Can Rome curb this turbulent priest?

Archbishop Milingo became notorious for his shocking exorcisms. But these were nothing to the furore caused by his marriage to a member of the Moonie sect. Andrew Brown follows his bizarre career
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Archbishop Emanuel Milingo has spent his whole life fighting demons. They run from him in terror, he says; but the fear and revulsion that he inspires in supernatural creatures is more than matched by the terror he inspires in his own side. But his latest escapade – which has left a Moonie wife on hunger strike, and apparently pregnant, in Rome after the Archbishop renounced her under threat of excommunication – surpasses in surrealism almost everything that he has done before. The demons of sex with which he is so publicly wrestling today are far more frightening to the Roman Catholic Church than the more flamboyant spirits of evil that he battles as an exorcist.

The undisputed facts of the present case are these: over the last few years, the Archbishop, now 71, has been at something of a loose end in Rome. He had started off as one of the most promising and charismatic priests in Africa; famous for harnessing the drive and theatre of African spirituality to the demands of Christian orthodoxy. He was made Archbishop of Lusaka before he was 40, in 1969. This is about 10 years younger than even the most able priests can expect to become bishops. It seemed that he would become one of those rare African cardinals, and reach the very top of his church. But then things went wrong. He was acknowledged to have a rare gift for healing – supernatural, his supporters said. But his services of exorcism grew more spectacular and less orthodox.

Finally, he was accused of witchcraft, and the other bishops in Zambia denounced him formally to the Vatican. Thirteen years after his consecration, in 1982, he was summoned to Rome to see the Pope. After his audience, he was confined to a monastery and disappeared from public view for 18 months. He was given a wide variety of psychological tests, and apparently passed them to the satisfaction of his superiors. In 1985, he re-emerged with a job as a Vatican bureaucrat, in the Council for Tourists and Migrant Workers.

Here, he was able to bring his African stylings to a tradition of European paranoia about Freemasonry and Satanism. In 1989, he told the writer John Cornwell: "We are now in the last days of Satan's reign, and he is working overtime through his agents to complete the takeover of the world. His agents are nothing less that the Freemasons who have penetrated to the very heart of Christ's Church.

"After the last war, bright young Freemasons were placed in seminaries around the world. These agents of Satan were waiting for... the Second Vatican Council [the huge modernising meeting of bishops that transformed the Church in the Sixties]. Many of those brilliant men were by now the leading experts who advised the Council Fathers. And what did they do? They left Christ's Church defenceless against the wiles of the Devil. Above all, they succeeded in making Christians think that the Devil does not exist!"

The belief that the advisers of the Second Vatican Council were, in fact, conscious agents of Satanism is not widely held in Rome, and by 1989, Milingo was unable to find a single parish priest in the whole city who would allow him to celebrate his Masses of healing and exorcism. He started holding them in hotel conference rooms. They drew crowds of several hundred, mostly poor Italians, though there were Africans there too.

Cornwell, who attended one of these services and had himself trained as a priest, was horrified by what he saw. As he recalls in his book Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light: "The shock of the first series of shrieks was so awe-inspiring that it took me a few seconds to regain my breath. A young woman, just five yards from me, had gone into a paroxysm of screaming; her eyes had risen so that only the whites were visible, and she collapsed into the arms of those about her. The room had become hot and airless; I guessed the temperature might be as high as 100F.

"The priests were praying on the altar, some of them with their eyes shut tight, others in a distracted, terror-stricken manner; members of the congregation were weeping and offering supplications in a babble of voices; Milingo was going from one screaming person to the next, talking rapidly and shrilly in a language that I could not understand; he seemed to be expending extraordinary energy.

"Just when it appeared that the seizures and paroxysms had reached their height I saw a middle-aged woman go down, writhing and shaking in a quite obscene fashion. She seemed to be having an orgasm before our eyes. But even as I looked away a young man went down on the floor almost in front of me and began to paw and scrape the floor and bark and whine like a dog."

I have myself seen behaviour like this at large Pentecostal rallies held by people like the televangelist Morris Cerullo, though the exorcisms tend to be held backstage. Barking like animals was a passing fashion in Knightsbridge evangelical circles some years ago. But it is most extraordinary behaviour for a Catholic service, and the Pentecostal "sects" as the Vatican calls them, where this kind of thing is common, are a great threat to the Church's position in the Third World. Milingo, once one of the most promising priests in the Church, now seemed to be an ally of its deadliest enemies.

He was forbidden to celebrate anywhere in Italy and by the end of the Nineties his career was apparently over. It was then that he began to grow close the Moonies – the Unification Church, founded by the Rev Sun Myung Moon. Moon, who has served time for tax evasion in the United States, puts huge emphasis on families, not just because he claims to be part of a "heavenly family". His belief in families is so great he conducts huge mass weddings between couples who have never met.

This sounds weird enough. But Milingo came to believe it was more civilised than the system practised by the Roman Catholic church in Africa, where the priesthood is notionally celibate but their behaviour, in practice, scandalous. After his marriage, he told one journalist that he had been celibate since the age of 12, which would make him almost unique among his colleagues. An internal Vatican report drawn up in 1995 quoted a high-ranking priest as saying: "Celibacy in the African context means a priest does not get married, but does not mean he does not have children." In Malawi, according to the same document, when the sexual abuse of nuns by priests grew so bad that the superiors of the women's religious orders complained to the bishop's conference, the response was simply to shut down the organisation which had complained.

On 25 May this year, Milingo married a 43-year-old acupuncturist, Maria Sung, at a ceremony in New York, alongside 60 other couples. It was the most public offence imaginable to the Vatican, especially as he claimed this was more moral than the practice of most of his former colleagues. He still considered himself a Christian, a priest, and a bishop: but though the Moonies regard themselves as Christians, this claim is not accepted by the Catholic church. He was threatened with excommunication if he did not renounce his wife and Mr Moon by 20 August. Mr and Mrs Milingo flew to Milan airport. There he left her in a hotel, and set off for a personal interview with the Pope, his situation exquisitely expressed by the wedding ring he wore on one hand, and the bishop's ring on the other.

We'll never know quite what the Pope told the erring bishop. Whatever it was, it worked. The wedding ring came off. For the second time in his career, Milingo disappeared into a monastery. The Vatican announced that he was preparing himself in solitude and prayer, for a full submission to the Church. Once upon a time, that would have been enough. However, this was to reckon without Mrs Milingo. She told a journalist, soon after their marriage, that it was ordained by God and Mr Moon. Now that she has lived with the archbishop, she's clearly decided she's in favour of the marriage, too. She turned up in Rome last week, accompanied by one of Mr Moon's priests, demanding to see her husband, and announcing that she might be pregnant. On Tuesday, she started a hunger strike. That doesn't mean she'll win. But this a story where all the victories have been Pyrrhic and all the triumphs hollow. At least the Devil, along with the rest of the world, must be having a good laugh.