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A summer soap opera in Rome

NCR Staff

After last summer’s exhausting World Youth Day, Vatican mandarins were looking forward to a quiet August, when seasonal doldrums typically spell abundant downtime in Rome.

Instead, all hell has broken loose.

At the center of the storm stands 71-year-old Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia, whose international notoriety as an exorcist had already earned him the nickname “Zambezi zinger.”

Long accustomed to the role of ecclesiastical bad boy (see accompanying chronology), Milingo rocked the Catholic world anew May 27 with news that he had taken a 43-year-old Korean bride in a ceremony celebrated by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

To his most devoted followers, Moon is another messiah sent to complete the salvation Jesus left unfinished. Though Milingo insisted his marriage was not a conversion to Moon’s creed, the move could not help but provoke Vatican wrath, especially since Milingo had declared he wanted to publicly challenge the church’s celibacy rule.

According to a letter issued by the Vatican Aug. 14, purportedly written by Milingo on Aug. 11, the prodigal archbishop has now repented and is ready to abandon his wife and cut ties with the Moon organization.

Surreal events, however, are still unfolding.

To date, the story has taken one bizarre turn after another, with charges of kidnapping and drugging, an impromptu papal audience, a now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t routine by Milingo, and vows of a hunger strike to the death by the wife, who claims Milingo is being held prisoner by the Vatican. She believes he signed the Aug. 11 letter under duress.

As NCR went to press, the wife, Maria Sung Ryae Soon, was considering filing a formal complaint with Rome police. Milingo has not been seen in public since Aug. 8. While church spokespersons have said he is taking time for prayer and reflection, Sung and her Moon advisers believe he is being “deprogrammed.”

A Vatican official told NCR Aug. 16, however, that Milingo is a “free person” and will want to give his version of the facts in the next few days. “It could happen in a week or after five minutes,” the official said. “It’s up to him.”

Sung has also dangled the tantalizing possibility that she may be carrying the archbishop’s baby.

Underneath this serial soap opera lies a substratum of realpolitik -- specifically, the Vatican’s fear that an excommunicated Milingo could found a schismatic African church, featuring a married clergy along with greater acceptance of traditional African beliefs about the spirit world.

Adding further spice is the intense public relations battle afoot between Moon’s Unification movement and the Vatican. Though the Moon people won’t say so out loud, they clearly relish casting themselves as defenders of Milingo’s freedom against a religious body they say is exercising coercion. For a group long accused of brainwashing and other sect-like antics, it is a delicious role to play.

Finally, the story reveals a clash of expectations among the protagonists. In Catholic clerical culture, when a priest goes astray with a woman and later repents, the woman is generally expected to fade into the background while the priest wrestles with his interior demons. She is seen as an occasion of sin rather than a party to the conversation.

Sung, however, is determined not to go gently into that good night. She has framed the story as a wife’s desperate struggle to reclaim her husband -- whom, she has said repeatedly, is a man before he is an archbishop.

Major developments to date:

Milingo and Sung wed May 27 in New York, though the civil status of the act remains unclear. Under U.S. law, mass weddings by Moon are not binding, and couples have the option to register their marriages civilly. Sung has refused to say whether this happened in her case. She has also refused to say if she was married previously.

After the wedding, Milingo, a theological conservative on most matters, traveled widely arguing for a change in the Catholic church’s discipline of celibacy. Among other engagements, he addressed a meeting of CORPUS, a U.S. group supporting a married priesthood, on June 29 in New Jersey.

On July 17, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a warning to Milingo that he would be excommunicated Aug. 20 unless he met three conditions: separate from his wife, cut ties with Moon and promise obedience to the pope.

Out of the blue, Milingo then showed up Aug. 7 at the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo to plead his case. Against all odds, he succeeded in seeing John Paul II. How he got there is a drama in itself. Moon’s organization claims it backed Milingo’s desire to see the pope; a spokesperson said Moon personally stood by the phone waiting for news.

Two Italian supporters of Milingo who accompanied him to Castel Gandolfo, however, say they had to spirit him away from his Moon handlers at the Milan airport, using a rogue taxicab to throw them off the trail.

Those supporters, an obscure figure in the Roman art world named Maurizio Bisantis and a painter named Alba Vitali, stashed Sung in a Milan hotel, saying they would be back. She never heard from them again. (She was, among other things, stuck with the bill.)

Bisantis and Vitali have repeatedly asserted that Milingo was drugged by the Moon organization, a charge Milingo denied the last time he was seen in public, at an Aug. 8 news conference.

On Aug. 8, Milingo said he needed to discuss things with his wife and hoped for another meeting with the pope. Shortly thereafter he went into seclusion.

