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.”
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