Papal envoy who witnessed changing face of Ireland


Archbishop Gaetano Alibrandi, who has died aged 89, was the longest-serving papal nuncio to any one country when he left Ireland in January 1989 after almost 20 years in his post. During that time he exercised a far-reaching influence on Catholic Church affairs through his important and usually decisive role in the appointment of nearly 40 bishops.

During an earlier spell in the nunciature as a counsellor from 1954 to 1956, he would have witnessed an Ireland where the role of the Catholic Church in many spheres of Irish life was unquestioned. He described the experience as a "spiritual bath". But when he returned in 1969 it was to an Ireland where the old-style Catholicism was beginning to crumble and battles were looming over the legalisation of contraception and divorce. He would also find himself involved in the referendum to insert an anti-abortion article in the Constitution.

When he was seen by governments headed by Fine Gael in the 1970s and 1980s to take an unhelpful stance on the Northern Ireland troubles and their fallout in the Republic, behind-the-scenes efforts were made to have him transferred elsewhere. But he retained the support of his superiors in the Vatican in helping the church in Ireland resist the inroads of a more pluralist, secular society.

Gaetano Alibrandi was born on January 14th, 1914, in the small town of Castiglione in Sicily overlooked by Mount Etna. After secondary school in the diocesan seminary in Acireale, he entered the Pontifical Roman Seminary.

When he finished his studies at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, he was awarded doctorates in theology and civil and canon law.

He was ordained priest in 1936 at the age of 22 and was appointed to the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy where he trained for the diplomatic service of the Holy See. During 1941-46 he worked in the Secretariat of State and was for one year the personal secretary of Giovanni Battista Montini, who, as Pope Paul V1, would appoint him as nuncio to Ireland.

As a young diplomat, Mgr Alibrandi served in Italy, Turkey, Ireland, Mexico and Indonesia. In October 1961, he was consecrated Archbishop of Binda and served as Apostolic Nuncio to Chile until 1963 and to the Lebanon until 1969, when he returned to Ireland as nuncio.

On his arrival in May 1969, he commented: "I appreciate being back in Ireland - the most Christian country in the world." But soon after his arrival, the Northern Ireland situation flared up in violence which was to last through his lengthy term. Inevitably, he was drawn into this situation because of his dual role as the Holy See's diplomatic representative to the Republic and as the Pope's legate to the Irish church, north and south of the Border. A diplomatic note from the Vatican expressing concern over the treatment of IRA prisoners in Portlaoise Prison in 1977 greatly angered the staunchly Catholic Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave.

Dr Alibrandi was suspected by that Fine Gael-Labour coalition of being too influenced by extreme republican views in his advice to the Vatican. It was only when the then minister for foreign affairs, Dr Garret FitzGerald, published his memoirs in 1991 that the extent of the rift with Dr Alibrandi, both on the minister's efforts to get Rome's support for more pluralist legislation as well as on Northern Ireland, was revealed.

Dr FitzGerald wrote that the Government's difficulties with the Holy See "seemed to be aggravated by the activities of the nuncio, Mgr Alibrandi, who was left for almost 20 years in Ireland despite clear indications by the Irish government of its unhappiness with his interventions in affairs of this kind, in which he appeared to some of us at times to confuse Catholicism with extreme republicanism."

In their 1984 book, Pontiff, the authors Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, claimed that the nuncio secretly met IRA leaders in the nunciature which was then in the Phoenix Park. In an interview shortly before his departure from Ireland in December 1988, the nuncio refused to discuss these claims but in retirement he dismissed them as "total rubbish", while admitting that he did meet republicans when they came to discuss Northern Ireland with him.

One of his prized possessions which he would show to visitors was a cross carved by republican prisoners in Long Kesh prison.

Of the 38 archbishops and bishops who were in place when his term came to an end, Dr Alibrandi had advised on the appointment of 34 as well as on those of two deceased archbishops of Dublin, Dr Dermot Ryan and Dr Kevin McNamara. In private he would claim that while the final decision remained with the Pope, his recommendations were always accepted. His critics would say that he put too much reliance on orthodoxy and strict conformity to papal dictates, and passed over more charismatic candidates.

By the end of his long term in Dublin, Dr Alibrandi had lost some of his idealistic vision of Ireland as the bastion of Catholicism. He was fond of repeating the words of an ambassador, who told him during his first stint in Ireland "to go to O'Connell Street and just look at the faces of the people. You can be sure they are in the grace of God." But as he was leaving Ireland he admitted "there are areas of concern in the church in Ireland. A growing materialism and secularism are having an effect on Christian values, on family life and on the natural generosity of the Irish people."

He appeared to have a better relationship with Fianna Fáil when in power than with the governments in which Dr FitzGerald was involved. At the farewell lunch for Dr Alibrandi, the then Tánaiste, Mr Brian Lenihan, paid tribute to his tact and sensitivity in ensuring that the good relations Ireland enjoyed with the Holy See were not impaired at a time of big economic and social changes.

Dr Alibrandi in his reply said that "unfortunately my years in Ireland have been turbulent years in regard to Northern Ireland. That part of the country, too, was entrusted to my care, and my heart has been broken thousands of times when lives of innocent people have been taken away." He paid tribute to the efforts of the Taoiseach, Mr Charles Haughey, and his government in trying to bring about "understanding and reconciliation" throughout the island.

As a young man, Dr Alibrandi was attracted to a singing career before he chose the priesthood. In the nunciature he would entertain visitors by playing country-and-western tunes on the electric organ and singing Irish airs. He also liked to display exotic plants he grew in the conservatory. He travelled extensively in Ireland and was attracted to west Cork and the monastic sites at Glendalough. He was involved in the twinning of Killarney with his native Castiglione.

Gaetano Alibrandi: born January 14th, 1914; died July 3rd, 2003.