A person’s faith can sustain them through times of trouble, from uncertainties in the future to humanitarian crises, according to former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett.
“Faith is easy. Religion is tough,” Hackett, BC ’68, said. “So during all of these [crises], there was an element of religious tension. That was really difficult to deal with in Bosnia, in Ethiopia … so I would say it was my faith that sustained me.”
BC’s Church in the 21st Century (C21) Center welcomed Hackett—who is the former president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services (CRS)—on Thursday night to reflect on his faith, time in the U.S. Foreign Service, and his new book The Vatican Code: American Diplomacy in the Time of Francis.
When asked why he decided to join the Peace Corps after graduation, Hackett detailed an exchange with a longtime friend and fellow BC alumnus.
“Carmen and I were part of the same fraternity, and we both played lacrosse together,” Hackett said. “We’re good friends, and we’re walking one day in probably April of ’68 from Fulton to McElroy to have lunch and there’s a table set up in the foyer of McElroy saying ‘Sign up for the Peace Corps.’ That was the moment that he said, ‘You want to sign up?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’”
The Peace Corps sent Hackett to Ghana, where he said he worked for three and a half years.
“It was an exposure to people who were wonderful, but different,” Hackett said. “That opened my eyes in a way to just how different and how much the same they are.”
Hackett described his time in Ghana as a “transformative experience” that allowed him to immerse himself in different cultures and better understand and appreciate the lives of people living outside the United States.
After he came back from Ghana, Hackett said he worked at the Boston Whaler boat company sanding boats before he started at CRS, where he stayed for nearly 40 years.
During his time at CRS, Hackett witnessed global tragedies, including the Ethiopian famine from 1983 to 1985 and the Rwandan genocide. Hackett explained that it was his faith that kept him going through those tragedies.
“I would say it was my faith that sustained me,” he said. “I remember discussions with my staff about ‘Where’s God?’ Look, we just came back from seeing 5,000 bodies. Where’s God?”
Hackett also discussed the lessons he learned while working in Vatican City. One of these lessons, he said, is the best way to make progress at work is by getting to know your coworkers through conversation.
“Remember, it’s not transactional,” Hackett said. “It’s all relational. You have nothing to sell to them, and they are not going to buy.”
For Peter Watkins, MCAS ’25, Hackett’s message about faith as part of his work in the Vatican was particularly interesting.
“I think especially the matters of his faith [that] he brought up are important to me,” Watkins said. “And especially the way that faith is … incarnated in the work of the Vatican embassy. There are many good things he said about the way diplomacy works internationally that I was quite impressed by.”
Karen Kiefer, director of the C21 Center, reflected on the value of having individuals like Hackett speak on campus about their Catholicism.
“Back when the sexual abuse crisis broke in 2002 in Boston, Father Leahy came forward and said, ‘I want to take all the major riches of this Jesuit Catholic university and put them at the feet of the church and start to renew,’” Kiefer said. “And we do that through conversation … we think, we listen, and we act.”
Hackett concluded his talk with a question-and-answer session, urging students to not worry about the future.
“I have kind of a Nike philosophy: Say a prayer and jump,” Hackett said. “I mean, you don’t control [the future] and to think you do is presumptuous. … I say if you’re in your 20s, enjoy it. Do crazy things.”