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Archbishop Paul Russell -- Boston priest and Vatican diplomat


Pope Francis with Msgr. Russell at a general audience. (2014) Photo courtesy/Archbishop Paul Russell

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"I find that my life is a circle -- I keep coming back to a point where I was before, but in a different way," mused Archishop Paul Fitzpatrick Russell, newly appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey and Turkmenistan. "That's the way God has worked with me, I guess."

On June 3, Bishop Russell returned to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston -- the place where 28 years ago he was ordained to the priesthood -- to be ordained archbishop.

"When the pope appoints someone apostolic nuncio and simultaneously appoints them bishop, many are ordained by the Holy Father at St. Peter's Basilica," he explained. "That was offered to me as a possibility. I could also have been ordained at the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls, or in Michigan where most of my family and friends live."

"But I am a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston. This is my home," he continued, his voice full of emotion. "I am a member of this presbyterate. This is my diocese. I was ordained a deacon and a priest at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, so I felt I needed to come back here to be ordained bishop and become apostolic nuncio."

Bishop Russell was born on May 2, 1959 in Greenfield, Mass. to Isabelle Fitzpatrick and the late Thaddeus Russell. He lived in Shelbourne Falls until he was five years old.

"My mom had lost two babies before me -- a boy and a girl -- and I was born six weeks early," he said. "I looked healthy at birth, but within a day or two I kept losing weight. My mother told me she said a very fervent prayer to God who heard her prayer and kept me alive."

When Archbishop Russell was five, the family moved to Malden, where his sister Kathleen was born. The family soon after relocated to Wilmington, to live closer to his father's extended family in West Lynn.

It was there he first realized God was calling him to the priesthood.

"I was in first grade at the public school, and we were writing an essay for Open House," he said. "The essay was about what we wanted to be when we grew up, and I wrote, 'I think I want to be a priest.' I'll never forget because my teacher said, 'What? That's so boring! Don't you want to do something exciting like be a doctor or a fireman?' And I said, 'No, I think I want to be a priest.'"

"That's how it all began," he chuckled.

He noted that this first sense of his vocation was likely influenced by his great-uncle, Father Robert Emmet Fitzpatrick, a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, Mich. whom he loved and admired.

"He was a very human priest," he said. "He had a lot of talents -- he preached very well; he had a way of making deep connections with people. He was my inspiration as a little kid."

He also praised the faith of his mother, who always taught him to "love God more than anything else."

"I remember this so well. I was five years old, tooling around my house in Wilmington and I had on these little yellow plastic roller skates with red wheels, and she stopped me and said to me, 'Paul, you have to love God more than you love me.' You can imagine I was very upset, but she was very clear on this point -- she knew the important things in life," he said.

When Archbishop Russell was in the third grade, his parents divorced and his mother relocated the family to Alpena, Mich. to be near her family. He then attended the parish school of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish, a church founded by his great-great grandfather in the late 1800s.

After graduating from Alpena High School in 1977, he was chosen by the town's Rotary Club to participate in a student exchange program to France. He attended an additional year of high school at a Catholic school there, where he once again felt God calling him to the priesthood.

"Father Michel Vadon, my philosophy teacher, got me thinking about the big questions of life," he said, adding that he realized he wanted to "investigate further" what God was calling him to.

After his year in France, Archbishop Russell went to visit his paternal grandmother in West Lynn. It was there that he decided to take the next step in pursuing his vocation.

"So there I was in West Lynn, and I thought, 'Geez, Boston is a really big place. There must be a seminary here,'" he said.

After a few failed attempts to reach St. John's Seminary -- he first called the Catholic Schools Office, then the Vocations Office, and finally the Chancery -- he was told to call the dean of the seminary college, Father Thomas Daley.

Father Daley had a doctorate in French Literature, and the two spoke for hours. "We just clicked," Archbishop Russell said.

He then spoke with several other priests at the seminary college, and ultimately was asked to submit his SAT test results and his high school transcript.

