When news first broke of an attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II, the man who thereby inherited the burden of running the Vatican was airborne over the Atlantic, bound from Rome to New York and his latest honorary degree, this one from St. John’s University. But when Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Cardinal Casaroli landed at Kennedy Airport that ominous afternoon, there was no question of his staying. “My duty is to be with the Holy Father,” he said as he waited for a return flight, and later he ventured a pastoral appraisal of the Pope’s would-be assassin: “We consider him a poor being who is in darkness.”
The remark was an almost perfect prophecy of what the Pope himself would say later of his Turkish assailant—and in that concurrence Casaroli demonstrated again the talent for spiritual brinkmanship that has made him the Pope’s most trusted and most powerful aide. Nicknamed the “divine diplomat” long before his elevation by John Paul II, Casaroli pioneered the Vatican’s policy of detente with some of its traditional enemies, traveling to, among many other places, the Soviet Union and Castro’s Cuba to negotiate a place for the church under repressive regimes. In that endeavor his taste for compromise has been severely tested; the deal he struck with Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito, for example, included a promise that the Vatican would reprimand clerics who spoke ill of the regime. But far more congenial to him is the pastoral work he has done for more than 20 years with delinquent boys in Roman youth homes. Disguised as a lowly monsignor, the cardinal brings candy, cigarettes and vermouth to the kids he calls “my boys.” He also has counseled 22-year-old Giuseppe Pelosi, the imprisoned murderer of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo (Decameron) Pasolini. “Monsignor Casaroli came to visit me often,” said Pelosi, “and we have had long and interesting talks about religion.”
As ranking member of the Roman Curia, however, Casaroli has been consumed during the recent crisis by his responsibility for the Vatican’s day-today operations and its vast foreign concerns from Ulster to El Salvador and, not least, Poland. Casaroli was the first Vatican official to visit the Pontiff in the intensive care unit and later filled in for him at some Vatican functions. Yet Casaroli takes pains to point out he is only the Pontiff’s second, not his successor. “I’m the man who implements the policies decided by the Pope,” he says. “He is the architect, I am the instrument.” Or as a Vatican source once put it: “The Pope will tell you to jump out the window. Casaroli will persuade you to do so after an hour’s talk.”
The son of a northern Italian tailor, Casaroli was a prodigy of the priesthood, ordained by special papal dispensation when he finished seminary training at the unheard-of age of 22. Three years later, after diplomatic studies at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, he was put to work in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, where he labored in obscurity until Pope John XXIII appointed him chief negotiator with the Eastern European bloc. Shedding his cassock for a suit and tie when he found it expedient, Casaroli proved adept at convincing Communist governments to ease restrictions on the church—and thus, during one trip to Poland, won the respect of Karol Wojtyla, then archbishop of Krakow, who became Pope John Paul II in 1978. The following year the Pontiff elevated Casaroli to cardinal and promoted him to secretary of state. “To get along with Popes John, Paul and John Paul,” says one Vatican insider, “is a diplomatic feat greater than all his successes in Eastern Europe.”
His role has led him to be called “the Pope’s Kissinger” and worse. At one point a right-wing Italian faction protested his deals with Communist rulers by plastering Rome with posters proclaiming: “Excommunicate Casaroli, the Red Excellency of Compromise!” But Casaroli has no apologies. “In many countries, our bishops are allowed to carry out no more than 50 percent of their functions,” he says. “That is not very good, but it is better than 20 percent.” When reason fails, the gentle, owlish 66-year-old prelate has a ready reserve of good humor. At a dinner party in Rome, the cardinal was told that Winston Churchill once was served his pet goose cooked for Sunday lunch. “You carve him, Clemmie,” Churchill told his wife. “He was my friend.” As the story ended, Casaroli was served a delectable dish of boiled fish with mayonnaise sauce. “This fish is a total stranger,” quipped the cardinal, and dug in.