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In Presence of Saints, In Service to Mankind

Kenneth Hacket

Kenneth Hacket (photo courtesy of Boston College Magazine)

April 2017 | by Craig DeVrieze


Throughout a career in humanitarian service spanning nearly four decades, Kenneth Hackett led or assisted relief efforts during devastating droughts, deadly earthquakes, the most lethal and destructive tsunami in modern history, and the awful aftermath of the Rwandan genocide that claimed 800,000 lives and created another 2 million refugees.

While serving in the positions of executive director and president of Catholic Relief Services – and as the United States Ambassador to the Holy See from 2013 until January 2017 – Hackett also stood face-to-face with popes, presidents, and saints.

Yet, it is not his own impressive history that Hackett will draw upon when he addresses the St. Ambrose University graduating Class of 2017 at spring commencement ceremonies May 13 at the i Wireless Center in Moline, Ill.

Instead, Hackett plans to speak about a future influenced by a humble and influential man he studied closely for the past four years.

"I'm going to talk about takeaways for graduates from Pope Francis," Hackett said. "There is an awful lot there. It is relevant, and, whether they are Catholic or even Christian, it will affect their lives."

A 1968 graduate of Boston College, Hackett will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the ceremonies that begin at 1 p.m. A total of 662 degrees – 468 bachelor's and 194 master's – are scheduled to be conferred.

Former President Barack Obama appointed Hackett to the position of Ambassador to the Holy See in 2013, mere months after the Argentinian-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis, Hackett, ObamaHackett saw the Pope on numerous occassions, notably visits to Vatican City by President Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry, and during the pontiff's historic visit to the United States in September 2015, a visit Hackett played a role in planning.

"As an ambassador, you don't work closely with the Pope," Hackett said. "My interactions were on a liturgical basis, and that's what ambassadors do — they study heads of state. My studies told me this is a very powerful personality who is going to change things and, in my opinion, he is going to change things generally for the positive.

"I was impressed with what he wrote, what he said, and what he demonstrated through his actions: his visit to Lampedusa; his acceptance of Syrian refugees to stay in churches in Rome; his call for a deeper appreciation of the environment we live in and a deeper respect for it; his message of mercy when people are stressed and suffering. Those are just a few of the things that have had a powerful impact on me."

Because the Holy See is the universal government of the Catholic Church, Hackett's mission had more global reach and, perhaps, more impact than virtually any other U.S. embassy around the world.

"If you are the Ambassador to the Republic of Italy, you deal with U.S.-Italy issues. You deal with trade and policy," he noted. "But if you are ambassador to the Holy See, it is very much a global perspective. So in any one week, my agenda would move from Venezuela to Cuba to China to Pakistan, from climate change to human trafficking to nuclear non-proliferation. It was a pretty broad agenda."

Hackett, of course, brought a background well-suited to the task.

He joined Catholic Relief Services (CRS) following a post-collegiate stint with the Peace Corps promoting agriculture in Ghana. His subsequent work with CRS took Hackett to Sierra Leone, where he managed a nationwide leprosy program as well as a national health program for mothers and children. In 1984-85, he managed the agency's response to famine in Ethiopia. In the 1990s, he supervised CRS relief operations in war-torn and famine-ravaged Somalia.

Hackett is surely changed by the sweep of his career. He was, after all, a witness to the horrors of Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan, and saw the human cost of massive environmental disasters such as the December 2006 Indian Ocean tsunami. He also, however, sat face-to-face with future saints Teresa and John Paul II, in addition to Pope Francis and countless world leaders.

And, of course, he did decades of work that eased the suffering likely of millions.

Still, how he's changed, Hackett can't say.

"Somewhere in my career I formed a basic philosophy of ‘say a prayer and jump,''' he said. "You're not in control of everything. You do what you can do. Our response to emergencies was to insert yourself with passion, but don't let your passions overrule your brains and intellect. Be smart, be wise, but be committed."

Hackett's challenges in semi-retirement are considerably more mundane. "Yesterday, I bought a lawn mower, a leaf blower, and an extension ladder, so I'm becoming a suburbanite," he shared. "My tennis game is improving. I haven't played enough golf, but I don't think I'm going to take up fishing."

In quiet moments, with or without a fishing line in the water, Hackett can reflect on a life of true and committed service.

"My second job as Ambassador to the Holy See was a truly remarkable experience," he conceded. "When the Pope came to the United States, I knew the background of all of it and like to think I contributed a little bit. That was wonderful.

"My time with CRS was truly enjoyable and uplifting. It was hard. Running a 5,000-person organization in 1,200 countries where there are attacks and kidnappings and people criticizing you, that was hard. But I always felt that we had such good people who contributed so much to better the lives of a just a few people maybe. And that was rewarding."

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