Joe Donnelly meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican on...

Joe Donnelly meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican on April 11, 2022, to present his letter of credentials as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Credit: CNS / Vatican Media

Long Island native Joseph Donnelly is about as Catholic as they come: He went to Catholic grammar school, attended a high school minor seminary in Uniondale for potential priests, and went to the University of Notre Dame for both college and law school.

So when President Joe Biden needed to appoint a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, the former Democratic congressman and senator who represented Indiana seemed like a natural. It has been the assignment of a lifetime for the one-time altar boy from Massapequa, who finishes his two-year stint next month.

“It’s been an amazing privilege,” Donnelly said in a telephone interview from Rome. “I feel very lucky.”

He recalled that when he and his wife, Jill, first arrived in Rome — he had never been in Italy before — and they walked into St. Peter’s Basilica, it felt unreal that he was now the United States’ official link to the Vatican and Pope Francis.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island native Joseph Donnelly finishes his two-year stint next month as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.
  • Donnelly, who grew up in Massapequa, is a former Democratic congressman and senator who represented Indiana.
  • As much as Catholicism is part of his core, Donnelly’s job in Rome has nothing to do with religion. He was appointed by President Joe Biden.

“I had never seen St. Peter's. The biggest cathedral I had ever seen was St. Patrick's in New York City,” Donnelly said. “We walked in and it was like a ‘What are we doing here?’ kind of feeling.”

He has met with Pope Francis multiple times, and found the pontiff open, warm and funny.

“He’s an extraordinary leader for the Vatican and for the world. I have a deep affection for Pope Francis,” Donnelly said. “He is focused on the well-being and human dignity of every person. He’s very down to earth. He looks for the good in everybody. He laughs. He has a wonderful sense of humor.”

Donnelly, 68, is ending his run in Rome after two years largely because he wants to get back home to be with his family, including his children and grandchildren, he said.

He grew up in Massapequa and attended St. Martin of Tours Catholic grammar school in neighboring Amityville. He and his brother were altar servers at the parish church.

Donnelly recalled how in those days in the 1960s many of the prayers were said in Latin — something he never quite mastered. So he and his brother came up with a strategy — they would just mumble, hoping the priest wouldn’t know the difference.

“It didn’t sound like English, so I guess they thought it was Latin,” he said, laughing.

But he was deeply devoted to the church, and the St. Martin’s community played a crucial role when tragedy struck: Donnelly’s mother died of cancer when he was 10. His father was left to raise five children.

“It was the St. Martin’s community, the Massapequa/Amityville community that kind of surrounded our family with love,” he said. “That really helped us to get through all that.”

Considered becoming a priest

After he graduated from grammar school, he went on to St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary, which was a high school for boys interested in the priesthood. He seriously considered becoming a priest.

“It didn’t end up that way, but it was a wonderful school to be at with wonderful friends and great role models,” he said.

He was also serious about baseball. He played first base for the school team. One teammate was William Koenig, who went on to become a priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre and is now bishop of the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.

Koenig said that a half-century later he still recalls Donnelly’s contributions.

“Joe’s outgoing, encouraging personality combined with his defensive prowess at first base and dependable bat were things that I, as a shortstop being used that year as a pitcher, were very grateful for,” Koenig said. “While I have no idea today of how many baseball games 51 years ago we won and lost, it was how Joe treated others and helped pull us together as a team that are my greatest memories of Joe.”

After graduation, Donnelly got into a dream school for a devout Catholic — Notre Dame. He loved it so much he stayed for law school, graduating in 1981. He also met his wife at Notre Dame.

They stayed in the South Bend, Indiana, area, and Donnelly was elected to Congress in 2006 and then the U.S. Senate in 2012. He was a pro-life Democrat, not always an easy position to take in a party that generally favors abortion rights.

While serving in Congress, he said, he got to know Biden, who was then vice president and a noted Catholic. The two worked together after the 2008 financial crisis to help save a Chrysler automotive transmission manufacturers in his district.

“Vice President Biden was my partner, my friend in trying to help save Chrysler,” Donnelly said.

Years later, in October 2021, Biden announced he was sending Donnelly to Rome.

At the time, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, called Donnelly an "ideal choice," partly because of his "genuine Catholic faith and an understanding of the role the Church can play in our world."

Job not related to religion

Donnelly arrived in Rome in April 2022, and formally presented his credentials to Pope Francis, whom he quickly found to have a good sense of humor.

Many ambassadors and others bow down before the pope when they meet him, or kiss his hand or ring. But Americans don’t, Donnelly said. They just shake hands.

So, whenever Donnelly comes to see the pope, Francis sticks out his hand and laughs as he greets him with a hearty “Hello!”

As much as Catholicism is part of Donnelly’s core, his job in Rome has nothing to do with religion. He is there representing the United States in its foreign policy relations with the Vatican, the world’s smallest nation-state. He deals with issues such as climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war.

“I don’t want to and I’m not permitted to be involved in church issues,” Donnelly said. “Like Rockville Centre diocese issues, I have no role in. My job is United States foreign policy with the government of the Vatican.”

Donnelly and his office work almost daily with the Vatican’s secretary of state, he said. “The Vatican is in so many ways the leading voice in different parts of the world, and that’s why it’s important for the United States to be engaged.”

Amid his high-level diplomacy in Rome, Donnelly has managed to maintain ties to Long Island. He has received numerous visitors, including Msgr. Frank Caldwell, pastor of Curé of Ars parish in Merrick. In October 2022, Donnelly was honored at a reunion of Pius X graduates held at Caldwell’s parish.

Bishop Koenig was honored, too.

“I am happy to say that Ambassador Joe Donnelly is the same Joe Donnelly I was fortunate enough, 51 years ago, to call my teammate,” Koenig said.

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