In recent decades, St. Joseph’s Seminary has hosted Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Last week, seminarians there had an opportunity to hear about both pontiffs—and many other leading world and national figures—from a U.S. foreign policy expert who came to admire them during his highly honored diplomatic career.
Dr. Henry Kissinger might not have been the most likely speaker at the Dunwoodie seminary but he certainly proved a most enlightening and informed guest as he spoke to the young men who will be the future priests of New York.
Dr. Kissinger, now 90, regaled seminarians from St. Joseph’s and pre-theology students of the Cathedral Seminary House of Formation in Douglaston, Queens, and invited guests with stories from his diplomatic experience that included service as secretary of state to two presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and as a national security adviser. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Dr. Kissinger is a longtime friend of Cardinal Egan’s, whom Cardinal Dolan credited with the idea for the invitation. As Cardinal Egan, now Archbishop Emeritus, explained, the evening event April 9 was not the first time Dr. Kissinger had spoken at a Catholic institution in the archdiocese. He previously had accepted the cardinal’s invitation to teach a day’s classes at two high schools in the archdiocese, first at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx and then at Cathedral High School in Manhattan.
Cardinal Dolan described the desired format at St. Joseph’s as akin to a “family, kitchen-table conversation.” It involved Dr. Kissinger taking the seminarians’ questions, which had been summarized and articulated by the cardinal. They ran the gamut from comments about world leaders present and past, including Presidents Nixon and Ronald Reagan, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and current Russian President Vladimir Putin to his considered opinion about current world affairs, notably the situations in Ukraine and in the Middle East.
At the outset, Dr. Kissinger, who is Jewish, thanked both cardinals for the invitation, saying, “I have greatly admired the role of the Church in its continuity and its upholding of principles.”
Dr. Kissinger spoke fondly of Pope John Paul II. who personally told him “the function of the Church is to tell the truth.”
“He felt his papacy should be devoted to that,” he said.
He also offered astute acknowledgement of Pope Benedict’s legacy, both as pope and as longtime head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
From a foreign policy perspective, Dr. Kissinger had high praise for President Nixon, whom he said he had never met before “he appointed me as his national security adviser.” Describing Nixon, who famously resigned the presidency after the Watergate scandal, as a “very complex personality,” Dr. Kissinger nonetheless said no president since Teddy Roosevelt was better prepared to handle foreign policy demands.
Also in attendance were the rectors of both St. Joseph’s, Msgr. Peter Vaccari, and the Cathedral Seminary, Msgr. Robert Thelen, as were other administrators and faculty of both institutions, charged with preparing men for the priesthood in the Archdiocese of New York, and the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre.
Afterward, the seminarians and other guests were invited to exchange greetings with Dr. Kissinger in the seminary’s library.
A couple of them shared their thoughts about what they had just heard, including Deacon Joseph Scolaro, a fourth-year seminarian from the Diocese of Rockville Centre who earlier had been introduced to Dr. Kissinger as the representative of the St. Joseph’s student body.
He said the answers Dr. Kissinger gave offered the seminarians an opportunity “to understand a new subject, foreign policy,” from a different perspective than they normally would. “Not from a magisterial sense, but from a human, intellectual sense,” he said.
One of Dr. Kissinger’s remarks struck a chord with Cardinal Dolan as well as with Steven Diaz, a student from the archdiocese enrolled at Cathedral Seminary. It was a famous quote by 19th century German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who said, “A statesman…must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.”
Diaz liked the quote so much he asked me to email it to him. Perhaps this fulfills my obligation.