Any beginning student of the Italian language would have difficulty with the name Cardinal Pio Laghi. It is, after all, a singular Christian name, Pio (Pius), appearing to describe a plural noun, Laghi (lakes). No such confusion lay in the mind and heart of the man Pio Laghi, however. He was a man with a singular vision of service.
The Cardinal’s connection with St. Thomas goes back to the 1970s. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1982 from UST and the first John Ireland Award in 1994 for outstanding contributions to Catholic education. He was the founding chair of the School of Law Board of Governors. He joined the Board of Trustees of St. Thomas in 2007.
Having served as special Vatican envoy to Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, Cardinal Laghi had a special affection for the Holy Land. Last October, he encouraged fellow trustees to join him on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a physical and spiritual journey in which the Cardinal was to be our guide.
It was always a joy to be in his company, but it was particularly rewarding on this pilgrimage. It was like traveling with a rock star. Natives of the Holy Land would crowd around him and remind him of the various things the Cardinal did to improve life in the region.
Nowhere was this more the case than our visit to Bethlehem University. During the historic visit of Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in 1964, Palestinians expressed their desire to establish a university in their homeland. Paul VI asked Cardinal Laghi to form a committee of local community leaders to establish an institution of higher learning under the direction of the De La Salle Christian Brothers. Bethlehem University opened its doors on Oct. 3, 1973. Approximately two-thirds of the student population of 2,500 is Muslim. Cardinal Laghi believed that Catholic education is not just for Catholics. To teach as Jesus taught means Catholic education is inclusive in its audience and makes a special contribution to the entire community.
Shortly after the University of St. Thomas pilgrimage was over, Cardinal Laghi was diagnosed with acute leukemia. The spiritual reflections the Cardinal shared were about the journey of Christ from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Little did we know that the Cardinal would be making his own journey back to the Heavenly Father.
It is difficult to capture the depth of Cardinal Laghi’s affection for the University of St. Thomas and with its two most recent presidents, Monsignor Terrence Murphy and Father Dennis Dease. He also formed some deep relationships with fellow trustees. How beautiful it was that Cardinal Pio Laghi spent such quality time at the very end of his life with the St. Thomas community.
May he rest in peace.