National Catholic Register


An American Ambassador and His Pope

BY Kathryn Jean Lopez

June 17-23, 2001 Issue | Posted 6/17/01 at 2:00 PM


From his first encounter with Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in a Boston parish in 1969, Ray Flynn recalls, he knew there was “something special” about the Polish prelate.

Flynn, who would later be named U.S. ambassador to the Vatican by President Bill Clinton, would next meet the churchman 10 years later — when he returned to Boston as Pope John Paul II. Again, he says, he was impressed.

After kissing the Pope's ring, I said, “It is good to see you again, Holy Father.”

“Again?” He looked surprised.

“I met you once before, on your visit to Boston, in 1969.”

Now, the pope smiled in recognition. “St. Adalbert's … Cardinal Cushing,” he said.

I was impressed by his memory and quick recall.

Flynn's is a different kind of Pope book than we have seen; it's not an analysis of John Paul's life or thought so much as a collection of personal memories from an American politician who has had unique access to the Vatican.

Flynn recalls the Holy Father's visits to the United States, noting the Pope's immense appeal even to non-Catholics. He recounts, for example, how he excited a packed Madison Square Garden “like a rock and roll singer” and how zestfully President Jimmy Carter sang his praises.

Looking back on his ambassadorial appointment, Flynn writes: “I accepted the appointment because it would allow me an opportunity to get to know John Paul II, this man I had become fascinated with from a distance.”

Readers who pick up Ray Flynn's memoir hoping for an explanation of why a devoutly Catholic, publicly pro-life family man would agree to represent an adamantly pro-abortion White House will be frustrated. Flynn's chapter on the United Nations' conference in Cairo on population and his subsequent relationship with both the Clinton administration and Vatican officials may, for some, add to the confusion.

Flynn recalls that, although Bill Clinton played “Mr. Safe, Legal and Rare” during his campaign for the presidency, once he took office, he “proved to be anything but moderate when it came to abortion.” Translation: Flynn felt duped.

Flynn explains how, when Pope John Paul II pulled no punches at the Cairo conference, the U.S. State Department sent out a memo prior to the conference, stating, “[T]he United States believes access to safe, legal and voluntary abortion is a fundamental right of all women.” Flynn was called to Washington to be briefed on that policy by point-man Tim Wirth, known for having a condom tree in his State Department office.

Wirth had Flynn's name taken off the list of delegates to the Cairo conference once Flynn spoke his mind. And when the Holy Father, troubled by the United States' anti-life lobbying, asked Flynn to get the president on the phone for him, Flynn had to go to the White House and hold a sit-in until someone would even hear his request — which was not taken kindly.

Why he did not resign in the summer of 1994 is unclear, though surely his love for the Pope had much to do with his resolve. In the stories he recounts here, what comes through is a man who in many ways, as ambassador, identified less with his own country's leadership than he did with that of the city-state he was sent to.

Whatever you think of Ray Flynn and his politics (which prompted him to include a snide remark or two about Republicans in the book), John Paul II is an enjoyable read for anyone eager to encounter John Paul, the man.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is associate editor of National Review (