Archbishop Mario Conti was one of Scotland’s best-known churchmen, a pioneer of ecumenism and the de facto father of the Italian community in Scotland.
He died peacefully at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow on 8 November after a short illness. He was 88 years old and had been a priest for 64 years and a bishop for 45 years.
Born in Elgin, Moray, in 1934, he told anyone who asked that he had wanted to be a priest for as long as he could remember. It is even said that he told his primary school teacher his ambition was to be Pope! He trained at St Mary's College, Blairs, Aberdeenshire, before studying at the Scots College and Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome where he obtained degrees in philosophy and theology. He was ordained priest in Rome on 26 October 1958.
After a series of roles, including his only Parish Priest appointment to Wick and Thurso – Scotland’s most northerly mainland Catholic parishes – he was named bishop of Aberdeen in February 1977 and ordained bishop by Cardinal Gordon Gray, of St Andrews and Edinburgh, at Aberdeen, on 3 May 1977 at the extraordinarily young age of 43.
He was one of the last surviving bishops in the world to have been appointed by Pope (now Saint) Paul VI. He often spoke fondly of Pope Paul and his great wisdom and courage in steering the Church through the difficult years of the 1960s and ’70s and overseeing the implementation of the Second Vatican Council.
After 25 years in Aberdeen as Bishop he was named as successor to Cardinal Tom Winning as Archbishop of Glasgow in 2002, serving for ten years as head of Scotland’s largest Catholic diocese, during which time he developed deep ties with the city and its people, oversaw the renovation of St Andrew’s Cathedral and the construction of the adjacent Italian Cloister Garden to remember the victims of the wartime Arandora Star tragedy.
The Cathedral renovation is his most obvious legacy. He took a very personal interest in the redesign, famously sketching out the plan for the altar on an envelope before handing it to the marble mason to make happen. He was often found, swapping his mitre for a hard hat, amid the scaffolding, directing the artists to bring the 1816 building to life. On the opening night of the Italian Cloister Garden he welcomed the last survivor of the Arandora Star tragedy, Scotland’s First Minister, the UK Ambassador to the Holy See and the chorus of Milan’s La Scala opera house to his Cathedral for an unforgettable event.
Perhaps his proudest moment came when he welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to Britain at the first public Mass of the German Pope’s state visit in 2010 at Bellahouston Park.
Ever a “Pope’s man” he had great admiration for Pope Benedict’s erudition and gentleness but was also a strong supporter of Pope Francis and his open approach. Indeed, throughout his episcopate, Mario Conti argued for a more open approach to the issue of contraception, greater lay involvement in church structures and more involvement of the Church in wider society.
A man of culture, he was involved in a wide range of activities. He held three honourary doctorates and was the only Catholic bishop to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He would regularly attend events and participated with a doughty yet polite defence of the Catholic worldview.
He was regarded as the Scottish Catholic Church’s lead expert on ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. Touching were the scenes in St Andrew’s Cathedral as members of the Muslim community gathered round his coffin, some in tears, the evening before his funeral. For members of the Church of Scotland and Scotland’s other reformed faiths, Mario Conti was a gentleman – a Catholic they could do business with, in the sure and certain knowledge that he would be both open to dialogue but gently firm in advancing the Catholic position on any given matter.
His knowledge of history, art and architecture was widely acclaimed, and he took a particular interest in the plight of the people of the Holy Land. His talents were noted in Rome, too, which led to him leading the Vatican delegation to the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1998.
During the pontificate of St John Paul II he also served as a member of two departments of the Roman Curia – the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Pontifical Council for the Cultural Patrimony of the Church.
He was much loved by the Italian community in Scotland and became a reference point for them. Shortly after being named Archbishop he was granted the title Grande Ufficiale della Repubblica Italiana by the President of the country for his distinguished service. At the time of his death he had been preparing to welcome a delegation from the Tuscan town of Barga (from which his forebears came) who were due to present him this month with a special honour from the nearby city of Lucca.
His episcopal motto was “Sincero corde servire” – to serve with a sincere heart – and those who knew him well can testify that he lived up to that motto to a heroic degree.
He lived quietly after his retirement as Archbishop, assisting his successors when asked to do so. He lived to see his successor’s successor when Archbishop Philip Tartaglia (whom he had ordained bishop) died and was succeeded by the current Archbishop, William Nolan.
Archbishop Nolan said: “The death of Archbishop Mario will be felt not just in the Archdiocese of Glasgow, but across Scotland and beyond. He was a much-loved figure, a man of great energy and pastoral zeal, who loved the Church and loved the people in his care.
“When I was appointed Archbishop earlier this year I found him both gracious and welcoming and full of ideas and suggestions for the future”.
Pope Francis’ tribute summed him up rather well. In a telegram of condolence the Argentinian Pontiff wrote: “Archbishop Conti was highly esteemed in Scotland and beyond for his qualities as a good shepherd, his kind temperament, knowledge of culture and the arts and above all his fervent faith.”
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