Q&A: Hackett points to CRS staff, time in Baltimore

August 02, 2013

By Paul McMullen


Ken Hackett is not joking when he says it is easier for him to list the nations he has not visited rather than ones in which his passport has been stamped.

The man who led Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services for 18 years will next apply his well-traveled expertise to American relations with the Vatican, as the White House announced June 14 that President Barack Obama has nominated Hackett to be the United States ambassador to the Holy See. On August 1 the Senate confirmed the nomination. 

The post has been vacant since November 2012, when Miguel Diaz resigned and left Rome to become a professor at the University of Dayton. 

“I know so many of the bishops and nuns and priests and deacons and Catholic workers in so many countries around the world,” Hackett told the Catholic Review June 17, in his first interview since the news of his nomination broke. “I hope that is helpful in providing insight to the administration in what is going on in the world.”

Hackett went to work for CRS in 1972, and was its president from 1993 to 2011. The agency moved its headquarters in 1989 to Baltimore, where Hackett and his wife, Joan, raised their children.

Their daughter, Jenny, was born in the Philippines, and their son, Michael, in Kenya. The two went to St. Louis School in Clarksville and then graduated from Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville and Loyola Blakefield in Towson, respectively. Jenny works in development for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Michael is an undergrad at Virginia Commonwealth University in Blacksburg, Va.

The Hacketts are former parishioners of St. Louis, Clarksville, and Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Homeland. He spoke with the Catholic Review from Amelia Island, Fla., where he and his wife recently moved.

Q. How did you learn of the appointment?

A. I got a call from the White House back in February, “The president would like to nominate you as an ambassador to the Holy See. Would you be willing?” I said, that is so exciting, I would be more than willing.

Q. Do you have an idea on a timeline for getting to Rome?

A. The White House hopes there will be a confirmation hearing before Congress goes on summer recess (around) Aug. 2. If the confirmation hearing is successful, then well, I would expect we would be moving in late August.

It would be almost a year since the position has been unfilled. He (Diaz) did what is required of ambassadors. At the end of a presidential term, as I understand it, all ambassadors are supposed to resign.

Q. You used to advocate for the U.S. bishops (CRS is the international relief agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). Now you will be advocating for the U.S. people. How is that different?

A. I thought about that a lot. There will be times where the position of the (Obama) administration differs, obviously, from the Holy See, but I am going to look for, as many of my predecessors did, those opportunities where we can come together and find strength in collaboration, coincidence of interests. There are some powerful connections, that together, will really make a difference

In watching Pope Francis, his focus on changing the way the world looks at issues of poverty and injustice and so many social issues, I think we as Americans are right there. There is common cause. That makes me excited.

Q. You were Jesuit educated (at a high school in Boston and then Boston College). Does the presence of a Jesuit pope add to the significance of the appointment?

A. I feel very comfortable in the company of Jesuits; I spent eight years of my life being taught by Jesuits. I have had them on (CRS) Board of Directors. I find appeal in the way that they look at some of the big, gutsy issues. They take them head on, they don’t shy away from things. They’re strong in their faith, which makes them strong in their ability to address really fundamental questions.

Q. Pope Francis has called for more transparency and openness in the church. How does that complement the standards you applied and built at CRS?

A. At CRS, I felt we were an organization of the Catholic Church in the States. We represented all flavors. It wasn’t one group that had one agenda, or another group that had one agenda. We were about finding those points which were basic to our faith: concern and compassion for the poor, or to put it in more theological terms, the preferential option for the poor. Those elements, of the dignity and sacredness of the individual, those kinds of things, they were critical to us.

Now that Francis is highlighting some of those things, it’s going to be great opportunity for cooperation.

Q. How does your global experience affect and inspire your role?

A. I spent most of the morning acknowledging wonderful messages of congratulations, and they came from around the world. I know so many of the bishops and nuns and priests and deacons and Catholic Workers in so many countries around the world, I hope that is helpful in providing insight to the administration in what is going on in the world.

I served on the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Nobody on the board had the insights I could bring, from say, that priest up in the mountains in Lesotho. That was a special perspective. I hope I can continue to do that.

Q. You spent a good chunk of your adult life in Baltimore, raised your family here. Does this town have any significance for you and your family?

A. Where you went to high school in Baltimore is really important. That’s our pie, so to speak. I went to all the games, de Sales and Loyola Blakefield, Father-Daughter Dance, all those things that are necessary, growing up in Baltimore as opposed to growing up in Hawaii or someplace else. We have a very long and close attachment to our 19 years in Baltimore.

Q. What are you most looking forward to as you take on this task?

A. I would say the reconnection with so many friends from around the world, where sandals were made out of rubber tires, with people who don’t wear Gucci shoes and carry briefcases. These are holy people who are trying their best. I missed that in the last year I’ve been retired (from CRS). You don’t see those kind of people anymore, that bishop from Congo who has so many stories to tell at supper, of so much hardship. I want to reestablish those relationships and use them to, basically, improve U.S. policies.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A. What I think is important, is not to pat myself on the back. The thousands of people who work with Catholic Relief Services and with whom I was associated, those are the people who elevated my stock. I certainly didn’t do this through political contributions. That’s where my appreciation lies.

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