The Nicholson standard

George Weigel

Sometime in the next few months, a new U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See will be moving into Villa Richardson on Rome’s Janiculum Hill. The shoes waiting to be filled there, and at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See (which overlooks the Circus Maximus), are large indeed.

Since the post was created during the first Reagan administration, Americans of all faiths and political persuasions have been well-served by their ambassadors to the Holy See: a distinguished group of men and women who have brought lives of accomplishment and good judgment to their work in the Vatican, and with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. Some served in relatively quiet periods; others had to tread a rockier road. Still, I trust none of his distinguished predecessors, no matter what the circumstances in which they served, will object if I suggest that the recently-returned U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, R. James Nicholson (now Secretary of Veterans Affairs), set a new standard of excellence.

Jim Nicholson grew up in poverty on a tenant farm in northwest Iowa, knowing hunger in his bones. After graduating from West Point in 1961, he did eight years of active duty as a paratrooper, qualifying as a Ranger and earning the Bronze Star in Vietnam; he retired from the service with the rank of colonel after 22 years in the Army Reserve. His active military career was followed by law practice and successful ventures in real estate development; yet Jim Nicholson would likely say that his greatest achievement was persuading Suzanne Marie Ferrell, a wonderful woman and distinguished artist, to marry him. They raised three children, even as Jim was becoming involved in politics, becoming Colorado’s representative on the Republican National Committee in 1986. Elected chairman of the RNC in 1997, he served through the tumultuous 2000 election, after which President Bush nominated him as ambassador to the Holy See.

Ambassador Nicholson presented his credentials to Pope John Paul II days after 9/11, and the years ahead would be dominated by issues of war and peace. During times of real tension between Vatican officials and the U.S. government, especially in the run-up to the war in Iraq, Jim Nicholson kept his head, kept his cool — and kept the conversation-partners in conversation. It was a remarkable performance that earned the respect of everyone in Rome.

At the same time, he launched a series of initiatives that deepened the conversation between the U.S. Government and the Vatican on key global issues of mutual concern. One of the gravest human rights abuses of the early 21st century is the awful practice of trafficking in persons, usually for purposes of sexual exploitation. Jim Nicholson brought the trafficking issue to Rome and compelled the representatives of countries that might prefer to ignore the issue to face it squarely, in all its moral squalor and human drama.

Ambassador Nicholson did the same in addressing the question of genetically-modified foods. Working with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Nicholson staged an international conference that usefully challenged European protectionists and western anti-corporate activists more inclined to scratch their ideological itches than to see poor people fed; as the once-poor and hungry Nicholson put it in a sharp op-ed piece in the International Herald Tribune, there was something very strange about anti-corporate ideologues who seemed to be telling famine-stricken Africans that it was “better to die than eat the food that Americans eat every day.” Whatever their concerns about agricultural globalization, senior Vatican officials seemed to agree.

Jim and Suzanne Nicholson were gracious and generous hosts, welcoming a broad cross-section of Americans into their residence (where His Excellency, the ambassador, could sometimes be found at 0300 on Monday mornings, watching Denver Broncos’ games on TV). At the same time, their ambassadorship was a kind of four-year retreat: every Lenten morning at 7:30 a.m., you could find the Nicholsons at Mass in the Roman station church of the day.

I say “their” ambassadorship because Jim and Suzanne were a marvelous team. Together, they set the gold standard. All U.S. Catholics owe them a debt of gratitude for services brilliantly rendered.

COMING UP: A man for strengthening others

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.