|For two weeks, I was
the lone journalist to show up every day at 6:00 am in St. Peter’s Square
to witness Maria Sung’s morning vigil. Others came and went, but my Midwestern
genes seem to afford me a capacity unique in the Vatican press corps to
start work at the crack of dawn.
I thus had privileged access to Sung on a daily
basis. Moreover, I put questions to her in five press conferences, interviewed
her alone in her hotel room, and observed her on several other public occasions.
Based on that experience, I can offer the following
contribution to the public record: No one controlled Maria Sung.
Sung, of course, was one of the principal actors
in the most riveting soap opera of this Roman summer. A 43-year-old Korean
acupuncturist and a devoted follower of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, she was personally
selected by Moon to wed 71-year-old Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo.
The marriage, along with Milingo’s alliance with Moon’s Family Federation
for World Peace and Unification, shocked the Catholic world.
Milingo, after a surprise heart-to-heart with
the pope, said August 11 he wanted to back out of the marriage and cut
ties with Moon. Sung, convinced Milingo was bullied by the Vatican, went
on a hunger strike until she was allowed to meet him. The encounter finally
happened August 29, and Milingo repeated what he told her in an earlier
letter: that he loved her as a “dear sister” but that he was going to return
to the Catholic church.
In the bitter public relations war surrounding
the affair, Sung’s freedom of action became an acute point of debate. (So
did Milingo’s, but that’s another subject). Vatican officials believe,
and have said so repeatedly off the record, that Moon’s people pressured
Sung into her hunger strike and prevented her from listening to reason.
Words such as “brainwashing” and “mind control” were tossed about.
Vatican-friendly Italian papers expanded on the
theme, accusing Moon of goading Sung into a kamikaze-style suicide to inflict
damage on the Catholic church in Africa and elsewhere.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C.
involved himself in the debate Aug. 22, saying that Sung’s actions were
likely the result of “psychological pressure and unrealistic reasoning.”
Milingo himself, in his first public appearance
on Aug. 24 after 16 days of seclusion, accused Rev. Phillip Schanker, an
officer of the Family Federation and Sung’s key advisor, of blocking attempts
to contact her.
One can understand the suspicions. Moon is an
ambiguous figure, and some former members of his Unification Church have
publicly charged they were manipulated by what they describe as a “cult.”
(It should be noted that independent examinations
of such complaints draw mixed conclusions. Tim Miller of the University
of Kansas, one of the country’s foremost experts on new religious movements,
said the pressure the Unification Church exerts on members is probably
not much different from that generated by more “mainstream” churches.)
Whatever one’s preconceptions, I became convinced
that Sung was not carrying water for Moon in this case. She truly believed
that in the three months they lived together, she and Milingo had established
a lasting love. She believed the Emmanuel Milingo who later said he regards
her as “a sister” had been drugged, coerced. She believed that if they
could only meet, she would break through to the real man, and their rekindled
love would “be like a river that cannot be stopped.”
These convictions may appear either admirable
or ridiculous, depending on one’s point of view. But they were indisputably
Do I believe the Family Federation benefited from
Sung’s suffering? Yes. They stood toe-to-toe with the Vatican, despite
the fact that the Catholic church numbers one billion adherents worldwide
while Miller says most scholars would be surprised if Moon has more than
200,000. No amount of Moon money could buy this kind of elevated public
Do I believe some of the people around Sung enjoyed
their 15 minutes of fame, relishing the hordes of journalists who waited
hours in hotel lobbies for a glimpse of them, who hung on their every utterance?
Again, yes. To suggest otherwise would reflect
a poor grasp of human nature.
Yet I saw Sung, in public and in private, reject
suggestions from her advisors. I watched her retinue cringe as she said
things that clearly veered off-script. They never, however, impeded anyone’s
access to her, and they always honored her wishes.
In response to a suggestion from my wife, I asked
Sung this question one morning: Would she drop her hunger strike if Moon
specifically ordered her to do so? She waved her finger at me and barked
a firm “no,” and I believed her.
Whoever profited from it, whatever larger social
or political significance it carried, Sung wrote her own script.
If the Vatican, if anyone, doesn’t like it, their
beef is not with Sun Myung Moon. It’s with Maria Sung.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111