A little more than five years ago, Mgr Leo Cushley was giving a newly elected Pope Francis a tour of the Apostolic Library, where popes usually receive heads of state. It was his responsibility to show Francis how it all worked and point out where the buzzer and the pens were. But when he returned to the room Francis seemed to have vanished. “I’ve lost the Pope,” he remembers thinking. “Where’s the Pope?” He recalls that, like a “diffident laddie”, he said to the empty room: “Holy Father, are you there?” To his relief, Francis emerged from behind a curtain. (He had been looking down on St Peter’s Square and praying for the people there.)
For Cushley, it was a memorable year. First, he had witnessed Benedict XVI announcing his resignation in front of a stunned crowd of cardinals. Then, after a turbulent few months at the Vatican, he had received a new appointment. As a long-standing member of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, he had expected to be sent to some dangerous, far-flung outpost of the Church. Colleagues had been posted to Iraq and the Central African Republic. Instead, it was far more shocking. He was being made Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh.
Among his diplomat friends, he says, he is an anomaly – he has “fresh water coming out of the taps”. Instead of the threat of civil war, he was given a different kind of challenge: to shepherd a diocese out of a crisis following the resignation of Cardinal Keith O’Brien. Nearly five years on it looks like he might just have succeeded.
Cushley was just 33 when he left Scotland to train as a diplomat in Rome. He served in Burundi during its devastating civil war and, later, as head of the English-language section of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, worked closely with both Benedict XVI and Francis.
Speaking to him over the phone, I am meant to be asking about parish amalgamations. But it’s his diplomatic career I am most eager to hear about.
Burundi was his most hair-raising posting. The nuncio was assassinated after Cushley left. Did he ever fear for his life? “Only most of the time,” he says. “We tended not to talk about it too much or let our mums know.”
While he was there, other diplomats were packing their bags. The Germans left, along with the North Koreans. Those who stayed kept to the capital. Vatican diplomatic staff, on the other hand, visited Catholics all over the country.
“We went around in a white Passat VW,” he recalls. “There was no armoured plating. We just had a little basket and flag on the front and drove like the blazes and hoped for the best.”
Many people he knew were killed while he was there. The danger was a constant worry, he says. Yet there was a positive side. The Church was doing “extraordinary work”. He talks of a café staffed by women with HIV – in those days practically a death sentence. The nun who ran it would keep the women’s savings so that “when they had gone to God their children would be looked after”. A picture taken at the café still hangs on Cushley’s wall.
After several postings around the world, Cushley worked for 11 years at the Vatican. He describes vividly the personalities of the two popes he served. They were both “very funny” men, he says. Benedict XVI was “very dry”, a “Bavarian gentleman” who was courteous to everyone. Francis had a sense of humour that Cushley characterises as British. “He liked to pull your leg,” he says. He suggests that this might have come from Francis’s experience of living with Jesuits in different parts of the world, where you “had to defend yourself and muck in with the lads”.
As Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, Cushley says he is now rediscovering his inner pastor. One person the diocese had a “duty of care” towards, he says, was the disgraced Cardinal O’Brien. Cushley visited him before his death in March. He intended to administer last rites, but found the hospital chaplain had already done so. Instead he and Bishop Séamus Cunningham prayed a decade of the rosary at the cardinal’s bedside. “He had his eyes shut and couldn’t enunciate but I got the impression he was endeavouring to join in.”
Some Church observers think that Cushley’s stay in Scotland is temporary and that he will return to Rome to take up a Vatican post instead of serving the next 19 years in Edinburgh. For now, he has to oversee the merger of dozens of parishes, the details of which will be announced later this year, after a two-year consultation. (He has said he will try to keep as many churches open as possible, while reducing parishes.)
He certainly speaks warmly of his time in the Holy See’s diplomatic service. “All of these nunciatures are communities,” he says. “It’s not just champagne cocktails with the great and the good. It’s done in a context that remains ecclesial, that remains about the Good News.” The priesthood, he says, is at the centre of that. You celebrate Mass publicly in many of the places you visit and there is a daily rhythm of prayer. “The danger makes you think: ‘What am I doing here? Is it important?’ It called upon your faith, your priesthood, to answer those questions.
“If you lose sight of the fact you are a priest while you are out there,” he adds, “you have lost your way.”
Mark Greaves is news editor of the Catholic Herald