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 CNS Story:

DIAZ-INTERVIEW Oct-7-2009 (930 words) With photos. xxxi

Ambassador optimistic about US-Vatican cooperation in Obama era


Miguel Diaz during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing last summer. (CNS/Bob Roller)


By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- The new U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Miguel Diaz, said he is convinced there is wide potential for cooperation between the Vatican and the administration of President Barack Obama, particularly in areas of intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

To kick things off, the U.S. embassy to the Holy See and Caritas Internationalis are co-sponsoring an international conference in Rome on pediatric HIV/AIDS in mid-October. Diaz said he has already begun exploring additional collaborative possibilities with other Vatican agencies.

"As ambassador, I know there are areas where the Holy See and the United States are not in complete agreement. But I seek to be a bridge-builder, and to underscore that we can work together in multiple areas," Diaz said in an interview with Catholic News Service Oct. 7.

Diaz spoke in his office at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See across from the imperial ruins of the Palatine Hill in central Rome, five days after presenting his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI. The ambassador said he was heartened when the pope, in a welcoming speech, expressed his confidence that U.S.-Vatican relations would continue to be marked by cooperation in promoting human rights and human dignity.

"I would underscore that three hundredfold," Diaz said.

Diaz said he was able to begin mapping out some potential areas of common interest with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, during a meeting after his papal audience.

"I stressed the desire of this administration to build upon and deepen the relations we have with the Holy See," he said. Later, he met with the heads of Vatican councils that coordinate interreligious dialogue and relations with Jews, and with the Rome-based Sant'Egidio Community, which supports peace and development projects around the world.

The Oct. 14-16 conference on pediatric HIV/AIDS will feature key Vatican participants as well as medical experts and church workers in the field.

"I think this is precisely an example that shows that, while there may not be total agreement on all points regarding a specific issue, there are possibilities for people of good will to come together for the sake of, in this case, children," Diaz said.

The embassy has collaborated with church organizations before, particularly in efforts to identify and reduce human trafficking, and Diaz said he intends to continue those projects. He said the partnership of U.S. financial resources and the church's workforce on the ground is often a good one, and can make a real impact.

Diaz said environmental stewardship was another issue on which the Obama administration and the Vatican could find common ground and, perhaps, joint initiatives.

In his speech to the new ambassador, Pope Benedict underlined the church's teaching on respect for life, from the moment of conception to natural death -- a teaching that has relevance in the current debate over health care reform in the United States.

Diaz, a Catholic theologian, said the health care debate touched on very important issues. But he cautioned against assuming that he would be entering into that debate on a diplomatic level, or acting as a spokesperson for the church's positions.

"There are a number of domestic issues that are very important, but I think my role as U.S. ambassador is to represent the United States on the level of policy," Diaz said. "When differences emerge relative to those policies, then it is my role to engage in the kind of bridge-building that is necessary in diplomacy."

He added that while theology remains extremely important to him, "I am fully conscious that I am not here ... in the capacity of a theologian to do theology, but to do diplomatic activity."

Diaz said that as ambassador he naturally would give primary attention to what the Vatican's senior diplomats, like Cardinal Bertone, have to say about policy questions. But he said he would not ignore the voices of other Vatican officials, a few of whom have been sharply critical of the Obama administration.

"There are going to be times that I will listen to perspectives that may differ from the perspective that we as a government or we as a nation embrace. But I think it's important that we listen to those perspectives," he said.

And while Diaz said his main focus is bilateral relations between the United States and the Vatican, he recognizes that Rome is a crossroads and a "great listening post" for any diplomat, with a variety of cultural, political and religious contacts.

Before he came to Rome, the 46-year-old ambassador took a State Department preparation course, which emphasized the "three l's" the Obama administration is pushing as a diplomatic vision: listening to others, learning from others and leading as a result.

Diaz said that fit in well with his teaching experience in the Benedictine community at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota. As a Cuban-born American who has lived in various parts of the United States, and as a scholar who has connected the thought of the late Jesuit Father Karl Rahner with U.S. Hispanic theology, he said his whole life has, in a sense, been "a story of building bridges" and a good preparation for his current role.

Asked what has impressed him most during his short time in Rome and at the Vatican, Diaz mentioned the great sense of tradition, history and beauty that permeates the place, but said he's been touched most by the hospitality he's been shown at every turn.

"I guess I've really experienced the 'catholicity,' to use a theological term, and the good will of the people I've encountered," he said.

END


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