Obituary: Cardinal Agostino Casaroli

Felix Corley
Tuesday 09 June 1998 23:02 BST

CARDINAL AGOSTINO Casaroli was the Vatican's top diplomat for more than a decade and, despite being in the mould of Pope Paul VI, spent a further decade, from 1979 to 1990, as Secretary of State under the very different Pope John Paul II. Casaroli's famed long view led him to forge controversial agreements with Eastern European governments which he considered necessary to ensure the Catholic Church's survival under repressive regimes (not so much a modus vivendi as a modus non moriendi, he once ironically put it).

But these agreements were fiercely opposed by those who saw him as selling out to the Communist regimes and he earned the nickname "Casaroli the Communist". Casaroli rejected charges that he was prepared to forge such agreements at any price as "unjust, even slanderous". As times changed he was dubbed "Monsignor Perestroika" by the Italian media.

Although, in the wake of Pope Paul's funeral in 1978, Casaroli privately assured the Polish religious affairs minister that the election of a new pope would not mean a change in the Vatican's Ostpolitik, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla's election as Pope John Paul II must have come as a shock. But the new Pope's endorsement of Casaroli - viewed by many in the Polish Church as a traitor for negotiating with the Communists - heralded an unlikely partnership between the impulsive pope and the cautious diplomat.

Pope John Paul confirmed Casaroli as Secretary of the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church, the Vatican's "foreign ministry". In April 1979 he appointed him Secretary of State (in effect prime minister) to replace the recently deceased Cardinal Jean Villot. Casaroli became a cardinal in the Pope's first consistory two months later.

Pope John Paul overturned the cautious Vatican policy, welcoming contacts with Communist regimes while more aggressively championing the Church's rights. Casaroli soon adapted to the new Vatican regime and became a trusted colleague of the Pope, especially in the attempt to fend off a Soviet crackdown in Poland and the suppression of the Solidarity trade union. During the tense stand-off in 1980, the Pope chose Casaroli to act as his envoy in secret meetings with Kremlin officials to keep lines of communication open.

In the wake of the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul in May 1981, Casaroli kept the Vatican running smoothly. In the wake of the scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank, Casaroli played a crucial behind-the-scenes role restoring the Vatican's credibility in financial matters. A duty Casaroli found a trial was accompanying the Pope on his frequent foreign travels, taking him away from what he considered more useful work at his desk.

Despite his certain reservations, Casaroli was the messenger when the Pope moved against what he saw as the untrustworthy Jesuits in October 1981. The Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe had just suffered a stroke and the Pope stepped in to halt the election of a successor and impose his own personal delegate to run the order. Casaroli delivered the Pope's letter in person to the paralysed Arrupe as he lay in bed at the Jesuit Curia, reducing the sick man to tears.

But Casaroli's triumphs came in the international arena. The immense political changes in Eastern Europe and above all in Moscow saw Casaroli vindicated. In 1988 Pope John Paul chose him to head the Vatican delegation to the Russian Orthodox Church's celebrations of the Millennium of Christianity, armed with a six-page letter from the Pope to the Soviet leader. After a four-day wait in a Moscow hotel, Casaroli was taken the short ride to the Kremlin in a KGB car to hand over the letter to Mikhail Gorbachev and foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. They had a cordial discussion, although it would be more than a year before the Pope got his reply.

This rapprochement allowed Casaroli to crown his career with the historic meeting between Pope John Paul and Gorbachev in the Vatican on 1 December 1989, the first between a pope and a Communist Party general secretary. Casaroli stepped down as Secretary of State exactly one year after the meeting.

Casaroli was an advocate of the Holy See, using its diplomatic position to the full. At his initiative the Vatican played a full part in the 1975 Helsinki Conference, insisting that firm wording be inserted on human rights and religious freedom, took part in nuclear disarmament negotiations and even brokered an agreement between Chile and Argentina over the Beagle Channel territorial dispute.

Born a tailor's son in northern Italy, Casaroli followed a family tradition of entering the priesthood. After seminary studies in Bedonia and Piacenza he went to Rome in 1936 and enrolled in the Vatican's elite diplomatic school, the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. He was ordained priest in May 1937 and in 1940 entered the Vatican's Secretariat of State, initially as an archivist. He held a number of Vatican posts entailing foreign travel and from 1958 to 1961 was Professor of Diplomatic Style at the Ecclesiastical Academy.

Pope John XXIII then appointed him Under-Secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (he would later joke of his rise up the Vatican ladder: "Promotion to the rank of Under-Secretary came by the natural process of being there and growing older"). Pope John embarked on a new policy of openness towards the Communist regimes after years of conflict and mistrust, a policy continued by Pope Paul VI, and Casaroli was brought in.

He was appointed Secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (shortly to be renamed the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church) in July 1967 and was consecrated archbishop by Pope Paul in St Peter's the same month.

Casaroli's expertise on Eastern Europe was built up with a series of visits in an often painstaking series of negotiations, which he saw as the best way to guarantee the Church's continued public existence in an era of restriction and persecution. He guided the Vatican towards resumption of ties with Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Pope's native Poland.

He sought to achieve minimal guarantees for churches under Communist governments. He began negotiations with Hungary in 1963 and with Yugoslavia the following year. But progress against the Marxist bureaucrats was slow. In 1964 he signed a partial accord between the Vatican and Hungary and with Yugoslavia in 1966. He achieved the restoration of full relations with Yugoslavia in 1970. Secret negotiations in Prague in 1966 got bogged down as Czechoslovakia - one of the most restrictive countries for the Catholic Church - resisted any concessions.

In 1971 Casaroli became the first senior Vatican personality to pay an official visit to the Soviet Union, using the excuse of putting the Vatican's signature on the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty to force a meeting with officials of the Council for Religious Affairs, the Soviet government body that controlled religious groups. Casaroli's pleas for greater rights for Catholics in the Soviet Union fell on suspicious and deaf ears, but he was upbeat: "After 50 years of monologue we have progressed to dialogue."

Casaroli was calm but resolute in negotiations, with the necessary infinite patience. Recently revealed records of his meetings with Communist bureaucrats show him doggedly refusing to be sidetracked into meaningless generalities and politely but insistently returning to issues of substance.

Aware that his life within the Vatican walls and on diplomatic missions was sheltered, Casaroli made time to escape the enclosed world. He made regular pastoral visits to prisoners in the Casal del Marmo youth reformatory near Rome.

Despite his image as a self- effacing curial bureaucrat, Casaroli was friendly and approachable with an inner ebullience. He was a master of the self-deprecating remark.

Felix Corley

Agostino Casaroli, priest and diplomat: born Castel Giovanni, Piacenza, Italy 24 November 1914; ordained priest 1937, archbishop 1967, cardinal 1979; Secretary of the Council for the Public Affairs of the Catholic Church 1967-79; Secretary of State to Pope John Paul II 1979-90; died Rome 9 June 1998.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in