by Jim Creagan
It was Christmas eve of 1988. Gwyn was dressed in her long black gown complete with mantilla and I was in white tie and tails (these were the “uniforms” for US officials accredited to the Holy See). We were all set for a magnificent Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s. When the phone rang. It was the Vatican deputy Secretary of State informing me that Col. Gaddafi had contacted the Vatican with a Christmas greeting for the United States. As a good will gesture, Gaddafi would return the bodies of two US airmen shot down over Tripoli in the 1986 bombing. I quickly got NEA Asst. Sec. Murphy on the line and with his quick response was able to tell the Vatican at Midnight Mass that we, of course, welcomed and awaited the return of our airmen, but would not accept direct contact with Gaddafi. Over the next few days we worked out a Libya to Holy See transfer in Libya. At the Rome Italian military airport we had a ceremony with U.S. Marine honor guard for the dead airmen and with the Holy See and Italians present. No Libyans.
Having missed yuletide tranquility in 1988, we looked forward to a 1989 long and sleepy Midnight Mass. We were nestled in the diplomatic section of St. Peter’s by 11:30 PM, when I got a message to dash back to the embassy for a call on the secure phone. General Manuel Noriega (Panama’s dictator) had taken refuge in the Vatican Embassy, and I was to notify the Vatican of that fact telling them forcefully not to grant him asylum. We wanted him. Back to St. Peter’s I sprang. I tip-toed thru a hushed Basilica as TV cameras followed. Some diplomats were worried, as there had been rumors of bomb plot at St. Peter’s. I tapped the Vatican deputy Foreign Minister on the shoulder and gave him our curt message. Without a blink of the eye, the archbishop told me that the Chief of State (Pope John Paul II) was up on the altar, the Prime Minister (Cardinal Casaroli) was seated over there and the mass was long. “Tell Bush and Baker they have about three hours to think”, he said. “And don’t try to go in to get him”. I remarked that that was the last thing on our minds (although US troops had the Vatican Nunciature surrounded). My Christmas Day 1989 was spent at the Vatican Foreign Minister’s residence behind St. Peter’s. We sipped Dubonnet supplied by the attendant nuns and discussed modalities of Manuel Noriega’s living arrangements for his 10 day stay at the Nunciature in Panama. Christmas dinner at home was very late that year. And the toys were all scattered.