While the meeting between Pope Francis and Grand Imam of al Azhar is being prepared – the meeting will re-open a dialogue with Sunni Islam – we should ask ourselves what is Pope Francis’ diplomatic model, beyond the slogan of the culture of the encounter? Certainly, Pope Francis’ “pastoral visits” to Lampedusa and Lesbos testified to his particular attention on migration. The Pope’s speech at the conferral of the Charlemagne Prize – although lacking any reference to the Christian roots of Europe (Pope Francis had later explained that he did not want impose this theme on them as a colonialist) pointed Europe toward a path to follow. And the fact that the Pope increasingly mentioned the notion of integral human development instead of the notion of “sustainable development” indicated that major care was taken in drafting the speeches from the “control room” directed by Cardinal Parolin. These are all clues to a rationale. But where does this rationale come from?
In some sense, we might say that it comes from the Villa Nazareth Institute.
What is the Villa Nazareth Institute? It was founded in 1946 for the formation of talented and poor young people by Domenico Tardini, a Roman priest who later became a skilled diplomat.
Pope John XXIII – who appointed Tardini as his Secretary of State – authorized the erection of the “Foundation for Worship and Religion”, Villa Nazareth, which is currently under the supervision of the Vatican Secretariat of State. This makes of Villa Nazareth a special university college, because of the particular link it has with the Secretariat of State, and on account of the diplomatic-ecclesiastical impact made by many of the prelates who have been involved in it.
The current President of Villa Nazareth Institute is Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, now very old, a refined diplomat who carried forward some of the Holy See’s most important negotiations. The Vice-President is Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, who served as a diplomat in South America but who, above all, has been intensively and extensively working on the “China dossier” in the Secretariat of State since the 80s. Meanwhile, the Director of the Institute for a long while was the then Msgr. Pietro Parolin before a career escalation that brought him to serve eventually as Vatican “Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs”, then as nuncio to Venezuela and now as Secretary of State.
These personalities, the work they had done or did, somehow represent Pope Francis’ diplomatic line, which, in the end, is in continuity with the Holy See’s diplomatic tradition, but with some particular focuses: at the beginning, the main concern was human trafficking, now it is immigration.
Pope Francis made his own the Villa Nazareth Institute’s diplomatic approach by choosing Cardinal Pietro Parolin, whose thought is marked by the imprint of that school, as Secretary of State. But this decision by Pope Francis follows logically from his persona. The Pope has the ambitions of big gestures, but gestures require a long and sometimes painful work behind the scenes. Not by chance, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli spoke about the “martyrdom of patience”.
How can we define Pope Francis’ diplomacy? His diplomacy is a diplomacy of prayer, as can be noted when he declared a day of fasting and prayer for Syria in September 2013, or when he launched the Prayer for the Peace in Middle East in the Vatican Gardens in 2014. Pope Francis’ diplomacy is also a diplomacy of the encounter, and through this optic we can interpret the Holy See’s role in mediating in favor or the restoration of US-Cuban relations and the meeting with the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. Pope Francis’ diplomacy is also a pastoral diplomacy: no matter the consequences, he thinks that his action might bear good fruits. His diplomacy is, lastly, a diplomacy of charity and closeness, and this is the key to interpreting the Extraordinary Collection for the Ukraine or the appointment of a special envoy to Iraq in 2014 – it was Cardinal Fernando Filoni.
Behind these gestures, papal diplomacy is called to balance the Pope’s gestures, and steer them in a diplomatic and coherent path, in order to achieve something concrete according to Pope Francis’ will, since – as Cardinal Parolin explained in a recent lecture delivered in Estonia – “the Holy See’s diplomatic activity is in the end the Pope’s diplomatic activity.”
Like Pope Francis’, the Holy See’s diplomacy is not called upon to state principles, but to create spaces for positive achievements. This is what the diplomacy of the Holy See has done for years.
What has the Holy See done behind the curtain? Just take a look at the Helsinki Declaration which established the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) 40 years ago. One of the paragraphs of the Declaration is completely dedicated to religious freedom, thanks to the Holy See’s diplomatic activity, which – pushing on the common Christian roots of the European countries – formulated the proposal for the paragraph.
In an article for the Holy See’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Parolin underscored that “the presence of the Holy See was intended to give the notion of peace a moral foundation, not just a political one. This is the reason why religious freedom had to be placed as the ideal pillar of peace, since other freedoms and human rights arise out of a human conscience open to transcendence on which the true peace is founded.”
One of the supporters of this introduction of the religious freedom paragraph in the declaration was Cardinal Silvestrini, then a monsignor. On one occasion he recalled in an article the emotion “we felt when on March 7, 1973, we presented, among the principles that was to sustain the relations among States, a proposal on religious freedom, recalling that in the history of Europe there was a common culture: the Christian culture. The ambassador of Sweden, who was sitting on my side, exclaimed with surprise: ‘This is a bomb’. Ambassador Boeck from Eastern Germany asked whether the freedom of conscience was proposed for everyone, included atheists.”
That proposal was crucial, as until that moment the discussion dealt with the stabilization of borders – from the Soviet side – and on intra-European cooperation in the economic, scientific, environmental and humanitarian fields – on the Western side.
But – Cardinal Parolin stressed in his article – “no one had thought about religious freedom and its crucial relevance in the life of people of East Europe, whose profound identity was forged by a religious dimension, despite the temporary tint of atheistic communism”, while “the Vatican was crucially aware of the millennial influence of Christianity in forming the respective national identities of each of these peoples.”
