Pio Laghi was ordained a priest in 1946 and did parish work in a poor area of Italy heavily damaged during World War II. He then studied in Rome for several years, completing doctorates in sacred theology and canon law, and fully expected to be assigned to a parish in his home diocese.
His superiors had other ideas. Monsignor Giovanni Montini in the Secretary of State’s office told Laghi that the Holy See needed young priests in its diplomatic corps and would assign him to Nicaragua, where he would work in the nunciature (equivalent to an embassy).
“Yes, I was anxious – to go out into a world unknown to me, coming from the Italian countryside like I did, particularly when I had to leave my family, learn new languages and live in a new land,” he said. “We looked at a map to see where Nicaragua was, and my mother was concerned!”
Montini recognized talent when he saw it, and his choice was validated many times over the next half century. After Nicaragua (1952-1954), Laghi held positions in Washington (1954-1961), India (1961-1964), Rome (1964-1969), Jerusalem and Palestine (1969-1974), Argentina (1974-1980) and Washington (1980-1990) before returning to Rome as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. Along the way, he became an archbishop (1969) and a cardinal (1991).
And Montini? He did pretty well, too. In 1963, his fellow cardinals elected him as Pope Paul VI.
Laghi learned early that he liked foreign service, and he treasures the many acquaintances he made. He found “a special grace” in Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was “such an inspiration to me – her work, her spirit, her charisma and her service to the poorest of the poor.” Another rewarding, albeit difficult and frustrating, assignment was his work as apostolic delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine, where the strife 35 years ago was similar in many respects to today.
His final assignments in the United States, as apostolic delegate and then as the first apostolic pro-nuncio (akin to being an ambassador), came during an exciting time because of President Reagan’s decision to formalize diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984.
“That was touchy because of First Amendment concerns about separation of church and state,” Laghi said, but it proved to be one of the factors that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. “Reagan was smart. He knew he would need the cooperation of Pope John Paul II to accomplish his objectives. He saw in John Paul a great friend and a great leader.”
Laghi earned a reputation as a skillful diplomat who quickly grasped the cultural nuances of the Catholic Church in each country in which he served while handling sensitive situations and balancing competing interests. He once wrote that diplomacy “has everything to do with honest exchange and frank encounter. It does not seek confrontation.”
Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations, worked with Laghi in Washington from 1984 to 1988 and found him to be a fine teacher who was grounded “in a sound theology and a serene, jovial spirituality.”
“I was impressed with the loving and prudent way he handled crisis, tension and creative progress within the Catholic Church in the United States,” Migliore said. “His passion for peace and justice was evident, and he developed a pleasant empathy with people, which made him a natural bridge builder.”
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and as the Soviet Union dissolved, the pope told Laghi it was time to come home for good and oversee Catholic education around the globe.
“When I took over as prefect, the final text of Ex Corde Ecclesiae was on my desk,” Laghi said, referring to the papal statement about the mission of Catholic higher education. “The Holy Father told me, ‘This is one of your commitments’ – to travel around the world to the 950 Catholic colleges and universities, to respond to their questions and to convince them to take on the norms of a Catholic university.”
Ex Corde Ecclesiae received a mixed reception in the United States because of concerns over potential conflicts between church doctrine and academic freedom. Those concerns ebbed as Laghi and his successor cleared up misunderstandings.
Laghi resigned as prefect in 1999 and served two years as cardinal protodeacon before retiring in 2002. He since has undertaken special missions, including a trip to Washington in March 2003 to meet with President Bush about the impending war in Iraq.
“I tried to convince President George W. Bush how dangerous a war would be – that it wasn’t justified because of the consequences and wasn’t legal because he didn’t have the backing of the United Nations,” Laghi said. But Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in separate audiences with him, “told me that the regime of Saddam Hussein had become a cancer in the Middle East, and they had to extract the cancer before it metastacized.”
In an Ash Wednesday homily at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Laghi prayed for the “precious gift of peace” and explained how it “is built on four pillars: truth, justice, love and freedom. The Church’s solicitude for peace has been a constant one, and that is why she never tires in her work for the cause of peace. She believes that peace can always be constructed even in the darkest moments.”
Five years later, Laghi is saddened that the war continues – just as he is saddened with the ongoing tension between Israelis and Palestinians. He remains optimistic that peace can be achieved in the Middle East, “but in my lifetime, that may be difficult.”
As successful as Laghi has been in so many different realms, he still takes the greatest satisfaction in his daily work as a priest – in celebrating Mass and ministering to others. He remembers how the possibility of becoming a priest grew on him slowly as a teenager in a country facing war, “and as I saw people suffering, I thought I needed to do something to help.”
That something was the priesthood, and he worries why young men and women don’t feel the same calling to religious life that he did. “We have lost a sense of vocation, a sense of calling – a call to life,” he said. “People think life is in their hands only, but they need to realize their life also is in the hands of God, and they should listen to Him. They look for having more – and not being more.
Cardinal Pio Laghi and St. Thomas