in retirement he continued serving as Pope John Paul’s personal envoy to troubled parts of the globe. In his homily at Cardinal Laghi’s funeral Mass, Pope Benedict praised his “faithful dedication to Christ and his Church” during those “delicate missions.” For example, after renewed tensions between Israelis and Palestinians erupted in late 2000, Pope John Paul sent the cardinal to the Holy Land to try to convince Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to halt the violence and return to negotiations.
Cardinal Laghi strongly believed that Middle East peace was only possible if a solution was found to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He stressed the same point during his meeting with President Bush in 2003. Later, he noted the “huge exodus” of Christians from Iraq and the “real persecution” of those who have remained in the country and said it would not have occurred if the Iraq War had been avoided.
During his time as nuncio in Washington, he struck up firm friendships with both President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush. He would be an occasional guest at Reagan’s ranch and played tennis with Bush Sr. A sign of his enduring friendship with the 41st president was shown most recently when, during his final illness, Mr. Bush sent Cardinal Laghi a get-well letter.
One meeting in the early 1980s he fondly remembered to the Register. “Nancy [Reagan] had prepared lunch and we discussed some matter related to Poland,” he recalled. “I think President Reagan, with the direction of John Paul II, a Polish Pope, understood that a kind of electric line with some dynamite extended beyond the Berlin Wall and sooner or later it would provoke the collapse of that wall. He realized that having a Polish Pope and Solidarnosc [Polish Solidarity Movement] would be for him a key to what he’d often say, ‘to destroy the evil empire.’”
Reagan, he said, “was really a great believer and I would also say, Christian. I would also say a great president. He had vision.”
Never afraid to speak out on contemporary issues affecting the United States, Cardinal Laghi recently expressed his concerns about President-elect Barack Obama’s positions on the family and the unborn. However, he preferred to be optimistic and believed common ground would be found.
And on that ill-fated meeting with President Bush, he had no regrets. “You can always say: ‘Maybe I should have knelt down or done something in order to say, Mr. President, please, Mr. President, please,’” he told the Register. “But I was strong enough, I think.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
(CNS contributed to this article.)