Vatican's first ambassador to post-Communist Romania is remembered

Archbishop John Bukovsky, 1924-2010

Bukovsky,_Archbishop_John_for_web_obitTechny, Ill. – Most Rev. John Bukovsky SVD, the Vatican’s first apostolic nuncio for the Catholic Church in post-Communist Romania, died on Saturday, Dec. 18, one month shy of his 87th birthday.

"Graciousness characterized all that he did," said Rev. Mark Weber SVD, provincial superior of the Society of the Divine Word’s Chicago Province, where the archbishop lived for the past five years.

In 1973, while working at the Society of the Divine Word General Council, Archbishop Bukovsky’s talents became apparent to Vatican officials. As soon as he completed his six-year term with the General Council, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, then head of the Papal Secretariat of State, asked the priest to join his staff.

When asked what made Archbishop Bukovsky well suited for his post in the Secretariat of State, a friend and former student, Rev. Thomas Krosnicki SVD, replied, "His cultural background, his language abilities and his diplomatic talents—in the best sense of the word."

The archbishop spoke nine languages fluently, including Polish, German, Russian, English, French and his native Slovak. "It was not uncommon for him to be invited to lunch with the Pope [John Paul II]," Father Krosnicki said.

As a member of the Council for Public Affairs of the Church, Archbishop Bukovsky frequently traveled to Eastern Europe to assess the needs of Catholics and explore opportunities for diplomacy between the Vatican and the nations visited, which included Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania.

For 17 years, Archbishop Bukovsky worked on the Eastern European desk of the Vatican Secretariat of State. From 1975 to 1990, he made 20 trips to Romania alone to meet with government officials as the Vatican’s special East European envoy. When the Vatican and Romania restored diplomatic relations after more than 40 years, he became the natural choice to lead the effort.

On Oct. 13, 1990, Archbishop Bukovsky became archbishop with the title of Titular Archbishop of Tabalta and apostolic nuncio to Romania. In this position, he reclaimed Vatican property, worked closely with the local clergy, and reestablished the nuncio building, which had been used by the Communists as a prison and torture center.

"The conditions there were still quite different," said Father Krosnicki, who worked in Washington, D.C., as director of the United States Bishops’ Liturgy Committee. Father Krosnicki recalled one story in which the archbishop wanted to treat a guest to a special meal. He asked the residence staff to purchase fish. To get the fish, they had to stand in line for three hours. "He was doing missionary work even then," Father Krosnicki said.

After success in Romania, Pope John Paul II chose him as papal delegate to shepherd the Catholic Church in post-Communist Russia. Archbishop Bukovsky assumed his duties as the Vatican representative in Moscow on Dec. 20, 1994. During his tenure as papal representative, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian Federation came into being, and the Duma ratified a constitution that took religious freedom into account.

On Feb. 14, 2000, Archbishop Bukovsky adhered to the Church’s mandatory retirement regulations and became apostolic nuncio emeritus.

Born on Jan. 18, 1924 in Cerova-Lieskove, Czechoslovakia, John Bukovsky was the fourth of Martin and Katerina (Slavik) Bukovsky’s two boys and four girls. Archbishop Bukovsky, a soft-spoken gentleman with a ready smile, knew firsthand the sorrow of families torn apart by political unrest.

In 1939 at age 15, he entered the Society of the Divine Word high school seminary at Nitra, Czechoslovakia. Recognizing his intellectual abilities, the international religious order of missionary priests and brothers sent him to the United States to complete his philosophy and theological education for the priesthood. He arrived in Chicago on a cold November day in 1947 filled with hope for the future and a violin case in hand.

However, optimism turned to uncertainty the following February when Communists took control of Czechoslovakia. The new government stripped the seminarian of his passport and ordered him home. Instead, he remained in the United States. For five years, he was a man without a country. Twenty years would pass—during which both his father and only brother died—before he could return to his homeland.

"He never forgot the kindness of Mayor Richard J. Daley," Father Weber said. The Chicago mayor made arrangements for the seminarian to travel to Canada, where he obtained an immigrant’s visa, which allowed him to stay in the United States.

In December 1950, the young Bukovsky was ordained to the priesthood in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Techny, Ill. Within a few years, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Content with life in academia, he earned a graduate degree in Sacred Theology from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1952.

During the next 14 years, he taught Sacred Scripture at St. Mary’s Seminary at Techny, pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, and studied Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, completing his second licentiate in 1966.

Then, his life turned onto an unexpected path. He became rector of Techny in 1967. At the time, St. Mary’s Seminary on the Techny campus still functioned as a major seminary. Then-Father Bukovsky served for six short months before his religious peers elected him to the Society of the Divine Word General Council in Rome. As an advisor, he traveled the world, meeting fellow missionaries in the numerous countries in which the Divine Word Missionaries served.

It was in this work that Vatican officials recognized his potential for international relations and tapped his talents for the Vatican diplomatic corps, where he served in Rome and throughout Eastern Europe from 1973 until his retirement in 2000.

During retirement, the archbishop remained busy. In June 2002, Pope John Paul II appointed him as member of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and consultant of the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State. Within the last year, the archbishop published a book in Slovak about his experiences as a Vatican ambassador.

During the early years of his retirement, the archbishop lived near Vienna at St. Gabriel Mission House of the Society of the Divine Word in Moedling, Austria. In 2002, Father Krosnicki, then provincial superior of the Chicago Province, visited him and invited his confrere to return to Techny. The archbishop moved to Techny in 2005.

"It was his second home," Father Krosnicki said. "He loved being back among his many friends in the community."

Archbishop Bukosvky is survived by two sisters, Ludmilla Mikulka and Katerina Valent, both of Slovakia.

A viewing is schedule for Wednesday, Dec. 22, beginning at 1 p.m., in the Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center. A memorial Mass will follow at 3:30 p.m.

Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center is located at 2001 Waukegan Rd., Techny (Northbrook), Ill. The archbishop’s funeral Mass and burial will take place in the church of his baptism in Nitra, Slovakia.

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