On Aug. 11, Sung announced her hunger strike. She has snubbed two Vatican attempts to deliver messages to her from Milingo, saying she will believe only what she hears directly from him.

Her tone has become increasingly acerbic. On Aug. 15, she spent a few moments in silent prayer at sunrise at St. Peter’s Square. Asked what she prayed for, she told a small cluster of reporters: “Throughout history the Vatican has killed many people. I asked God that this mistake should not happen any more in this time.”

Sung, who took the name Maria in honor of her husband’s Catholicism, initially refused to say whether the marriage had been consummated. Later, however, she revealed that she is more than a month late on her period but wants to wait until she is reunited with Milingo to carry out a pregnancy test.

On Aug. 15, Sung’s advisers told NCR several African-American pastors from the United States were coming to Rome to join the call for Milingo to come forward. A Baptist minister in the Sung entourage has suggested that the Vatican may be “mistreating” Milingo because he is black.

Observers say the Vatican has kept the door open for Milingo in part because Milingo remains a charismatic figure whose healing services and exorcisms draw large crowds in both Africa and Europe.

Milingo has long defended his use of exorcism as a valid example of “inculturation,” adapting Catholicism to traditional African beliefs about spirits and demons. Phillip Schanker, a Moon official who acted as Milingo’s spokesperson after the wedding, and who is now advising Sung, told NCR that Milingo had discussed the possibility of founding his own church.

“There are lots of people waiting for him to go, black clergy in the United States and in Africa,” Schanker said. “He’s always said it’s not what he wants, but the Vatican is pushing him to the wall.”

Famed Roman exorcist Fr. Gabriele Amorth, a long-time colleague of Milingo, put the threat this way Aug. 15: “Milingo could be Lefebvre No. 2, with Moon’s money.” The reference is to rebel French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who launched a schismatic church over opposition to the reforms launched by the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.

Dutch scholar Gerrie ter Haar, who wrote a 1992 biography of Milingo, doubts he would do it. “If he were to be excommunicated, he would not start a Milingo church. He would continue as if he were part of the Roman Catholic church,” she told NCR.

Comboni Fr. Renato Kizito, a Kenya-based journalist who lived in Lusaka for six years, says if Milingo were to found a separatist church, it would likely have a small following and a short life.

“Those closest to Milingo are in a profound crisis,” Kizito told NCR. “They worry that many in the West will see a connection between Milingo’s case and recent reports of sexual abuse of nuns by African priests, reinforcing a negative image of the African clergy.”

Meanwhile in Rome, everyone awaits the next installment of the summer’s most compelling soap opera. Will Milingo appear? Will Sung take the pregnancy test? Will the Italian police demand that Vatican officials produce the archbishop, provoking a diplomatic row?

For now, devoted fans can rise early to make it to St. Peter’s Square at 6 a.m. That’s where Sung has vowed to be every morning, fasting and praying, until she is reunited with the man she loves.


Chronology of events in the life of Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, before his marriage in May:

1930: Born in farm village in Zambia; speaks only the tribal language until age 12.

1958: Ordained a priest.

1969: Named archbishop of Lusaka by Pope Paul VI; becomes famous for contacts with the spirit world. Tens of thousands come to him for healings and exorcisms.

1976: First encounters the organization of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon in Lusaka.

1976: Joins the Catholic Charismatic movement at event in Ann Arbor, Mich.

1979: Ordered by Vatican to suspend healing services. Milingo is accused of practicing witchcraft, of fomenting divisions and of other irregularities.

1982: Called to Rome for period of rest and psychiatric evaluation.

1983: Removed as archbishop of Lusaka and given a new position with Pontifical Council for Migrants. Later, in an autobiography, The Healer of Souls, he accuses the Vatican of “kidnapping” him and forcing him to live for months “like a prisoner” in a monastery.

1980s: Continues his healings and exorcisms in Italy and around the world, drawing enormous crowds and becoming the subject of a major media profile.

1995: Issues a CD of Zulu-inspired songs, called Gubudú Gubudú (“The Drunkard”). It becomes a bestseller, and he appears in 1997 at Italy’s international music festival, San Remo.

1996: Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini bans Milingo from conducting healings and exorcisms in Milan. Martini cites complaints over “the style of the ceremonies and behavior of the faithful who follow them.” Cardinal Camillo Ruini of Rome shortly follows suit.

1999: Vatican removes Milingo from his curial post; he renews contacts with the Moon organization.

2000: Vatican issues new rules aiming to curb “unauthorized” healings and exorcisms; most observers see Milingo as the primary target.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001