No Expectations, No Disappointments
In Loving memory, Archbishop Nicola Rotunno, 12/1/1928 – 2/8/1999
Archbishop Nicola Rotunno was the Apostolic Nuncio to Burundi, Rwanda and Sri Lanka under Pope John Paul VI. During the papacy of Pope John Paul II he was named Apostolic Nuncio to Syria. He asked us to call him ‘Father Nick’.
In the early 60’s he was sent to New Guinea to retrieve the remains of Nelson Rockefeller’s son Michael, who had been eaten by Asmat headhunters.
In the late 70’s, Father Nick ventured into Uganda to negotiate with the despicable Idi Amin. He saw the crocodile moat where Amin would dispatch people who displeased him -– eaten alive. He noticed the severed fingers hanging from his belt – snacks for Amin between meals. He pleaded with him to end his reign of terror, which included the slaughter of a half million people and 25,000 elephant.
When two U.S. pilots were killed in a bombing raid over Libya in 1988, Muammar Gaddafi refused to return the bodies to the U.S. for burial in American soil. With great fanfare, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was sent as a U.S. emissary to obtain the release of the remains of the airmen. Working behind the scenes with Gaddafi was Father Nick, who convinced Gaddafi it was in his best interest to permit Jackson to secure the remains. Father Nick worked quietly, seeking no attention for his effort. Jackson convinced the world he accomplished this on his own – one of his many lies on the world stage.
When Mother Teresa of Calcutta won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, She handed the $25,000 check to Father Nick, who was attempting to build a retirement community for aged priests in Southern Italy.
I spent much time with Father Nick. We went on many great adventures together. One summer our goal was to visit Sequoia National Park. Unfortunately, I made the decision to drive up the wrong side of the Sierra Nevadas. The pass that would yield access across the mountains was still snowbound. We were a month too early -- we had wasted a seven-hour trip and I was exhausted.
Father Nick was energized. He volunteered to drive the four hours back down so we could maneuver around the base of the Sierras and come up the western side. I agreed and went into the back of my SUV to rest.
Father Nick was a maniacal driver. Schooled in the ways of the two-lane Italian highways, he pushed the pedal to the floor and we were soon approaching a little over 85mph on the two-lane blacktop heading south. He was elated to be behind the wheel (sans driver’s license) and assured me that everything would be just fine. If the Holy Spirit was not in the passenger seat guiding him on this journey, He must have at least been in the backseat with me looking over his shoulder.
In a scant three hours we made it back to the fork in the road that would permit us to travel up the western side of the Sierras, and it was at this point that I resumed control of the vehicle, assuring Father that I was indeed well rested and able to resume the journey from the driver’s side. I had not yet made a commitment to follow Christ – I still had nearly twenty years before that fateful day, but the unique fragrance of joy and happiness that pervaded his day-to-day world was infectious, and I was indeed smitten. I was pretty much rolled up into myself at this point in time. I was riding with outlaw bikers and had no other friends in the desert, or back home in PA. at the time. Isolated was a good word.
Father Nick showed me a different world, a world where I wasn’t the center of attention, Jesus was. He had come to the desert on a particular mission from the Vatican. We had an errant priest at St. Francis in La Quinta who had fathered a child. This happened a good ten years before the scandal regarding priests abusing young boys came to light and nearly destroyed the Catholic Church.
The Vatican sent Father Nick to investigate instances of the Stigmata – people who asserted they bore the wounds of Christ. The Church takes these assertions very seriously, and the investigation into each instance can take years before a conclusion is reached as to the veracity of the claim. Probably the most visible evidence of these miracles can be seen in Our Lady of Soufanieh, a Marion apparition that Father Nick investigated for The Vatican in the early 80’s in Damascus, Syria. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_Soufanieh)
I visited Father Nick in his hometown of Stigliano, Italy in 1998. His tenure in Africa had taken a great toll on him physically. His right arm was black and shriveled, the result of countless episodes of dialysis to treat the kidney failure manifested from the Blackwater Fever he contracted from so much time spent in Africa without proper hydration. While the prospect of a kidney transplant had been placed before him, he rejected the opportunity so that someone younger and in more dire need might have the opportunity for a fuller life.
Non-Catholics tend to dismiss tales of apparitions, but the people of Stigliano knew exactly what transpired in 1937 when Jesus approached the young Nick (nine years old) in the town square, touched him on the nose, and said “Nicola, I want you!” The beauty of faith is that we can unconditionally accept the verity of events such as this, fully knowing the family and history behind a humble man who accomplished great things without drawing light towards himself.
When asked how he was able to interact with everyone from cannibals to terrorists to those actively trying to destroy the Church, his response was simple and straightforward:
Father Nick had a mantra that guided him his entire life. “I have no expectations (of people); therefore I am never disappointed (by their actions).” He was referring to the myriad of cultures he found himself immersed in, as the Vatican was repeatedly sending him to deal with dangerous and unpredictable tyrants, despots, and iconoclastic rulers.
While he openly mentioned that no culture bristled him as much as Islam, he made a concerted effort to get along with everyone he engaged with. Wherever we went, our bill at restaurants was mysteriously covered by anonymous patrons. The day I photographed him walking down the road near Warner Springs, my Volkswagen Karmann Ghia had just thrown a ball joint, leaving us stranded. I followed him down the road and like steel drawn to a magnet he located a small general store with a telephone -- and we summoned a tow truck.
What had weighed heavily on me moments before, disappeared like a wisp on the wind. His love of life was contagious, and fortunately I have never recovered.