Remembering America’s ‘Ambassador to Fatima’

COMMENTARY: Frank Shakespeare, who played an instrumental role in cementing the relationship between President Reagan and Pope John Paul II, died Dec. 14 at the age of 97.

Frank Shakespeare meets John Paul II with Ronald Reagan looking on at the Apostolic Palace in 1987.
Frank Shakespeare meets John Paul II with Ronald Reagan looking on at the Apostolic Palace in 1987. (photo: William Fitz-Patrick / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain )

On Dec. 14, Frank Shakespeare, a devout and significant Catholic witness to the 20th century, died at age 97.

Born in New York City on April 9, 1925, Shakespeare, after an impressive career in broadcasting, business, and government, became America’s second ambassador to the Vatican. He was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in September 1986, following Reagan’s and America’s first ambassador to the Vatican, William Wilson. Wilson was appointed in 1984 when President Reagan became the first president to diplomatically recognize the Holy See, a crucial fulfillment of a Reagan vision and plan that he first expressed in June 1979 (when he watched Pope John Paul II visit Poland) to “reach out to this new Polish pope and the Vatican and make them an ally.”

Frank Shakespeare helped anchor that alliance, though in a particular way.

Understanding how requires going a step back prior to Shakespeare’s appointment to the Vatican. It means going back to his previous appointment as ambassador to Portugal from 1985-86. When Shakespeare accepted that first appointment by Reagan, what he really wanted to be — as he told me very pointedly, but told no one else at the time — was America’s “Ambassador to Fatima.” I learned that and more, quite unforgettably, during poignant conversations with Shakespeare in 2013. Readers here, at the time of his death in 2022, should learn it, too.

My first conversation with Frank Shakespeare was by phone on Feb. 21, 2013, for a good hour. I remember it vividly. I was driving up Rte. 79 in western Pennsylvania. He was returning my call. I had left a message noting that I was writing a book on Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, two men he knew in a profound way. I was so struck by what he said that I pulled off the highway and starting writing down notes, verbatim, as quickly as I could.

He was 87 years old and sharp as a tack, living with his daughter, Fredricka, and her family. He had been interviewed many times by many people throughout his life, but he had never been asked the questions that I asked him.

I began by laying out Ronald Reagan’s Catholic sympathies, his relationship with the Pope and so many close Catholics on his staff, the Catholics (late father) and devout Catholics in his immediate family (including brother and sister-in-law), and also his interest in the Blessed Mother. Then I asked Shakespeare if Ronald Reagan, to his knowledge, had ever expressed interest in or asked about Our Lady of Fatima, which is something that I figured Shakespeare, having the very unusual background of ambassador to Portugal and then the Vatican, might uniquely be able to answer. His answer was very interesting:

Here’s how it would have come up [in conversation with Reagan] and did come up:

First off, they [Reagan and John Paul II] felt the need to counsel each very frequently. As the head of the world’s leading spiritual power, and the head of the world’s leading temporal power, both of them fairly new to the job, and with John Paul II being the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years, they felt a need for one another’s counsel.

Now, at some point, the Pope would have said to Reagan: “For anyone to talk to me in depth about foreign policy, about Russia, about the Cold War, they will need to understand my thinking and relationship to Mary and also Mary’s appearance at Fatima and the whole relationship between Mary and Russia and the Cold War. … So, if someone is going to talk to me about foreign policy, Mr. President, you will need to understand that. You will need to understand this and how it relates to my foreign policy.”

Very clearly, the Pope would have said to Reagan that there can’t be someone between us who can speak to us on Russia and foreign policy without understanding Mary and Fatima.

At that point in my interview with him, I then asked Frank: “And that someone between them turned out to be you?” He answered: “Yes, it was me.”

Frank then went into an example of Reagan hearing about Fatima from him directly. It was June 1987, and he hadn’t been ambassador to the Vatican long. He had just gotten settled in:

Reagan’s office called. They said “the president wants to meet with you at the Group of Eight [G-8 Summit] in northern Italy. The president will be there a couple of days in northern Italy, representing the United States, and wants to meet with you on,” I think it was, “a Thursday afternoon. After the G-8, he’s going to spend some time huddling with the Pope. He wants you to fly with him from northern Italy to Rome. You’ll be with him the whole time, in his private room on the plane and in the car.”

