How George H.W. Bush Surprised Me at My Diaconal Ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica

COMMENTARY: A generous gesture in 2001 tells a tale of the importance of faith, family and friendship to the late president, who died Nov. 30 at the age of 94.

Pope John Paul II invites President George Bush, accompanied by his wife, Barbara, to meet members of the clergy gathered in the Vatican's Clementine Hall Nov. 8, 1991.
Pope John Paul II invites President George Bush, accompanied by his wife, Barbara, to meet members of the clergy gathered in the Vatican's Clementine Hall Nov. 8, 1991. (photo: AP photo/Denis Paquin)

George H.W. Bush, who died Nov. 30, was kind enough to come to my ordination as a deacon. To be sure, during the actual ordination Mass he had a meeting with St. John Paul II, so he came after it was over to congratulate us.

He had no reason to know anything about us in particular. But it was a generous gesture typical of a kind gentleman, and we appreciated it. Therein lies a tale of the importance of faith, family and friendship to the late president.

Along with 39 of my classmates at the Pontifical North American College, I was ordained a deacon in St. Peter’s Basilica Oct. 4, 2001. It was just weeks after 9/11. Many of our families that had traveled overseas did so nervous about the new lethality of airborne terror.

Immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush prepared for war against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The decision was taken that the war would start Oct. 7.

The U.S. diplomatic apparatus began to notify allies around the world of what was going to happen and when. The task could have been entrusted to the U.S. embassy to the Holy See. The American secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell, could also have personally telephoned the Vatican.

But such was President George W. Bush’s esteem for Pope John Paul II that he asked his father, President George H.W. Bush, to travel to Rome to brief the Holy Father in person. Bush 43 wanted John Paul to hear such a somber and historic message from his own father, Bush 41.

The meeting was set for Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Years later, I would read in the younger Bush’s memoir, 41: A Portrait of My Father, that one of the elder Bush’s favorite quotations was “Preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words” — a phrase often attributed to the Poverello of Assisi.

The bishop ordaining us was Cardinal Pio Laghi, who had been the Holy See’s representative in Washington during the 1980s. He became friends with the elder Bush, as the vice-presidential residence at the Naval Observatory was across the street from the apostolic nunciature. They would play tennis together and visit frequently.

Bush famously kept up his friendships, and so while he was in Rome, why not look in on his old friend?

He suggested that they meet after his briefing of John Paul. Cardinal Laghi invited Bush to have lunch at his apartment, and he accepted. It meant, it must be confessed, that our ordination quickly became the second-most-important thing on Cardinal Laghi’s schedule that day.

The longtime diplomat discreetly inquired whether alternate arrangements could be made, but nothing was possible at the last minute. So he told the president that he would be tied up in the basilica until late morning. Bush said that was fine — he would meet him there and greet us at the same time.

Cardinal Laghi celebrated a reverent ordination Mass, gave a fine homily and ordained all 40 of us in two hours flat. My classmate noted that he “laid hands on our heads like they were on fire.” He gave no appearance of rushing, but he was not going to be late for his presidential appointment.

After the Mass in St. Peter’s, Bush 41 arrived, about as unobtrusively as is possible for a president to arrive, as the Vatican does not permit the Secret Service to close the basilica or impede the pilgrims. Nevertheless, his unannounced presence in the basilica created a bit of a stir.

Bush 41 greeted us informally, congratulating us on our ordination and expressing admiration for our decision to serve God in the ministry.

The rector of the Pontifical North American College, Msgr. Kevin McCoy, addressed Bush on our behalf, telling him that the seminarians were praying for his presidential son, that he make wise decisions in a time of crisis.

Bush then asked if there were any Texans in our class. There was one. He then asked if there were any from Florida. There were two.

“You have a good Catholic governor down there!” Bush 41 said, referring to his son Jeb.

He was not able to tell us then why he had come to meet the John Paul, but he did tell us that he had been given an audience earlier that morning. Then his eyes began to fill with tears.

“The Pope told me that he and the cardinals are praying for the president,” he said, pausing and choking up. “The Pope is praying for my son. … The Pope is praying for my son,” he repeated softly. He was overwhelmed.

“Barbara and I are so proud of him,” he said, his voice trailing off in emotion.

I had never thought of Bush as anything other than a statesman, and one whose political record was mixed.

At that moment, though, he was a father, and a fellow Christian, and the idea that the pastor of the universal Church would be praying for his son made him weep in awe and gratitude.

This was decency and goodness and Christian piety — suitable for a man who, after taking the oath of office, began his address by leading the people in a prayer. Bush was not the great man of history who bent it to his will, but he was a very good man who was reliable and dutiful when history changed course.

Four years later, when St. John Paul II died in April 2005, Bush 43 attended the funeral, inviting Bush 41 and Bill Clinton to join him, expressing again his high regard for the late Pontiff.

Bush’s post-presidential years came to be dominated by the political ascent of his two sons, George W. and Jeb. He became a “first father” and grandfather to the nation. But he was not the master political strategist in the background. Rather, he taught the nation something about fathers and sons, a cultural need more important that politics.

It is customary for former presidents to say that their most important title is “citizen.” For George H. W. Bush, it was always “father.”

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.