Board of Trustees member Cardinal Pio Laghi dead at 86

Board of Trustees member Cardinal Pio Laghi dead at 86

Cardinal Pio Laghi, a member of the St. Thomas Board of Trustees and the founding chair of the St. Thomas School of Law Board of Governors, died of acute leukemia on Saturday in Rome, Italy. He was 86.

Laghi was a world-renowned diplomat and statesman who served in the Holy See’s diplomatic corps for four decades, and as the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education he oversaw Catholic schools around the globe.

Cardinal Pio Laghi presided over the dedication ceremonies of St. Thomas' Bernardi Campus on Oct. 6, 2000, in Rome, Italy.

He developed ties with St. Thomas in the 1970s, receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1982 and the first John Ireland Award in 1994 for outstanding contributions to Catholic education. He joined the St. Thomas board in 2007.

“Cardinal Laghi was a brilliant and gifted man who knew how to bring people together, and he was a great friend of St. Thomas,” said Father Dennis Dease, president. “He was decisive and a real leader, and we shall miss his wisdom, his kindness and his charm.”

Laghi welcomed St. Thomas with open arms when the university established the Bernardi Campus in Rome in 2000. “Rome is a wonderful professor,” Laghi said at the campus dedication ceremony. “It teaches about the history of our faith and culture. It challenges the intellect with new opportunities for learning.”

As founding chair of the School of Law Board of Governors from 2000 to 2004, Laghi provided “immediate credibility” for the new school, Dean Thomas Mengler said.

“He was invaluable in the wisdom that he brought to every discussion about the School of Law’s hopes and aspirations,” Mengler said. “His role was particularly critical in the way he helped us develop a strong Catholic identity – one that is embracing and welcoming to all law students.”

Diana Murphy, a St. Thomas trustee and federal appellate judge who succeeded Laghi as chair, said in a St. Thomas magazine profile on Laghi that his passion “imbued a great sense of confidence in the future of the school. He was a big shot, and that he would get involved here was a green light for a lot of people.”

The “big shot” was born in Castiglione, Italy, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1946. He obtained doctorates in theology (1947) and canon law (1950) from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome and was assigned in 1952 by Monsignor Giovanni Montini in the Secretary of State’s office to work in the nunciature (equivalent to an embassy) in Nicaragua. (Montini went on to become Pope Paul VI in 1963.)

“Yes, I was anxious – to go out into a world unknown to me, coming from the Italian countryside like I did, particularly when I had to leave my family, learn new languages and live in a new land,” he told St. Thomas magazine. “We looked at a map to see where Nicaragua was, and my mother was concerned!”

Over the next 28 years, Laghi served in Nicaragua, Washington, India, Rome, Argentina and Jerusalem, where he helped to found Bethlehem University. He returned to Washington in 1980, initially as apostolic delegate to the United States and in 1984 as the first apostolic pro-nuncio (akin to an ambassador). He became an archbishop in 1969 and a cardinal in 1991.

He earned a reputation as a skillful diplomat who quickly grasped the cultural nuances of the Catholic Church in each country in which he served. Diplomacy, he once wrote, “has everything to do with honest exchange and frank encounter. It does not seek confrontation.”

Laghi recalled the excitement of his Washington work in the 1980s and President Reagan’s decision to formalize diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1984. “That was touchy because of First Amendment concerns about separation of church and state,” Laghi said, but it proved to be one of the factors that led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. “Reagan was smart. He knew that he would need the cooperation of Pope John Paul II to accomplish his objectives. He saw in John Paul a great friend and a great leader.”

When Laghi returned to Rome in 1990 to serve as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, the new papal statement Ex Corde Ecclesiae about the mission of Catholic higher education was on his desk. His assignment from Pope John Paul II, he said, was “to travel around the world to 950 Catholic colleges and universities and to convince them to take on the norms of a Catholic university.”

Dease recalled that Laghi attended a national conference at St. Thomas in 1995 on the future of Catholic higher education and made himself available to everybody who wanted to talk with him about Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The conference and Laghi’s active involvement “proved to be a turning point in discussions between church officials and American Catholic colleges and universities,” Dease said. “He made a real difference.”

Laghi resigned as prefect in 1999 and served two years as cardinal protodeacon before retiring in 2002. He subsequently carried out special missions for the pope, including a March 2003 trip to Washington to meet with President Bush about the impending war in Iraq.

Bush sent his condolences to the Vatican on Sunday, according to the New York Times, and called Laghi a friend “who worked tirelessly for peace and justice in our world.”

Funeral services will be Tuesday in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and Pope Benedict XVI is expected to concelebrate.