First U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Dies

William Wilson, a member of President Ronald Reagan’s “kitchen cabinet” and the first U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, died early Saturday at the age of 95.

The Carmel Valley, Calif., oil businessman and rancher met the actor Reagan at a dinner party in the early 1960s. Wilson was a member of the circle of wealthy advisers who persuaded Reagan to run for California governor in 1966 and guided his political campaigns.

Wilson, a Catholic convert, was named as personal envoy to the Vatican by Reagan in 1981. At the time, an anti-papist law from 1867 prohibited the U.S. from establishing formal ties with the Vatican. Wilson assumed full status as an ambassador only after the anti-Catholic law was repealed in 1984.

Based on his admiration for Pope John Paul II and their shared commitment to eradicating communism in Eastern Europe, Reagan aimed to restore the United States’ diplomatic ties. In 1984 the U.S. re-established official relations, joining 107 other nations that recognized the Vatican as a sovereign body and the pope as an international statesman. Every president since Reagan has appointed an ambassador to the Vatican.

Ambassador Wilson said that his time serving in Rome impacted his spiritual life.

“It enhanced it a great deal,” said Wilson. “We had so many occasions to attend Mass with the Pope. It is always an amazing and emotional experience to be in his presence. Having the chance to count so many wonderful clerics — from the highest to the lowest ranks — as personal friends also enhanced my appreciation for the Church and our faith. You could see the effect on others, too. There was a Japanese ambassador who came to Rome as a Shinto, but left as a Catholic.”

Wilson had battled with cancer. He is survived by two daughters, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. You can find an interview with Wilson at the Thomas Aquinas College website. He had served on the college’s board of governors.