Even Pope Francis is very much aware of the importance of religious freedom. He reaffirmed the need for a healthful laity in a recent interview to the French Catholic newspaper, La Croix, and in the same interview he reaffirmed the right to conscientious objection. Pope Francis defended this right with gestures, as he did when in the US he visited the Little Sisters of the Poor who initiated a lawsuit against Obamacare, or even in the meeting with Kim Davis, the public employee who was imprisoned for refusing to register a homosexual marriage.
If working on religious freedom is pivotal, papal diplomacy needs to be pragmatic, as Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, current Vatican Minister for Foreign Affairs, explained during a closed door meeting with the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation May 14.
On one side you have a principle, on the other side praxis. With a Pope who underscores that “realities are more important than ideas”, papal diplomacy is called upon to find a compromise in order to open new paths. Pope Francis in some senses revived in a new shape the “Ostpolitik” that he Holy See put in action with the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
This Ostpolitik seems to live again in the way relations with China are managed. There, crosses are tore down and religious freedom seems to be far from being achieved. However, there are always more steps forward toward the establishment of a minimum diplomatic link. The nunciature to China is in Taiwan, but it is not led by a nuncio but by a chargé d’affairs since Taiwan was ousted from the United Nations in 1971. The People’s Republic of China considers Taiwan a “rebel province,” and for this reason the Holy See’s presence in Taiwan is one of the hurdles in relations with China, though not the only one.
Taiwan’s chargé d’affairs, Msgr. Paul Fitzpatrick Russell, was promoted nuncio to Turkey March 19, and no one has yet been appointed to replace him. As a thaw with China is ongoing, it is thought that there will be no new chargé d’affairs in Taiwan, and that the Holy See might even move its delegation from Taiwan to Beijing, some say by establishing an inter-nunciature, some others say by establishing a “lighter” office as a mission of culture and cooperation.
Certainly, the final goal is that of tearing down all the diplomatic barriers in order to allow Pope Francis to travel to China, the Pope’s biggest dream.
In the meantime, the trip to Armenia need to be prepared. The Pope can go there serenely also thanks to the work behind the scenes that brought relations with Turkey to a thaw. To be clear, the Pope can go whenever he wants, without preoccupations about geopolitical rebounds. However, entertaining good diplomatic relations helps to improve the climate of the visit. Close as he has always been to the Armenian community, Pope Francis mentioned the “genocide of Armenian” in his address at the Mass for the faithful of the Armenian rite on April 12, 2015. The Pope was quoting a joint declaration by St. John Paul II and Catholicos Karekin II, but his words nevertheless led to a break with Turkey, since Turkey never acknowledged there was a genocide – a term that has legal implications. Turkey recalled its ambassador to the Holy See and – without fanfare – the nuncio to Turkey withdrew from his post.
The Church in Turkey had begun a silent renewal. There are new apostolic vicars in Istanbul and Anatolia, while Holy See diplomacy tried to heal the wound. The wound was healed with the occasion of the presentation of a book to Pope Francis, the release of which did not label the massacre of Armenians as a genocide. Mehmet Paci, Turkish Ambassador to the Holy See, came back to Rome, while the new nuncio was appointed just one month after.
As part of its ongoing diplomatic activity, the Holy See carries forward a wide range of relations. There is Vatican diplomacy, which is even called upon to make concessions, but there is also the work of the communities on the ground, not to mention the work of Catholic relief organizations that will be presented at the World Humanitarian Summit next week, where the Pope will send a high rank delegation headed by Cardinal Parolin.
In the field of the dialogue, the Vatican re-opened the dialogue with the University (and annexed Mosque) of al-Azhar in Cairo. The dialogue had been interrupted after Ahmed al Tayed, Grand Imam of al Azhar, labeled as “interference” Benedict XVI’s outcry against the bombings of Coptic churches in Alexandria in 2011. On May 23, Pope Francis will receive in the Vatican the Grand Imam, the first meeting of the sort. The meeting is an outcome of the tremendous work done by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue which went to visit al Azhar – thus re-opening the channels – at the beginning of February.
The work of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is noteworthy. Headed by Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran, an old school and skilled diplomat. Cardinal Tauran was the first to understand that diplomacy could not overtake the need to speak out for truth, and issued a strongly worded declaration to decry the crimes of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in August 2014, in the midst of the silence of the world.
It can be determined that the Holy See carries forward the diplomacy of truth through this Pontifical Council, thus using it as a diplomatic outpost able to speak out strongly on principles. The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity was called to a similar work when asked to draft the Pope Francis – Patriarch Kirill joint declaration, while the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has always promoted important issues, trying to develop them properly (in a nutshell: they prepare what is then cooked by top Vatican diplomats at international meetings).
This way of using the pontifical councils is quite old, and started before Pope Francis’ two immediate predecessors. St. John Paul II invited a different program, made of strong gestures and truth, and asked everyone in Holy See diplomacy to work together to advance this goal. This led to the insertion of the notion of integral human development in a UN Declaration on Development in 1986, but also to the big battles for human rights at the UN Conferences in Cairo and Beijing during the 90s.
For his part, Pope Benedict XVI asked the diplomats to focus on truth, and to pivot all diplomatic activity, especially negotiations, toward it. The truth of the human being thus translated into the right to existence and the right for religious communities, seen as spaces of law and autonomy, to make an impact on society. Pope Francis will visit Georgia this coming September. It is the country that Pope Benedict XVI praised in his last speech to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, in which he also asked for a law that protects religious minorities.
Pope Francis’ work is seemingly more fragmented. He left space for the earlier pontifical diplomacy to be carried, leaving to priests on the ground the task of evangelization. This is a choice, and the roots of this choice are in the work of prelates who – one way or the other – were involved in the Villa Nazareth Institute.