In his telegram Tuesday the Pope said he was "deeply saddened by the tragic news of the violent death of Archbishop Michael A. Courtney, apostolic nuncio in Burundi."
Upon hearing the news of the death Monday, "the Holy Father recollected himself in prayer, entrusting to Christ, the Good Shepherd, the soul of this faithful and generous servant of the Church and the Holy See, who died while carrying out his difficult mission," read the telegram sent to Archbishop Simon Ntamwana, president of the episcopal conference of Burundi.
The Pope also transmitted his condolences to the relatives of the slain archbishop.
The murder of an apostolic nuncio is unprecedented in modern history. Even during the two World Wars, no papal ambassador was killed.
"I ask the Lord of life to accept him into his kingdom of light and peace," the Holy Father said in his telegram, "he who manifested the daily concern of the Successor of Peter for more than three years to all the citizens of Burundi."
The Pope encouraged "everyone to commit themselves to follow Christ, rejecting violence, which is a path without a future, and to build up lasting peace, based on justice, respect for others, and security for all."
A statement issued late Monday by the Vatican Secretariat of State said the assassination took place in Minago, a town 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital, Bujumbura, where the prelate had gone in order to carry out pastoral obligations.
"The automobile in which the pontifical representative was traveling this afternoon, with a priest wounded in the attack, a driver and another person, was shot at with firearms from a nearby hill," the statement explained.
"Archbishop Courtney, who was taken with great difficulty to the closest hospital in Bujumbura, did not regain consciousness due to serious wounds which caused an uncontrollable hemorrhage. Despite the doctor's efforts, the prelate died during emergency surgery," it added.
"With the death of Archbishop Courtney, the list of missionaries who have given their life for the Gospel during 2003 grows longer. And now, for the first time, the name of the pontifical representative is added to that list of generous faithful. May the Lord grant them eternal rest!" said the text.
Michael Courtney was born in Nenagh, County Tipperary, in 1945. He was ordained a priest at age 23. He entered the Holy See's diplomatic service in 1980, serving in South Africa, Senegal, India, Yugoslavia, Cuba and Egypt.
In 1995 he was appointed special envoy with functions of permanent observer of the Holy See to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. John Paul II named him apostolic nuncio in Burundi in 2000 and making him an archbishop.
Archbishop Courtney was due to leave Burundi soon, as the Pope named him apostolic nuncio in Cuba. An opportune moment was being awaited to announce this new mission, the assistant director of the Vatican press office, Father Ciro Benedettini, said on Vatican Radio.
Father Claudio Marano, religious of the Missionary Brothers of St. Francis Xavier, told Vatican Radio that Archbishop Courtney "was a nuncio who never remained silent."
"His desire was to sit around the table with everyone to attain peace," Father Marano said. "He did so also this Christmas, in the Mass celebrated in the cathedral. He constantly repeated: 'Let's all sit around a table, including the group that will not sign the cease-fire.'"
Burundi's first democratically elected president was assassinated in October 1993, after only four months in office. Since then, some 200,000 Burundians have perished in ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi factions. The army blamed the nuncio's killing on the rebel National Liberation Forces. But FNL guerrillas rebels denied they killed the papal envoy, Agence France-Presse reported.
The Holy See's diplomatic service, the oldest in the world, goes back to the time of papal legates sent by Popes to represent them at important councils. A legate was present at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325.
According to the Vienna Diplomatic Convention of April 18, 1961, the Holy See's ambassadors, known as apostolic nuncios, are considered the deans of the diplomatic corps of the country where they are assigned.