A point of clarification: it was actually the G-7, and not the G-8. It included the United States (Reagan), the UK (Thatcher), West Germany (Helmut Kohl), France (Francois Mitterand), Italy (Amintore Fanfani), Japan (Yasuhiro Nakasone), and Canada (Brian Mulroney). The G-7 Summit met in Venice from June 8-10, 1987. According to official White House records, Reagan left Washington for the Venice summit on June 3 and made his first statement from the summit on June 5. He met with the Pope on June 6 at the Vatican.

Shakespeare continued:

It was about an hour-and-a-half flight, and then we drove for a while in the car. He talked to me about the relationship between he and the Pope and what they’d be talking about. He told me he wanted to go over everything, and he said, “and you’re going to be there and you’re going to know everything. You and I are going to be all alone for about two hours.”… I thought, “Wow.” He told me, “I want to tell you everything.”

We did that. We were in a private villa in Rome, the Vatican Gardens. We got to where the Pope was waiting for the president. Then someone representing the Pope came and led the president out and Reagan met with the Pope for about two hours, while I stayed there and waited for him.

They finished and the president returned to talk to me. And he went through everything they talked about. Reagan went through everything, item after item after item. I was the only person in the world with the knowledge of what the leader of the spiritual world and the leader of the temporal world said. Reagan just told me everything. It was very informal. And then, after about one and a half or two hours, the secret service agent came back and said that Mrs. Reagan was ready and it would be time to leave.

Now here is the point on Fatima: I talked to Reagan about Fatima on this trip, in the plane and the car [prior to the meeting with the Pope]. And he listened very, very carefully — very intently. He was very interested.

In my book A Pope and a President, I lay out at length Ronald Reagan’s special, touching interest in the blessed Mother and in Fatima. Indeed, Reagan would no doubt have listened very intently to Frank Shakespeare talking about Fatima.

I also asked Frank if John Paul II ever talked to him about Fatima. He said quite brusquely, without explanation why, “Yes, but I’m not going to talk to you about that.” “But,” he added, “I will tell you that Mary, in the eyes of the tippy-tippy top of the Catholic Church … there’s a belief that that [Fatima] absolutely happened.”

Of that, there is certainly no question, especially in the eyes of Pope John Paul II, the Marian pope, who was shot and nearly killed on May 13, 1981, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima.

And what about that “ambassador to Fatima” thing?

As we continued our conversation, Frank backed up the timeline and told me the story of how he was picked for the job of ambassador to Portugal. He was in Washington, and it was the middle of the day, and he bumped into the deputy secretary of state:

And out of the blue, he asked me if I’d consider being ambassador to Portugal. It was an amazing thought, totally out of the blue. Given all I had done before, in industry and elsewhere, it would have been considered a step down. If I had been offered [the post of] ambassador to France, I would have shrugged and said, “Eh, I’ll think about it.”

I must have stunned him because I said, “I would accept it immediately.” And the reason was Fatima, which fascinated me from my childhood. I wasn’t going to be ambassador to Portugal, in my mind; I was going to be ambassador to Fatima. I didn’t tell him that, of course, but that was my thinking.

Just days later, I had an invitation, a letter, from President Reagan to be ambassador to Portugal.

I didn’t even know who the previous ambassador was. [It was Henry Allen Holmes.]

I never had any conversation beforehand with Reagan, the Pope, but it happened instantly. And as soon as I got there, there was a message from one of the Pope’s cardinals. And I met with the cardinal right away.

There is much more that Frank Shakespeare and I talked about. I’ll add this: I noted how profoundly Providential the timing was with Reagan and the Pope, both coming to office in the way they did and at the time they did, both being shot and nearly assassinated mere weeks apart, and the relationship between the two men. Frank, who was careful not to overstate things, agreed, adding, “It was extremely significant — hugely, hugely enormous.” He agreed with my characterization of the two men as “kindred spirits, kindred souls.” “Yes!” he said. “That’s exactly what they were—kindred spirits and kindred souls.”

And so was Frank Shakespeare, a kindred spirit and soul to both men and to his beloved Catholic Church. He was quite a witness to what I believe were the greatest events of the last century, from the warnings of Fatima to the end of the Cold War.

Of course, obituaries on Shakespeare this week will not include anything quite like what I’ve shared here. The New York Times, to its credit, did a lengthy obituary on the man, a credit to his remarkable career in broadcasting and business, especially the native New Yorker’s time in New York as president of CBS television and RKO General, plus so many other impressive positions. Most obituaries note that he was ambassador to the Vatican and to Portugal.

I can add to that, however, what Frank Shakespeare would have also liked to have been remembered for. He was America’s ambassador to Fatima.