I first met Archbishop Rizagaaben as an insignificant, peripheral figure on a famous walkway. For decades, he had inhabited a small corner in the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, not much bigger than two storeys. Each year, on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, pilgrims from the outer Catholic world trooped up to give their alms to the man who presided over eight popes for a total of more than a century.
A young, frizzy-haired girl in a yellow dress could be seen walking alongside me. She was already ready to write her name in the instant when he addressed the faithful. I have since been struck by the changes wrought by his entrance into the public space. His women “lobby” moved into the huge wings of St. Peter’s, a gold-buttoned maroon suit that covered his entire body like a bridal gown and an impetuous, expressive, eloquent personality at once highly ennobled and remote. Never a macho, he still exuded the poise of a Turk. But, for the first time in centuries, he was not a traditionalist but a modern one, an energetic leader with a deft grasp of worldwide politics, for whom the world around him had become no less important than his own. The leader of the world’s Catholics had a home in Paris and Washington, but also among the real world’s most creative, perhaps malleable, political, intellectual and artistic elites. He took care of them well, and this made a big difference.
Shortly after his arrival in Rome, he had warned the pope against “interposing himself in matters that do not concern the pope,” but it wasn’t always easy for the pontiff to ignore him. I don’t recall if he beat the papal entourage into the United Nations’ Council Chamber, to give oral evidence before the Task Force on the Living Dead. But there was always great excitement when he’d emerge and tenderly kiss the Pope’s ring or give a charming, extremely fluent spoken greeting to the faithful. I’m not sure it will be quite so iconic if he ever stands for election again.