In search of Marcinkus

In May 2004 I travelled to Arizona to attempt to speak to Archbishop Paul Marcinkus. He had already declined to meet me, but being only a few hundred miles away I felt I had to try again in person. I found his home in Sun City, a residential suburb on the outskirts of Phoenix – a desert sprawl where the dry heat attracts elderly retirees and Hollywood stars from neighbouring Los Angeles. It was a low white bungalow looking out, appropriately, onto a golf course. The back patio was decorated with potted cactuses, there was a tiny swimming pool and – confirmation of Marcinkus’ sense of humour – a small plaster statue of a corpulent monk. No one was in, but the decorations outside the front door confirmed I had the right address: a bronze relief of a “Madonna and child” on one side and a wooden welcome sign in the shape of a church on the other. The welcome applied to everyone but the press. It was here that the archbishop would be found dead, apparently of natural causes, on February 20 2006, at the age of 84.

Down the street the Tivoli Gardens restaurant offered Italian specialities that might have reminded him of his 38 bittersweet years in Rome. The menu proposed special “senior” dishes served for the over-55s and a number of over-70s were keeping limber on the dance floor to the sound of live jazz. The well-practised veterans shuffled adroitly in front of a large TV screen showing a baseball match between the local Arizona Diamond Backs and the LA Dodgers.

Having missed him at home, I did manage to catch the archbishop at St Clement of Rome church, where he celebrated Sunday mass and preached a sermon for Pentecost on the theme of redemption through the Holy Spirit. Tall, gaunt and wearing red and white vestments, he spoke in a clear, strong voice and was evidently popular with the parishioners. The only sign that age was taking its toll was a slight lameness in his left leg as he stepped down from the altar to be closer to his audience for his seven-minute address. “I’ll come down here so I can wake you up if I send you off to sleep,” he quipped.

Ironically for one who had been himself so mired in financial scandal, Marcinkus preached on the materialism and moral decline of American society, citing the increase in the number of unwed mothers and divorce. “People complain because they can’t find decently paid work, but it costs a fortune to get a ticket for the baseball game and the players there are being paid $14 million just to hit a ball,” he said, showing his abiding penchant for sport. The founders of America were people of strong faith, he said. “That faith is at risk of being lost to materialism. You just have to look at the advertisements on TV or the garage sales around here, where people are selling things they bought but didn’t want.”

Local opinion was divided about the visiting celebrity prelate. “He’s such a generous servant of the church,” Paul Yoder, St Clement’s director of music, told me. “He says mass in the parish and visits the sick and elderly in hospitals and rest homes. He’s a saint.” Another parishioner, who declined to give his name, was less fulsome. There had been a sexual abuse scandal in the archdiocese that had had the effect of dredging up the financial scandal from Marcinkus’ past as well. The local archbishop “should have taken care of things that he didn’t do. He’s serving his probation now. That served to rake things up from the past as well. It’s been a very rough time,” the parishioner said.

Marcinkus demonstrated his ready charm as he greeted parishioners outside the church after mass. “How ya doin’ young fella?” he asked one oldster, complimenting him on a garish red and white floral shirt. But he stiffened when he realised he had an unwelcome journalist in front of him. Small talk didn’t get us far. Do you still have contacts in Rome? I asked. “I’m trying to be a priest here,” was the curt reply. What’s your golf handicap? I tried. “My drive,” he responded with a smile. But he was unbending in his refusal to be interviewed. “You got your answer,” he said, dismissing me with a “God bless you”.

I left Sun City pondering the Phoenix paradox: a popular, charismatic priest who had devoted his life to God and had just presided over a dignified and apparently sincere Eucharistic ceremony, during which he and the community had prayed for God’s forgiveness of their sins, and a mysterious and controversial past that he was unable or unwilling to confront in public.