Cardinal Francesco Colasuonno

Vatican diplomat with first-hand insight into Communist tactics

Francesco Colasuonno, priest: born Grumo Appula, Italy 2 January 1925; ordained priest 1947; apostolic delegate to Mozambique 1974-81; Titular Archbishop of Truentum 1975; pro-nuncio to Zimbabwe 1981-85; pro-nuncio to Yugoslavia 1985-86; papal envoy for Eastern Europe 1986-90; nuncio to the Soviet Union 1990-94, nuncio to Italy 1994-98; named a cardinal 1998; died Grumo Appula 31 May 2003.

Francesco Colasuonno was the epitome of a Vatican diplomat, well-educated and multi-lingual but quiet and self-effacing, a "safe pair of hands". He was instrumental in building relations with Eastern Europe in the last Communist years there and had the delicate task of being the Pope's first envoy to Moscow.

Colasuonno's work in Eastern Europe began in January 1985, when he was transferred from Africa to become nuncio to Yugoslavia. The following year Pope John Paul II gave him a wider role as special envoy for Eastern Europe. Among his duties was to head the Vatican delegation for working relations with Poland at a time when contacts were jealously guarded by the Pope on one side and the Polish bishops on the other, with little room for a middle man.

In the late 1980s, as Eastern Europe was transformed politically, Colasuonno guided the Vatican's restoration of ties with Warsaw and Budapest and negotiated the normalisation of church-state relations in Czechoslovakia and Romania.

Five days after the execution of President Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, Colasuonno arrived in Bucharest to make contact with the National Salvation Front. He secured the revocation of the 1948 government decree banning the Eastern-rite Catholic Church and helped choose the newly restored hierarchy.

In March 1990, when the Vatican established "working relations" with Moscow, Colasuonno became the Vatican's ambassador to what was then the Soviet Union. He never succeeded in persuading Moscow to upgrade these to full diplomatic relations.

Colasuonno travelled throughout the post-Soviet republics, seeking out the small Catholic communities that had maintained their faithfulness to the Pope during 70 years of repression. This was often a difficult task. When he arrived in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, not knowing how to contact local Catholics, he simply walked the streets wearing his cassock so that people would see him.

Born near Bari in southern Italy, Colasuonno decided early on he wanted to be a priest. He entered seminary and was ordained for the Bari Archdiocese in 1947 when he was only 22. He then taught for 11 years at the seminary in Bari, at the same time gaining doctorates in theology and canon law.

In 1958 Pope Pius XII summoned Colasuonno to Rome to begin a career in the diplomatic corps, first as an assistant in the section for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs of the Secretariat of State and then in diplomatic posts.

After stints at the nunciatures in the United States, India and Taiwan, Colasuonno was appointed by Pope Paul VI to be the first Apostolic Delegate to Mozambique in December 1974, as the Communist Frelimo movement was assuming power as Portugal's empire crumbled. He was consecrated Archbishop in February 1975.

In Maputo, Colasuonno had to work behind the scenes to counter the growing anti-religious measures of the Frelimo regime, gaining a first-hand insight into Communist tactics. He remained in Mozambique until his transfer in 1981 as Apostolic Delegate to Zimbabwe, a year after the country gained internationally recognised independence.

In 1994, after four and a half years in Moscow, Colasuonno was transferred to become Vatican nuncio to Italy, an odd post given the frequent routine contacts between the Vatican and Italian authorities. The following April he was also named nuncio to San Marino. Pope John Paul gave him a cardinal's hat in the consistory of February 1998, the year he retired to southern Italy.

Felix Corley