Pope expels the exorcist archbishop Emmanuel Milingo

They could tolerate his folk singing and his exorcisms, but Emmanuel Milingo’s advocacy of clerical marriage was too much for the Vatican to bear, writes John Hooper

At a time when the Roman Catholic church, like other traditional Christian denominations, needs all the believers it can get, the Vatican does not turn lightly to excommunication. Yet earlier this week Pope Benedict decided the time had come to throw bell, book and candle at one of the most trying members of his flock – not just any rebel Catholic, but an archbishop, no less.

Emmanuel Milingo, once the archbishop of Lusaka in Zambia, has been in and out of trouble for more than 20 years now. In 1983, he was hauled to Rome because of concern over his ministry, which had aspects the Vatican felt were uncomfortably close to faith healing.

Milingo was given a post in one of the Vatican’s less important pontifical ministries with the hope that he would gradually become accustomed to a life of comfortable irrelevance in Italy’s beautiful capital. Instead, he was rarely out of the news for long.

A gifted singer, he released a recording of African folk songs. Then he made waves by endorsing the claims of an African nun who said she regularly saw the face of Jesus.

All the time, he was building up a solid following within Italy. Thousands of people showed up for his monthly masses at a former warehouse on the outskirts of Milan – ceremonies at which he performed exorcisms in which the faithful writhed and shouted. In 1996, when the archbishop of Milan told him to stop, more than 4,500 people signed a petition calling for the ban to be lifted.

Finally, in 2001, came the biggest scandal of all when Milingo disappeared and resurfaced in New York, where he was married to a South Korean acupuncturist chosen for him by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church. Responding to an appeal from Pope John Paul II, he later renounced his marriage and returned.

Until June, the Vatican’s Milingo problem seemed to have resolved itself. The 76-year-old prelate lived quietly at a convent near Rome and the only tremor of concern arose with a report that he was considering acting as advisor for the film of Dan Brown’s book on the Vatican, Angels and Demons.

But then he disappeared again – and again reappeared in the US, this time to announce that he was founding a movement called “Married Priests Now!” Two months later, he ‘ordained’ four married bishops, and the patience of the Roman Catholic hierarchy snapped.

The most common view of Milingo is as an amusing eccentric. And, indeed, his erratic behaviour has scarcely won him much credibility.

Emmanuel Milingo: No Discernment

It is odd, though not surprising, that the Catholic Church does not appear to have much of a problem with Emmanuel Milingo’s connections to Sun Myung Moon, the founder and leader of the Unification Church. Theologically, the Unification Church (whose followers are sometimes referred to as Moonies) is a cult of Christianity. Its theology can only be described as religious insanity. Milingo’s connections with Moon cause the Vatican less stress than his rejection of unbiblical rules regarding priests, or his rebellious ordination of four married priests.

While Emmanuel Milingo is right to stand up to the Vatican’s man-maded rules, his lack of discernment make him unfit for Christian ministry.

A psychotherapist in northern Italy who treated him was quoted this week by a Milan newspaper as saying that, when the then archbishop visited him two months before his flight to the US, he appeared seriously disturbed. Giorgio Gagliardi told Il Giorno that Milingo talked to him in “disconnected words and phrases”, some of which appeared to relate to a previous encounter.

However, the excommunicated prelate’s antics are embarrassing for the Vatican in much deeper ways that is generally recognised. His early activities underlined the modern Roman Catholic church’s discomfort over such issues as exorcism.

It fully believes in possession by spirits and every diocese has an exorcist whose job is to drive them out. Yet, in western Europe and North America at least, it does not exactly draw attention to their activities for fear of seeming risibly archaic.

But more recently Milingo’s activities have pressed on what is perhaps the most sensitive spot of all – priestly celibacy. The Vatican’s insistence on forbidding its priests from marrying is costing it dear.

At a press conference following his ordination Milingo claimed there were 150,000 men around the world who would become priests if only they did not have to be celibate. That may be an exaggeration, but there is no question that the ban on married priests is the single biggest reason why the Roman Catholic church has a dwindling, ageing clergy.

The problem, as the former archbishop will himself know from experience, is particularly acute in Africa where, in many societies, an unmarried man suffers from a drastic loss of status and credibility. Of late, with the admission to holy orders of married Anglican and Episcopalian priests, the Vatican’s position has become all the more difficult to understand for many believers, some of whom will have no doubt puzzled over St Paul’s first letter to Timothy and its counsel that “a Church leader … must have only one wife”.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday September 30, 2006.
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