e-mail us
Meeting with wife brings end to Milingo saga


One of the most bizarre, “Days of Our Lives”-style sagas in recent Vatican history drew to a fittingly tearful close Aug. 29, when Maria Sung ended a 16-day hunger strike after a three-hour meeting with Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo.

Milingo had married Sung, a 43-year-old Korean acupuncturist, in a May 27 mass wedding ceremony officiated by the Rev. Sung Myung Moon. When Milingo issued a letter Aug. 11 saying he intended to leave Sung to return to the Catholic church, she insisted he was being held prisoner by the Vatican. She began a hunger strike, saying it would last until she could meet with him. (NCR, Aug. 24).

After three weeks of shrill public relations crossfire, with the Vatican and the Moon organization swapping charges of mind control and bad faith, the meeting finally took place in Rome’s Michelangelo Hotel. Sung ended her fast in Milingo’s company, dining on soft rice, tofu, water and orange juice.

Milingo did not speak to the press afterward, but the Vatican released a copy of a letter he read to Sung. In it he spoke of his anguish and of his love for Sung as a “dear sister.”

Sung was not easily persuaded. According to Phillip Schanker, an official of Moon’s Family Federation for World Peace and Unification present during the meeting, Sung wept and “stomped her foot,” demanding that Milingo reconsider.

At one point, Milingo asked Schanker to help him explain to Sung that “he was suffering, too,” Schanker told NCR.

In the end, Sung bowed to the inevitable.

“For the great love for my husband, I’ll respect his decision,” she told reporters. Sung vowed she would never love another man and would try to support Milingo.

In a final surreal touch, Sung delivered her remarks from a large window above a street that faces the hotel. The setting was similar to the setting of the pope’s Sunday Angelus address.

For a time it had seemed the finish would never come.

In an exclusive Aug. 25 interview with NCR, Sung insisted that, despite the fact that her story had been splashed across every newspaper and TV news report in Italy, Pope John Paul II could not know she was on a hunger strike.

“I believe the pope is very sensitive,” she said. “If he knew, he would point his finger and give the command so that I could meet my husband.”

The comment, despite the gentle language, concealed a reproach against Vatican inaction. Vatican officials, meanwhile, privately suggested to NCR that Moon’s Family Federation was controlling Sung and taking advantage of her suffering for free advertising.

Sung’s advisers tried to enlist dissident Catholics on her side, especially married priests and their wives.

In an Aug.17 news conference in which Sung revealed she was not pregnant, she called on “all women married to priests, whether openly or in secret, to come forward to help me.” None did so publicly.

Married priests were bolder.

“It’s unacceptable that the Holy See is acting against the principles it espouses, trying to produce a divorce and shatter a family,” said Franco Maggiotto, an Italian married priest who leads a group of small Christian communities in Turin, Aug. 21. “It’s a very precise ecclesiastical strategy that every married priest has had to endure.”

The tit-for-tat at times descended to the absurd.

On Aug. 22, Family Federation head Schanker told reporters that the Vatican had made a seven-point offer for a meeting. Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro Valls, who had returned from vacation the previous day vowing to “take back the microphone,” quickly denied there had been an offer.

Moments later, Schanker brandished a fax, purportedly from the Vatican, in front of reporters, saying it contained the offer (with six, not seven, points). Photographers snapped images, leading reporters to spend hours studying blurry prints to try to reconstruct the text.

Schanker eventually showed the fax to NCR. It carried the stamped imprint of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and the conditions it set out were largely those that eventually governed the meeting.

As the Moon people packed up their war room at a Rome hotel, and a legion of Italian reporters prepared for vacations delayed awaiting the end of this story, the largest question mark concerned Milingo’s future. Observers expect a long period of quiet before he is encouraged to resume a public role.

The story may not be over.

Schanker told NCR that Milingo had said during a private moment that, though he had made a mistake by marrying, he still believes mandatory celibacy for priests is wrong.

If Milingo decides to say that publicly, now or in the future, his drama may have at least one more act.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001