August 30, 2005
When President Bill Clinton called me in late November 1997 asking me to serve as the Ambassador to the Holy See, I protested that I was too old and had been retired from Congress too long to serve in such an important capacity. He dismissed these protests, advising me that he would contact me again the following day. And, so he did, in a most surprising manner.
The Gorbachevs were visiting New Orleans, and Raisa was being entertained by several prominent women at the Court of Two Sisters, which is directly across the street from my residence. As I entered the restaurant's courtyard, I was greeted by several reporters and photographers, who, I assumed, were there to cover Mrs. Gorbachev's visit.
Wrong! They were present to interview me because President Clinton had announced his nomination of me as Ambassador to the Holy See. And I am forever grateful for his decision.
Following State Department preparations and confirmation by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then the full Senate, I was off to a glorious adventure, arriving in Rome in December 1997.
Settling quickly into Villa Richardson, the official residence, as well as the embassy offices, and supported by excellent staff members in both places, I began the marvelous experience of representing the United States at the Holy See. I am blessed to have many treasured memories of the late Holy Father and my time serving at the Vatican.
As a lover of Shakespeare, I should have known that "all roads lead to Rome," and that at some special time within the framework of international realities, many cabinet members, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives members and prominent scientists, authors, musicians and, of course, Church authorities would have obligations that could be best accommodated at the Vatican.
One of the first of many gratifying experiences was the visit of Rufus Harris, the former president of Tulane and at the time an official of the National Science Foundation, and Francis Cardinal George (G '70) of Chicago, the head of the Pontifical Academy's Programs at the University of New Mexico. They were enthusiastically reporting on the first pictures seen from the Hubble Space Telescope. When Rufus explained that a now famous image of a billowing cloud of gas and dust "resembled a giant finger coming out of the sky and pointing to a new Earth," I felt that I should have reminded him that Michelangelo knew that a long time ago.
This was the first of several experiences that proved Tulane's far-reaching influence through the participation of alumni, administrators and professors in the Vatican's worldwide programs.
Following an attendance at a meeting in Mexico, Pope John Paul II returned to Rome by way of St. Louis. The U.S. ambassadors to Italy and to the Holy See went, of course, to meet him, and I was privileged to be invited to ride back to Rome on his special plane.
Before we arrived, he honored me by calling me into his special quarters to review the St. Louis visit. Rarely have I been as privileged!
My service in Rome coincided with the problems in Kosovo and the surrounding countries and with the incumbent numbers of refugees flooding into Italy. The care, feeding and clothing of these displaced people were of special interest to the Holy Father.
When U.S. captains whose ships were docked in Naples heard of these concerns, they made available their excess packages of frozen foods to the Vatican workers to distribute among those affected. (Happily, each of the packages included a small bottle of Mc-Ilhenny's Tabasco sauce!)
In the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, travels brought the Holy Father to Jerusalem, where his poignant visit to the Western Wall was the most touching of his many gestures of outreach to the people of Israel.
My service in Rome was extended beyond the inauguration of President George W. Bush because a new ambassador had not been named when the U.S. Congress voted to bestow the Medal of Freedom (George Washington was its first recipient) upon the Holy Father. A large contingent of U.S. Senate and House members traveled to Rome for the ceremonies. Several beautiful and meaningful speeches were made during the ceremonies. Then, the Holy Father responded with his usual sense of pertinence and eloquence. Unfortunately I had not advised the group upon the courtesy of applauding the Pope's response.
When the contingent of uncertain Americans failed to make an appropriate acknowledgement, the Holy Father rose to leave the room and took several steps before the group spontaneously broke into thunderous applause. So, John Paul II turned around and blessed them -- to even more applause. Finally, when he arrived at the exit door with a great flourish the Holy Father gave a final blessing and said, "And God bless America!"
To which I say, "Amen."
A 1935 graduate of Newcomb College, Lindy Boggs served in the U.S. Congress from 1973 to 1991. She served as Ambassador to the Holy See from 1997 to 2001. She wrote this essay at the invitation of Tulanian.
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