It was the evening of Monday 29 December, 2003. A car carrying the yellow and white Vatican flag was travelling towards Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, from a small town to the south, where the funeral of a Burundian priest had taken place. Some miles short of the city, a group of men surrounded the car. They shot one of the passengers, wounding him in the head, leg and chest, but left the driver and the other two passengers unharmed.
The wounded passenger died in hospital that night: Archbishop Michael Courtney, Apostolic Nuncio in Burundi. He is thought to have been the first Apostolic Nuncio to have been assassinated in many hundreds of years.
Michael was very close to the end of four years in Burundi, having been given the task of helping to broker the peace process between the warring forces, broadly divided on Tutsi and Hutu tribal lines. There had been ten years of wars and genocide encompassing Rwanda, Burundi and large parts of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. At least 150,000 people had been killed in ethnic-based violence in Burundi alone. Only one of the rebel and warring groups had not yet agreed to meet and enter into peace talks. This was the Hutu insurgency group, the Forces nationales de libération (FNL). Michael felt it his duty to forgo his Christmas and New Year holiday in his native Ireland to try to help finalise a trial agreement between these groups and the government. That decision cost his life, very likely at the hands of FNL guerrillas.
Instead of returning to Nenagh, County Tipperary for Christmas, he was returned to be buried. The funeral, which seemingly drew the entire population of the town, was conducted by the Nigerian Cardinal Arinze. With a Paul Robeson-like voice and Ciceronian style, he made sure that we knew how highly respected Michael had been in the Vatican.
The regard in which he was held locally became even clearer later in the day at the burial in the small village of Dromineer. There was no room to stand in the churchyard; people were watching from surrounding fields and listening at the lakeside below the church via loudspeaker. I walked back from the ceremony in the company of an Irish Cabinet minister, who quietly said to me: “We have lost a very fine Irishman; indeed someone who could have been the first Irish pope.”
Of course, it is valueless to speculate about that now, as it probably was then. However, after an interval ofnearly two decades, it may be worth reflecting on the comment and on Michael’s abiding influence on so many who knew him. Did he at the least have any of the necessary qualifications and skills?
Being Irish was a good start. He was an evangelist for Irish culture and values, which have enduring resonance in many parts of the world. In his own enthusiastic bonhomie, he was the personification of what he admired. He was a scholar and philosopher beyond his ecclesiastical training and would quietly impress with his knowledge on a wide range of subjects. He spoke several languages and was a talented public speaker.
The major part of his work in the Church was diplomatic. As the Papal Nuncio, he represented the Holy See as distinct from the Vatican State, so diplomatic success is measured not in gains in negotiation but in incremental harmony and reduction in conflict. He represented the Holy See in Cuba, when under the leadership of Fidel Castro, with whom he had a strong relationship; in South Africa at the height of the apartheid period; in Belgrade, when that was the only Mission of the Holy See behind what was the Iron Curtain before the fall of the Berlin Wall; in Senegal; in Zimbabwe; in Egypt; in Delhi, where he had to negotiate the competing demands of Vatican protocol and Indian government sensibilities during the visit of the pope. From 1995-2000 he was the special envoy in the Mission of the Holy See to the Council of Europe, in Strasbourg, where he was at the centre of European affairs and represented the Vatican on more than 60 different committees and steering groups covering ethics, justice, governance and human rights.
Surely the most challenging posting was as Apostolic Nuncio in Burundi. It was here that he had to experience the horrible counterproductivity and futility of war first-hand; then he could speak with authority about forgiveness and reconciliation. His methods were careful and unhurried, building on small gains after developing whatever relationships were possible with even the most uncompromising of combatants. Perhaps he was expected to take bigger roles in the future and his mettle was being tested in this most demanding of postings.
These attributes and achievements may have pleased the clerical hierarchy but they are not what drew people from Nenagh, all of Tipperary, Dublin and much further afield to pack the churchyard on that cold and wet January afternoon in 2004.
Those people came to celebrate Michael, the private not the public man; to commemorate a man who had the enviable talent to make all those he encountered feel valued and important. Somehow he had time for all: for the nuns and their orphan charges in the dirtiest of backstreets in Cairo; for boys playing football on the street in Belgrade; for anyone who came to the always open door of the orange-striped wooden bungalow on the shore of Lough Derg, which was his home in Ireland.
The multitude of messages received after his funeral confirmed that he was seen by both the religious and the secular as a guide, as a totem. To those that had lost their way, as we all do, his voice remained powerful. For them the question: “Now what would Michael have done?” was, and is still, worth asking.
Bill Colegrave is the author of Halfway House to Heaven: Unravelling the Mystery of the Majestic River Oxus (Bene Factum)
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.