Gabriel Montalvo; Archbishop, Vatican Envoy to U.S.

Gabriel Montalvo, center, attends the ceremony installing George Thomas, right, as bishop of Helena, Mont., in 2004.
Gabriel Montalvo, center, attends the ceremony installing George Thomas, right, as bishop of Helena, Mont., in 2004. (By Jon Ebelt -- Associated Press)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

Gabriel Montalvo, 76, a Colombian archbishop and longtime Vatican envoy to trouble spots who retired in 2005 as ambassador to the United States, died Aug. 2 at a hospice in Rome. He had lung cancer.

Archbishop Montalvo entered the Holy See's diplomatic service in 1957 and spent a decade at the Vatican's Secretariat of State, specializing in church relations with communist governments in Eastern Europe. He launched a series of ambassadorial duties to tumultuous areas -- Nicaragua, Libya, Serbia -- in which his hallmarks were total discretion and stoic resolve.

Gabriel Montalvo Higuera was born Jan. 27, 1930, in Bogota, Colombia. His father, a ranking government official and onetime Colombian ambassador to the Holy See, was a strong influence.

Archbishop Montalvo was ordained a priest in 1953 and spent several years at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome before serving at papal embassies in Bolivia, Argentina and El Salvador. From 1964 to 1974, he worked on Eastern-bloc relations at the Vatican's Secretariat of State.

He was then ordained a bishop by Pope Paul VI and was named apostolic nuncio, or diplomatic representative, in Honduras and Nicaragua. At the same time, he was appointed titular archbishop of Celene.

In December 1974, he peripherally figured in the Sandinista National Liberation Front's struggle against the dictatorial regime of President Anastasio Somoza.

Gunmen affiliated with the leftist Sandinistas shot their way into a Christmas party in Managua in honor of U.S. Ambassador Turner B. Shelton. Shelton had left, but the gunmen killed four people and took hostage more than a dozen government officials, including Nicaragua's foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States.

The Sandinistas demanded the release of political prisoners, a $1 million ransom and safe passage to Cuba. Somoza agreed to the terms, and Archbishop Montalvo was among the dignitaries to board the flight to Havana to guarantee the arrival of the Sandinistas.

For much of the early 1980s, Archbishop Montalvo served as nuncio to Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, politically unstable countries with small Catholic communities. But he proved immensely valuable to the church when he was called away in 1982 to help resolve the bitter Argentina-Chile dispute over three islands in the Beagle Channel.

Before the Vatican intervened in May 1979, the two countries had been hours from declaring war over oil exploration rights in the channel at the southernmost tip of South America.

Archbishop Montalvo worked closely with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli to work out treaty details with Argentine and Chilean foreign ministry officials. In 1984, the countries agreed to a proposal by Pope John Paul II to award Chile control of the islands in return for maritime concessions to Argentina.

In 1986, Archbishop Montalvo became top Vatican envoy to Yugoslavia, a few years before it descended into ethnic warfare. He was reportedly considered in 1989 for an ambassadorial posting in Warsaw after the Vatican restored full diplomatic relations with the formerly Communist-run Poland.

In 1993, he was appointed president of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the training corps for Vatican diplomats. He held the assignment for five years, before Pope John Paul II named him apostolic nuncio to the United States.

In his final, plum ambassadorial job, Archbishop Montalvo ordained bishops and acted as the pope's eyes and ears on matters of church importance, including the clerical sex-abuse scandal.

Monsignor Peter Magee, a lecturer in papal diplomacy at Georgetown University's foreign service school and a former counselor to the apostolic nuncio in Washington, said of Archbishop Montalvo: "He kept a firm but very stabilizing influence on the bishops, especially during the pedophile crisis. . . . The most important role of the nuncio is to maintain and strengthen the bonds of unity between bishops in a given country and the pope. He faithfully sought to do that."

Archbishop Montalvo retired at the mandatory age of 75. Despite the length of his American posting, he was a little-known public figure in the United States, mostly because he shunned media attention.

That Archbishop Montalvo was not promoted to cardinal was not a reflection of his abilities, Magee said. Rather, he said, there are several Colombian cardinals who could elect the pope, "too many, proportionally speaking."

Archbishop Montalvo spoke many languages, including French, Italian and German. He is survived by several siblings, including a brother who is a priest in Colombia.

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