Cardinal Pio Laghi has lived through historic times.

He was papal nuncio to the United States when the U.S. established diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1981. And he tried to intervene on behalf of Pope John Paul II when America was about to go to war with Iraq in 2003.

Since he retired in 1999, the 85-year-old cardinal has been prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

Register correspondent Edward Pentin spoke to him in the cardinal’s apartment at the Vatican May 22.

You were chosen to speak to President Bush about the present war in Iraq because you have known a few U.S. presidents. How well did you get to know Reagan?

When I was still in Argentina, ending my mission there in 1981, I received a nice telegram from California, from Gov. Reagan, saying: Welcome to Washington. He had known that I had been appointed to the United States and he sent me a telegram. I was surprised. He said in the telegram, “It seems we are starting our mission together — me as president and you as apostolic delegate.” So I answered and thanked him very much. Then we established a very good relationship, I would call it even friendly. I would go to the White House.

In the early years, I would enter through a side door as I was an apostolic delegate and not officially recognized as a representative of the Pope.

But after March 1984, I entered through the main door. From time to time he would invite me to receptions as a diplomat, but also as a friend. I remember he invited me to his ranch, his summer residence. He was alone with his wife, Nancy. Nancy had prepared lunch, and we discussed some matter related to Poland and what the Holy Father would think of some policies of the United States towards Poland — particularly during the days of 1983, 1984, 1985. That was a really important time in the world.

If you remember, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. And 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 Solidarno´s´c (Polish Solidarity Movement) would be for him a key to destroy what he’d often call the “evil empire.”

The relations were friendly, but how much do you think they listened to what the Vatican had to say? How much influence did you feel you had?

Well I don’t speak about influence. Certainly, there were parallels, and sometimes they would get closer, but we were following our line, the line of values, the line of peace. That was particularly strong when President Bush entered into the [first] war in the Gulf. The voice of the Holy Father was very strong in favor of peace, and in favor of finding some other solution but never of going to war. I don’t know if that line was so popular in the United States, but certainly it was supported by the bishops of the United States, the Catholic bishops.

And did you try to persuade President Bush at the time not to go to war?

No, I was out already, because I left the United States in May 1990 and the war started at the beginning of 1991. So I was already in Rome and my successor was there. Certainly the Holy Father moved in favor of peace and in order to prevent war.

But then, of course, you went back after you had retired, as Pope John Paul II’s envoy to try and dissuade George W. Bush from going to war in Iraq.

Well that was another case. I remember it was Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2003, when I was sent by Pope John Paul II. Maybe he chose me in order to see whether I could achieve something due to my friendly relations with his father, but I had never met President Bush before. So when I arrived I tried to insist, insist — I repeat, insist — not to get into what I called an “adventure” (as the Holy Father also called it) and not to take that step to go to war against Saddam and his regime.

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. You see, I insisted that he had to put his finger on the problems between the Palestinians and the Israelis. That is the most important [issue].

As long as we don’t find a solution to that conflict, then there will always be turmoil over there. Then what happened after that, you know.

It’s said that during that visit, President Bush didn’t want to listen to what you had to say. He had already made up his mind.

He had already made up his mind, I realized that. When I arrived, I presented a letter, a kind of credential letter, signed by John Paul II. He took the letter and started to talk to me in the presence of the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican [Jim Nicholson], Condoleezza Rice, two other members of the [National] Security Council, the head of the marines, Gen. [Peter] Pace, and the representative of the Holy Father to the United States — the papal nuncio. So we spoke and he started to try to convince me.

I said, “Mr President, I came here in order to speak to you and I would like you to listen to me.” So I started my point, stressing some points. Certainly, as we discussed, he was open to listen to me. But I think he had already made up his mind, and when I left the Oval Office and went to the car that was waiting there outside of the White House, there were many press correspondents but I was not allowed to speak openly at the White House in the garden so I had to go to some international press office and I spoke to them then. But the one who accompanied me to the car was Gen. Pace.

He shook hands with me and said, “Your Eminence, don’t be afraid. We’ll do it quickly and in a good way.” I was scared because my mission was a failure — unfortunately, unfortunately.

Do you look back and think, “I wish I had said something else or did something in a different way to try and persuade him?”

Certainly, I insisted because I also used reasons. … I was posted in Jerusalem for five years from 1969 to 1974, so I think I was strong enough. Certainly, when you make examinations of conscience, you can always say: “Maybe I should have knelt down or done something in order to say, ‘Mr. President, please, Mr. President, please.’” I did that, but maybe I wasn’t forceful enough.

Hindsight’s a wonderful thing?

Yes, but you have to always make examinations of conscience and say. Maybe I should have been. …” But I was strong enough, I think.

What is your opinion now of the president and his administration?

I don’t really want to make any judgments. Certainly, we insist on finding some way — I saw that in the Sharm el-Sheik meeting [an international summit on Iraq held in May]. There was some contact between Syrian representatives and Condoleezza Rice. I hope something will happen also with Iran because those are the key countries, in a way. I hope they will work together in order to look at some kind of solution. You cannot abandon Iraq now, immediately, in view of the situation it is in — you have to help them to get out of that mess.

And you have good relations with the president’s father. Have you spoken about that meeting with him?

Not so much, because his father … I would respect his independence. I talked with him when I arrived in Washington, in March 2003, and the only thing he told me was to try to see also the secretary of state, Gen. [Colin] Powell, so I went to see him — but that’s all, I can’t say anything more.

But you said the same things to Powell?

Yes, Gen. Powell, I think he knew. … Of course, he was supportive of the president, very honest. But at the same time, being a general, with a lot of experience, particularly in the Gulf War, I think he knew what the kind of risk was of getting into a war.

Isn’t there’s still a fair amount of convergence on pro-life issues?

No doubt. As a matter of fact, when I left the meeting with President Bush on March 5, 2003, he came with me and said, “We are not in agreement on the point of Iraq but …” and I said, “I am very sorry, Mr. President …” but [he said], “We are in agreement on the points with position of the Catholic Church and of the Holy Father.”

He finds promotion of life and the family, all those values, embryos, et cetera [important] — at which point I said to the president: “I came here to ask you not to get into that war in Iraq. I know what your position is and what you stand for — those values that are very important, and they are based on natural law, human rights and the Gospel.”

Now that the Pope and the Vatican were right about their warnings of the war in Iraq, do you think he might be more prepared to listen to what the Church has to say in the future?

I cannot foresee this because there are many points in which he listens to the Vatican and to the Pope, particularly in the pressing for a solution to that conflict in what we call the Holy Land — the conflict between Israel and Palestine. That is important.

But you see how difficult it is. Even the Palestinians are one group fighting another, one faction against the other, and then there’s Israel. So it’s a very difficult situation but we have to help from the outside.

You know we have our presence there, a Christian presence in the Holy Land. We are also concerned about their presence there because there’s an exodus, they’re leaving the region, and it’s a really dangerous situation.

Do you wish you were still nuncio to the United States with opportunities to influence those in power there?

No, no. At the beginning with Reagan, it happened that he had very important people around him and some of them were very good Catholics like, for example, William Casey, the head of intelligence, George Clark, the White House chief of staff. He had been very close to him. And Reagan was really a great believer and I would say Christian, also.

I would also say a great president. He had vision. I cannot give any judgment, but we don’t intend to exercise any political power — on the contrary. But we insist on human values, and that is the most important.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.