Pope Excommunicates African Prelate With History of Defiance
Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, a provocative African prelate known for exorcisms, mass healing ceremonies and temporarily breaking with the church to marry a Korean acupuncturist, was excommunicated Tuesday by the Vatican.
Pope Benedict XVI signed off on the most serious punishment the Roman Catholic Church can mete out, in what is likely to be the final chapter in Milingo’s bizarre, tumultuous story spanning more than two decades.
The rare edict came after Milingo presided over the “installation” in Washington of four married men as bishops this week. The ceremony was intended to dramatize Milingo’s campaign -- called Married Priests Now! -- to end celibacy rules for Catholic priests. Neither the archdiocese of Washington nor the Vatican recognized as bishops the men whom Milingo held the ceremony to consecrate.
That act was the final straw for Vatican officials who have scolded, cajoled and counseled Milingo over the years. On Tuesday, the Vatican announced the excommunication, the first of a senior prelate in nearly 20 years, and asked for prayer in “these moments of ecclesiastical suffering.”
By advocating an end to mandatory celibacy for priests and with his long history of defiance, Milingo was “spreading division and confusion among the faithful,” the Vatican said, adding that the bishop was guilty of “irregularity and of progressively open rupture of communion with the church.”
Technically, Milingo, 76, who was named a bishop in Zambia in 1969, can restore himself to good standing with the church if he repents and disavows his actions, but he lately has seemed bent on mounting a challenge to papal authority.
“Representatives at various levels of the church have attempted, in vain, to contact Archbishop Milingo to dissuade him from continuing in actions that provoke scandal,” the Vatican statement said. The Holy See “had hoped he would rethink his actions and return to full communion with the pope. Unfortunately, these latest developments have distanced such hopes.”
Milingo, in Washington, was “reflecting and praying,” a spokesman, Prince Tambi, said by telephone. Tambi added that Milingo said his intention was to help “married priests who are suffering and help the Catholic Church understand them.”
A spokeswoman for the archdiocese of Washington, Susan Gibbs, said Milingo’s actions in attempting to name bishops without Vatican approval were “clearly illicit.”
The ceremony took place Sunday at the Imani Temple on Capitol Hill, which is on the site of a onetime Baptist church and run by George A. Stallings Jr., a former Catholic priest who left the church in 1989.
Stallings is one of the four men Milingo said he was ordaining. The others are Peter Paul Brennan of New York; Patrick Trujillo of Newark, N.J.; and Joseph Gouthro of Las Vegas.
The Vatican said the four were also being excommunicated. All belong to a breakaway church. Milingo, born in a village in what is today Zambia, has long been a source of embarrassment for the church. But he has enjoyed a large following in Italy and in his African homeland.
His most serious previous confrontation with the Catholic hierarchy came in 2001, when he married Marie Sung, a South Korean acupuncturist who belonged to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. They married in a mass wedding officiated by Moon in New York.
The Catholic world was shocked. Vatican officials at the time threatened to excommunicate Milingo but were reluctant to do so, given his popularity. In the end, a personal plea from Pope John Paul II persuaded the cleric to renounce his marriage and return to the church.
The senior Vatican official in charge of the case was Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who this week became Benedict’s No. 2 at the Vatican.
Even before the marriage episode, Milingo was on shaky ground with the church hierarchy. As far back as his days as a bishop in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, in the 1970s, he conducted raucous healing Masses and public exorcisms that made church officials uncomfortable. Some suggested that the rites bordered on voodooism, and he was ordered to desist. Milingo ignored the orders and defended the Masses as popular rituals that incorporated local customs.
In 1983, the Vatican pulled him out of Zambia and ordered him to Rome. But in Italy, he continued his exotic ministry in monthly sessions in a church in suburban Rome, and later in warehouses and stadiums across the country. Thousands of Italians sought him out.
In 2000, the church was so appalled that it rewrote the rules on healing Masses. The author of the rule change was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church’s top doctrinal enforcer and now pope.
After the marriage episode, Milingo returned to the fold and was banished to a small town southeast of Rome, Zagarolo. He led a more low-key life there, for a while.
But gradually he took up the same controversial ministry. As recently as late last year, every Thursday, in a white barracks-size tent on the grounds of his compound in Zagarolo, he conducted healing Masses for an audience from all over the country.
In an interview during that period, he said he felt he had tacit approval from senior church leaders to continue with his form of preaching. His Masses often bore more resemblance to evangelical revival meetings, with the laying on of hands and with worshipers sometimes writhing in the aisles. His one concession was to move exorcisms indoors and not conduct them in public.
But he continued to insist that as a priest he obeyed a higher authority not always in conformity with Vatican rules.
Milingo dropped out of sight early in the summer, reappearing in July in Washington, where he gave a news conference lambasting the Vatican for continuing its ban on married priests. Rumors began to circulate that he had reunited with his Korean wife.
The Vatican expressed its concern at the time and worked behind the scenes to bring Milingo back.
Bertone, charged before with Milingo’s rehabilitation, expressed his dismay in an interview with 30 Days, an Italian Catholic magazine.
“As much as I was pleased at his return after the first flight [in 2001], so am I saddened by this second fall,” Bertone said. “I hope and I pray that he returns definitively to retake his place in the Catholic Church. I have entrusted him to the servant of God, John Paul II.”
Excommunication of a senior prelate is unusual but not unheard of. In 1988, the Vatican excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, leader of an ultraconservative faction that opposed church reforms of the 1960s, after he too consecrated four bishops.
The penalty is known as latae sententiae excommunication, an automatic form that is the most severe because the offender is considered to have done damage to the public order of the church.
“The excommunication is automatic for a bishop who ordains a priest to the episcopate without the pope’s mandate. It is therefore rare,” a senior official in the Curia, or Vatican administration, said Tuesday, speaking on condition he not be identified, in keeping with Vatican policy.
Milingo continues to have admirers, and there are many Catholic dissidents who support making celibacy optional for priests as a way to alleviate shortages in the clerical ranks. But the pope and the Vatican have held firm to the traditional prohibition.
“I didn’t think they [Vatican officials] would go that far, but on the other hand, I am not surprised after what he has done,” said a former associate of Milingo’s in Italy who requested anonymity.
At Milingo’s compound in Zagarolo, where several nuns live, there was confusion Tuesday.
“We don’t know anything,” said a woman who answered the telephone. “No, he is not here. No, he is not coming back.”