||Ambassador Frank Shakespeare meets Zoe Apel, a senior at St. Ambrose Academy in Madison. The former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican spoke at St. Ambrose recently about his experiences serving in the Reagan administration. (Catholic Herald photo/Mary C. Uhler)
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MADISON -- Ambassador Frank Shakespeare called it an “extraordinary time” following a “huge transition in human civilization.” And he was right in the thick of it all.
In a recent talk at St. Ambrose Academy in Madison, the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See (from 1986 to 1989) talked about his experiences serving with President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.
Shakespeare currently lives in Deerfield and is a member of St. Patrick Parish in Cottage Gove.
In some never-revealed stories, Shakespeare talked about U.S. and Vatican relations with the Soviet Union and what he sees as the influence of the revelations of Our Lady at Fatima in world events.
Shakespeare’s own career began after his military service in World War II. He started at CBS Radio in New York City and then began working for the new CBS Television, moving up the ranks to the top position as president.
He noted that this was a “huge transition time” in the world. After World War II ended, there was a “communications revolution.”
He said “television changed everything.” By 1960, every living room in the U.S. had a TV. “All of these things I’m telling you took place during a new era of communications unique in history,” he said.
Changes in the papacy
Some of the unique events included changes in the papacy. In 1978, Pope Paul VI died after 16 years as pontiff. Cardinals under the age of 80 went to Rome to elect a new pope. “Every pope for 436 years had been an Italian cardinal,” noted Shakespeare.
This time was no different. “They were men of tradition,” he said. “They took an Italian cardinal and elected him pope.” He took the name of John Paul I, after his two predecessors.
However, 33 days later, Pope John Paul I died. The cardinals went back to Rome to elect a new pope. “They now knew each other. It was an utterly different meeting,” observed Shakespeare. “They decided to break with tradition.”
The world was still recovering from World War II. “Europe had torn itself apart, a German madman had killed six million Jews, the United States was emerging as the greatest temporal power, and the Soviet Union meant to take over the world,” he said.
In 1978, the cardinals thought that Poland was a pivotal country in Europe. “They knew there was a man in Poland, one of the most extraordinary linguists in the world. He spoke nine languages fluently. He was a very strong man,” said Shakespeare.
The cardinals stunned the world by electing Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland as the next pope. He took the name Pope John Paul II.
A new president
In 1980, the United States held a presidential election. The people elected Ronald Reagan as president, “a grade B movie actor from California,” said Shakespeare.
“A new Peter, the first non-Italian in almost 500 years, and the U.S. president is Ronald Reagan. It’s very unusual,” observed Shakespeare, saying “obviously the man upstairs (God) was involved.”
He noted that both Reagan and the pope were shot in 1981 in separate instances. “Both men survived bullets an eighth of an inch from their hearts. It started a period of 13 years that changed the world.”
President Reagan “knew that his job was to prevent Russia from taking over western Europe,” said Shakespeare. The president also realized that he needed to get acquainted with John Paul II, who knew about the Soviet Union.
Ambassador to Portugal
After serving in the Nixon administration for four years as an “ambassador at large,” Shakespeare was asked to be U.S. ambassador to Portugal by President Reagan in 1985. He agreed and went to Portugal, where he was contacted by the papal nuncio who said, “I want to take you to Fatima to meet Lucy.”
Fortunately Shakespeare had studied the appearance of Mary in 1917 to the three children at Fatima, Lucy being one of them. Mary had told the children that Russia would make an effort to dominate the world, and that’s what was happening in 1985.
“John Paul II had gone to Portugal and he met with Lucy,” Shakespeare said. “He deeply believed in Fatima and he believed that Russia would try to take over the world. What the children said about Russia had happened. The only thing standing in the way was the United States.”
Ambassador to Holy See
After he spent five months in Portugal, Shakespeare received a call from President Reagan asking if he would be the first U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
Shakespeare thinks that both the president and the Holy Father wanted the ambassador to understand Mary’s message to the children at Fatima.
President Reagan implied that he and the pope will have “to be locked together” in their efforts to deal with the Soviet Union.
The president and the pope
When President Reagan was attending a meeting of the Group of Eight in northern Italy, he decided to meet with Pope John Paul II.
Shakespeare met with President Reagan before the meeting. “We talked for about 45 minutes. We flew to the Vatican Gardens by helicopter and went to the pope’s private office. They were alone for about an hour and a half.”
After the meeting, President Reagan briefed Shakespeare. “Reagan very clearly told me everything they talked about. He talked in greatest detail and candor.”
Shakespeare said, “I’m absolutely convinced the pope said to Reagan, ‘If there’s someone between us, that person can’t be an ambassador unless he knows what I think of Fatima. Send him to Portugal first so he can learn Fatima backwards and forwards.’ The papal nuncio went out of his way to ‘Fatimize’ me.”
Shakespeare served as the Vatican ambassador for three years, the last years of Reagan’s administration. He said that Reagan and the pope “shared everything.”
Collapse of Soviet Union
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was dissolved on December 25, 1991. This left all 15 republics of the Soviet Union as independent sovereign states. It marked an end to the Cold War.
Blessed John Paul II has been credited with being the spiritual inspiration behind the Soviet Union’s downfall and a catalyst for “a peaceful revolution” in Poland.