Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a longtime Vatican official and papal envoy who was sent to some of the world’s most wounded and challenging places, died Sept. 4 in France. He was 96.
The French cardinal also played key roles in ecumenical relations, including with the late Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, and in interreligious dialogue. He was a key organizer of the first Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986, which brought 160 religious leaders together at a time of increasing world tensions and fears of nuclear war.
It was his efforts spanning two decades as an able negotiator for St. John Paul II that stood out the most: being sent to the Middle East to seek peace, meeting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the hopes of avoiding war in 2003, visiting communist Cuba to meet Fidel Castro, witnessing the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda and encouraging Lebanon to rebuild after 16 years of civil war.
Pope Francis, who was visiting Mozambique Sept. 4, expressed his sorrow after hearing the news of the cardinal’s death.
The cardinal “profoundly influenced the journey” of the universal Church and the Church in France, the pope said in a telegram of condolences released by the Vatican Sept. 5.
“I have fond memories of this man of deep faith” who was greatly esteemed and listened to as an adviser, “especially with delicate situations for the life of the Church in different parts of the world,” the pope wrote.
Born in Espelette, France, he studied in Rome before and after his ordination to the priesthood in 1947. He served in the Diocese of Bayonne, France, as secretary to the bishop, director of diocesan charitable agency and head of Catholic Action.
He attended the Second Vatican Council as an expert with the French bishops’ conference. After the council ended, Pope Paul VI encouraged the cardinal to organize a way Europe’s bishops could collaborate. His effort built the beginnings of what would become the Council of European Bishops’ Conferences, and he was its first president, 1971-1979. Cardinal Etchegaray served as president of the French bishops’ conference from 1975 until 1981.
St. Paul VI appointed him auxiliary bishop of Paris in 1969 and, less than two years later, archbishop of Marseille.
After making him a cardinal in his first consistory as pope in 1979, St. John Paul II asked the cardinal to come to Rome in 1984 to head the then-Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace and the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum,” the Vatican’s aid-coordinating agency.
The pope sent him to Rwanda soon after the 1994 genocide left 800,000 people dead when Hutu extremists murdered ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
An eyewitness to the results of the violence, the cardinal called the massacres “without a doubt one of the most tragic” events in modern history. He returned often in the following years.
The cardinal celebrated Christmas midnight Mass in Havana in 1988 and met with Castro for talks. He also was the first cardinal to visit communist China.
On a papal mission to Lebanon in 1985 and in 1991, he said he was overwhelmed by the destruction civil war had brought there. He relayed the pope’s desire the nation be an example to the world of peaceful cultural and religious coexistence.
Seen as “the pope’s messenger,” the cardinal went to Jerusalem in 2002 to seek an end to an Israeli-Palestinian standoff at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, one of many such visits to the Holy Land on behalf of St. John Paul.
Cardinal Etchegaray went to Iraq the month before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Meeting with Hussein for an hour and a half, the cardinal gave the leader a personal letter from St. John Paul II, who, the cardinal said, wanted to do everything possible to help prevent a war.
In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI approved the cardinal’s election as vice dean of the College of Cardinals, a role he held until 2017.—CNS