At the end of August, only weeks before the semester was to begin, he was admitted.

"When I entered St. John's Seminary, my father's mother gave me a photo and explained that her first cousin, Father Michel Piaszczynski, was a priest who had been killed in a concentration camp during World War II," he said. In 1999, Father Piaszczynski was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II.

"I have carried his photo with me everywhere I go -- in the seminary, in the parish, in every country I have been in," he said. "He is truly an inspiration to me."

Archbishop Russell said that six years into his studies he read a report that explained that many Hispanic Catholics in Boston were leaving the Church because of a lack of Spanish-speaking priests. Then and there, he committed himself to learning Spanish and, that summer, travelled with the St. James Society to Peru and Bolivia to immerse himself in the language. However, after only a few months of living in South America, he was not yet entirely fluent.

"I knew the only way to really learn a foreign language is to be immersed in the culture -- living in families, really living the culture," he said.

He approached the head of the Maryknoll Language School in Bolivia and asked if he could extend his stay. They agreed, and so he approached the rector of St. John's Seminary to ask he could postpone his studies for one year.

"He told me no one had ever done that before, but then he saw that I was determined, so he allowed it to happen," Archbishop Russell said.

For one year, Archbishop Russell lived with a family of five -- a couple and three young sons -- in Bolivia. "We lived on a nameless dirt road. They were poor, but rich in human wealth."

While living in Bolivia, Archbishop Russell's father died unexpectedly.

"It was a struggle to return to Bolivia after burying my father," he admitted, "but the Lord really was there, because this family -- this really poor family -- surrounded me with love. That really helped me get over a difficult time in my life."

On Jan. 31, 1987, he was ordained transitional deacon and was assigned to St. Joseph Parish in Wakefield, just a few miles away from his Wilmington home.

"I was surprised and happy to be sent to a parish so close to where I had spent my early years," he said.

Six months later, on June 20, 1987, Cardinal Bernard Law ordained him a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston.

As an ordination gift, his family gave him his great-uncle's chalice.

"When I turned it over, I saw that he was ordained a priest on the same day as me. I took that as a real sign that God was confirming my call to the priesthood," Archbishop Russell said.

His first assignment was to Sacred Heart Parish in West Lynn, the home parish of many of his Massachusetts relations.

"As a young priest there, some parishioners had been my father's childhood classmates," he said.

For five years he worked with Father Ron Garibaldi, the pastor at Sacred Heart and a former professor at the seminary, to revitalize the parish -- starting a food pantry, creating a baptismal preparation program that reached out to fallen away Catholics.

"We did a lot of things in that parish," he said with a smile.

Archbishop Russell was then assigned to St. Eulalia Parish in Winchester. He recalls arriving in the rectory on a Tuesday, unpacking and thinking to himself, 'Hmm, this is great. I'm going to be here for six years probably. I'm so happy.'

Then the phone rang. Cardinal Law was on the other end of the call, asking him to consider becoming one of his priest secretaries.

"I went in front of the Blessed Sacrament and I cried," he said. "I knew my life had changed."

"We promise respect and obedience when we are ordained. I had no reason to say no to Cardinal Law, so I knew I had to say yes," he added.

Three days after arriving at St. Eulalia Parish, he moved to the cardinal's residence to begin his duties as one of Cardinal Law's priest secretaries.

"I knew nothing about this type of work," he laughed. "I didn't know when he was supposed to wear the mitre, or carry the crosier, or any of that. I also didn't really know what to do as Master of Ceremonies. Basically, someone had to teach me everything."

While serving Cardinal Law, Archbishop Russell met Vatican diplomat then-Father James Harvey.

One day not long after, while driving Cardinal Law back from an event, the cardinal asked him, "What would you think about being a member of the diplomatic service of the Holy See?"

"I almost drove off the road," he exclaimed.

After consulting with several friends, the archbishop agreed to enter diplomatic service.

