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Missions as a Papal Diplomat by Monsignor Peter Magee
In the 1990 School Magazine, it was my honour to put down a few thoughts about my life since leaving St Michael's in 1975. That honour has been renewed, so I will pick up from where I then left off, the beginning of my mission as a papal diplomat in Zimbabwe.
In April 1991, I set foot on African soil for the first time. I was apprehensive, yet excited. I quickly discovered the beauty of Zimbabwe, the sufferings and joys of its people and, of course, the exasperating sameness of the politics and corruption I had witnessed in El Salvador. The Church in Zimbabwe showed great vitality and diversity. The missionaries from Spain, the UK, Ireland and, yes, Nigeria brought great joy and zeal with them. The indigenous Catholic laity, despite their poverty and uncertainty about the future, absorbed that joy and zeal and were a true leaven of the Kingdom in their homeland. When I left Zimbabwe in 1994, the situation was not as bad as it is now and so I feel a real sadness for the way the political ambitions of one man and one party have exacer-bated racism, ruined the economy and, above all, caused untold suffering to the vast majority of Zimbabweans. But my memories will always be fond and joyful.
In July 1994, I arrived in Venezuela on the next stage of my journey. What a warm and passionate people! My role continued to be that of a papal diplomat and what a joy it was in this Catholic country. In Venezuela I really began in earnest that unique work of the Holy See known as the appointment of bishops. It is a complex, difficult and sometimes exhausting job, but so vital for the life and mission of the Church. I also had the great grace of being there when Pope John Paul the Great visited Venezuela in February 1996. To sit beside him at meals and walk with him was just such a joy and honour. I recall one evening at table when a strange, greenish jelly was the dessert. He, however, had spied a chocolate gateau at the end of the table and asked me to remove the jelly and cut him a “Scottish slice” of cake! Presuming that meant "big", I dutifully obeyed the Pope!
In 1996, I was transferred to Cuba – for just one year, but what a year! Cuba was, and still is, a cauldron of politics and diplomacy in which the Church must play a vital role. Despite much of Castro's inter-national image (free education and health service for all Cubans, social equality, etc.), the truth is that he has humiliated his own people, depriving them of the free exercise of some of their most fundamental rights and freedoms. It was a most difficult year for me; indeed, a defining one as regards how I perceived priesthood and Church. Do you speak up in such situations, come what may? Or could that only worsen the conditions of the poorest people by unleashing a backlash of oppression? Marrying prophecy and prudence is not easy nor, perhaps, is it possible.
In January 1997, I was transferred to the Holy See's office at the UN in Geneva. It was like living on another planet after Cuba! It was also an important lesson in the vital function of “talking shops” – many other international organizations have their HQ in Geneva. Some days I whizzed from human rights meetings to seminars on health questions to debates on world trade to refugee problems, etc.! After six months, I noticed, however, that the ambassadors seemed always to give the same speech no matter what meeting they attended. The ingred-ients were always the same (politics, money and power!), but the salad dressing differed (health, trade, refugees...). Still, it was a good school in what the world thinks of itself. At times I felt we were all on the moon, looking down at the real earth from a safe distance and telling it what to do. The Holy See, in such situations, cannot offer technical solutions to problems, but tries to reiterate those basic principles of universal morality which should underpin any such solutions. Sounds easy, but there is great hostility towards morality.
In July 1999, I arrived in the United States to begin the longest leg of my diplomatic missions. My time there was almost exclusively dedicated to working towards the appointment of bishops, of which there are several hundred in the US. At the same time, I followed political, legal and judicial developments which were of interest to the Holy See in the defence of human life, religious freedom, separation of church and state, etc.. I also was given respons-ibility to cover the “Organization of American States”, and that led me to travel to Canada and to Latin America. My experience in El Salvador, Venezuela and Cuba came in very handy! The Church in the US suffered greatly while I was there because of the infamous paedophile crisis. Although there were great legal and financial woes related to this, the real blow was struck to the credibility of the priest. Even although the percentage of criminal priests involved was minimal, it left the vast majority of the others with very low morale. It will take a long time to heal. Still and yet, this humiliation may turn out to be a purification of the US Church.
After five years in Washington, I decided to leave papal diplomacy. It was a difficult, but good decision. Initially, I was talked into remaining in Washington to teach, which I did for two years, although only one semester was given to teaching (at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service). At length, however, the secret desire of my heart to return to full-time pastoral work came to fruition. Washington Archdiocese has had many ordinations in recent years. My home diocese of Galloway has not been so fortunate. So, despite yet another wrench from friends and familiarities, I thought, “do the right thing!” In August of last year, I called Bishop John Cunningham and asked if he would receive me back. He kindly agreed and, in December of 2006, I returned home. On February 15th, I took up my post as parish priest of Newton Stewart, Wigtown and Whithorn. Could the return to my roots have been any more complete?
I am sorry that St Michael's is closing. However, I have learnt in my short life that such “rites of passage” can bring with them great blessings, if only we are open to them. St Michael's has served both Church and society admirably. And so, although the school itself may be passing, the fruits it will bear in the hearts and minds of so many will certainly have eternal consequences. In this sense, truly we must proclaim, “Aeterna non caduca”!
Monsignor Peter Magee
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