His Holiness was not amused

The bizarre career of Zambia’s Archbishop Milingo has embarrassed the Vatican — and, says Hugh Russell, it isn’t over yet
The Spectator (England), Jan. 4, 2003 (Opinion)

Have you been totting up the number of abject apologies offered to the public in recent months by those Roman Catholic bishops who so blithely allowed their randy paedophile priests to continue organising choir practice? If you have, you may have missed the public apology — for, I might add, a very different sin — emanating from His Grace, the Roman Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo of Lusaka.

And that would be a pity. In fact it’s a pity to miss anything that Archbishop Milingo does, because the man’s a treat. If you don’t count Victoria Falls, Archbishop Milingo is about the only sight worth seeing in Zambia. And when you do take a good long look at the man, you have to agree that, if God does exist, He has an excellent sense of humour.

Milingo’s apology last week to the people of Zambia related to his behaviour during the past three years — behaviour that revealed him to be a mixture of Casanova, John Wesley, Popeye and the Prisoner of Zenda. But to get a full picture of this gentleman we need to go back 20 years or more, to when he first became Archbishop of Lusaka.

The Catholic Church is always anxious to appoint Africans to lead its African churches, but when it chose Milingo it was not choosing another Tutu. Instead of a man of dignity and wisdom, it got itself a prancing prelate who whipped his congregations into ecstasies of excitement in the pursuit of witches, devils, evil spirits and the imps of Satan.

Now this sort of thing goes down quite well here, where witchcraft is an everyday fact of life, and evil spirits are cast out so frequently that they must get thoroughly miffed by it all. But, as you can imagine, it’s not exactly conceived as appropriate behaviour in the cool halls and echoing passageways of the Vatican. Milingo called his efforts a ‘mission of healing faith’, and there were the usual anecdotes about the lame seeing and the blind walking and the legless vaulting over five-bar gates, but none of this cut much ice with Rome, and Milingo was called to the Holy See for some spiritual realignment.

After a few years of close observation, the Vatican gradually relaxed its hold on its errant cleric, and allowed him to continue with his Mission in Europe. Bad decision. It wasn’t long before Milingo was observed to be involving himself in another dubious manifestation of religious fervour, the Unification Church, whose members are known, with varying degrees of hostility, as the Moonies. Soon, we’re told, Emmanuel was on first-name terms with Sun — that is, Sun Myung Moon, the Moonie leader who is, of course, the second Messiah. (He’s also an ex-con, having been imprisoned for tax evasion, but that’s not important when you’re the Second Messiah.)

There ensued a titanic struggle of faiths, as our Archbish tried to convert the Moonies, and the Moonies tried to convert our Archbish. But in 2001 it appeared that the Moonies had won, when Milingo surfaced in New York at one of those famous Moonie mass-wedding ceremonies, and promptly married a woman he’d never met before in his life. The woman was one Maria Sung, 44, a Korean physician, and if Milingo knew nothing about her before he said ‘I do’, he found out more than enough about her shortly afterwards. But we’ll come to that in a moment.

The reasons why Milingo decided to become the Catholic Church’s first married Moonie archbishop are a little confusing. Milingo himself gives several reasons — one that he was ‘hoodwinked’ into it, another that the Reverend Moon told him he could continue his ‘mission of healing faith’ among the Moonies only if he agreed to marry one of them.

There’s doubt, too, about whether the Milingo marriage was a genuine union of body and soul, or just a formal and non-sexual relationship. Once again you can rely on Milingo to fog the issue. On the one hand, he now says he could never be truly married to Miss Sung as he was already married to God; on the other, he admits to ‘human weakness’ when referring to his marriage. And he’s known to have had connections with a breakaway movement of Catholic priests who reject the doctrine of celibacy.

Whatever happened between Emmanuel and Maria, Pope John Paul II was having none of it. Our Archbishop was summoned to Rome, walked across St Peter’s Square and into the Vatican …and disappeared. In retrospect, this wasn’t surprising. Milingo had undoubtedly earned himself an almighty papal bollocking, and, given John Paul’s frailty, this probably took a while to deliver.

But at the time some alarm was raised. Rumours spread that Milingo was incarcerated against his will; that he was even held in shackles. The rumours became so prevalent here in Zambia early last year that our gallant President Levy Mwanawasa caused official diplomatic inquiries to be made at the Vatican. Well, the Vatican replied to these official diplomatic inquiries with an assurance that Archbishop Milingo was not hanging in chains from the wall of the Holy See’s dungeons; and Milingo, never one to miss a chance of being heard, also wrote to the Zambian government assuring them that he was well, at least in the strictly physical sense.

As to the marriage, well, they said it wouldn’t last and it didn’t. Milingo rapidly abandoned Maria’s bosom to return to the bosom of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, showing the wisdom of 2,000 years, promptly put him on a plane to Argentina and left him there for a year to cool off.

Now we come to the rejected bride, Maria Sung. I think it’s reasonable to surmise that, if you were a youngish, attractive, female Korean doctor who found herself suddenly saddled with a sweaty old chatterbox like Milingo, you might welcome the prospect of an almost immediate divorce. Not a bit of it. Maria flew into a temper, and then flew in to Lusaka in search of her Emmanuel. When he didn’t appear, she embarked on a hunger-strike — not exactly a sensitive move in a country where half the population don’t get enough to eat.

Let’s fast-forward this farrago to the past couple of weeks. Maria’s hunger-strike is long over, and she has gone to ground — quite where no one seems to know. And Milingo, having finished his penitential year in the fastness of Argentina, has returned in some triumph to Zambia.

The police presence when he arrived at Lusaka International Airport was considerable, as it was thought that Maria might appear from nowhere and demand her marital rights there and then in the arrivals hall. She didn’t, and now she’s said to be back in America.

Milingo, however, is in Zambia, and in his element. No newspaper front page, no television news programme is complete without His Grace apologising, explaining, complaining, instructing and generally rattling on about himself and God and the Moonies — and even, sometimes, poor Maria.

His actual words are such a mixture of cant, hyperbole, self-serving balls and inaccurate imagery that they don’t really bear repeating, but there is one statement of his which I will pass on to you. ‘I never disappointed God,’ Archbishop Milingo told an interviewer on ZNBC television’s Face To Face showcase last week. ‘I never disappointed God.’

And, you know, I’m sure this is true. Archbishop Milingo never disappoints anyone. He always exceeds our — and God’s — expectations. But in one sense Milingo has disappointed us: he has left us. Last week he jetted off to Rome again, and there is no news of when he will return. The country will be much the poorer. All we will have to talk and write about is the failing kwacha, the collapsing infrastructure and the Aids epidemic. Life, such as it is, will lose its sparkle.

Our President, our spiritual leaders, our people will all pray that God will go with Archbishop Milingo on his travels. And surely He will. He won’t want to miss whatever the old boy gets up to next.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday January 4, 2003.
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