In 1993, he travelled to Rome, where he attended the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the school that trains diplomats of the Holy See. He received a Licentiate in Canon Law, and two years later received a Doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

In 1997, he entered into diplomatic service. His first assignment was working under now Bishop (later Cardinal) Harvey, who was by then assessor of the Secretariat of State.

Six months later, he was transferred to the Apostolic Nunciature to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti in Ethiopia, where he remained for three years. During his time there, in addition to his diplomatic duties, he assisted the local church by celebrating Mass and teaching at the National Seminary in Ethiopia.

"I have a whole generation of young Ethiopian priests who had me as their teacher," he said.

In 2000, he was transferred to the Apostolic Nunciature in Turkey and Turkmenistan.

"I was there at the time of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. The world completely changed at that moment," he said, adding that "we see the fruits of that now."

After two years in Turkey, he was transferred to the Nunciature in Switzerland, where he became pastor of one of three English-speaking parishes in central Switzerland.

"The Church in Switzerland is very different because only half of the parishes have priests. The other half have pastoral associates and celebrate Communion services," he explained. "There can be a lack of appreciation of the celebration of the Mass when Mass is not celebrated anymore."

In 2005, Archbishop Russell returned to Africa, this time to serve in the Nunciature in Nigeria.

"In Nigeria, the Church is booming," he said. "It's a very young missionary Church, very strong and vibrant in the faith. It was very encouraging for me to see this."

On his 49th birthday, in May 2008, he received word that Pope Benedict XVI named him Charge D'Affairs in Taiwan. Because the Vatican does not have full diplomatic ties with Taiwan, there is no Nunciature in that country.

"I was in shock. I had never thought I would be given something like that," he said, adding that although only about 1 percent of Taiwanese are Catholics, "the Church has some very important institutions and social service missions" in Taiwan.

"I was very excited to go to Taiwan. Thinking that now I have the responsibility for a diplomatic mission of the Holy See, I saw I had to offer real witness of the love of Jesus in that society," he said.

For eight years, Archbishop Russell worked tirelessly to "help the relationships between the Holy See, Taiwan and the mainland."

On St. Patrick's Day of this year, the archbishop received word that he was chosen by Pope Francis to be Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey and Turkmenistan.

"Turkey is geographically in a difficult place in the world. The southern border is Syria, the so-called Islamic State, Iraq and Iran -- this is a tough neighborhood," he said.

"And yet, the Church's presence in Turkey is from the beginning of Christianity. Turkey is a land blessed by the presence of the Apostles and of many great saints," he said, noting that he will be sleeping in the same bed used by Pope St. John XXIII, who was once Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey.

Archbishop Russell acknowledged the great challenge ahead, adding that, "Vatican diplomacy isn't the same as any other diplomacy -- it's all about the message of Jesus."

"The Church uses diplomacy as an instrument to share the love of Jesus around the world: to promote the cause of peace, to decrease tension and to promote human rights," he continued. "The refugee situation is dramatic -- there are millions of suffering refugees in Turkey and many of them are brothers and sisters in the faith. But even if they are not, they are brothers and sisters in the eyes of God. This is a situation that is very difficult, and which Pope Francis is very concerned about. Perhaps there is something the Church can do."

In addition to Turkey, Archbishop Russell will be Apostolic Nuncio to Turkmenistan, a predominantly Muslim nation that was once part of the Soviet Union. With a population of roughly 5 million, there are only about 200 Catholics in Turkmenistan.

"I will be there regularly to support that tiny missionary Church," he said.

"All of Vatican diplomacy is about being a witness of the love of God," he mused. "This will be my future task."

"Pope Francis has chosen me for this position, and I am encouraged by his trust and confidence in me," he said. "I don't feel worthy to be a bishop. I am very conscious of my limitations, my weakness and my sinfulness, but I was aware of that at my presbyteral ordination and God was still calling me."

"I still may feel these feelings but God's grace, God's mercy and God's love is so much greater than myself," he said.

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