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VATICAN LETTER Nov-3-2011 (930 words) Backgrounder. With photos. xxxi

Mission to the Vatican: Diplomats find unique challenges at Holy See

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Ambassadors to the Holy See resident in Rome are a relatively small group of women and men with backgrounds ranging from professional diplomacy and politics to medicine and even theology -- Catholic, Orthodox or Islamic.

They understand the periodic public puzzlement over why a nation -- particularly a nation embracing separation of church and state -- would send a diplomat to the Holy See or the Vatican.

Vatican City is an independent state, but it's the Holy See -- the headquarters of the Catholic Church -- that has full, formal diplomatic relations with 179 nations.

Anne Leahy, Canada's ambassador to the Holy See, is a career diplomat who served as ambassador to Russia in 1996-99. She said she asked to be appointed to the Vatican, because "I wanted to understand more about the Holy See as an international entity, a sovereign entity," that also functions as the government of the worldwide Catholic Church.

In the field of international relations, the Holy See has "weight and influence," but an ambassador can gain full appreciation of that "only by being on the spot," said Leahy, one of only 20 female ambassadors to the Holy See.

Of the 179 countries that exchange ambassadors and nuncios with the Vatican, only 80 nations have their ambassadors living in Rome. Most of the others are served by ambassadors who live in the country of their principal diplomatic assignment -- whether it be Switzerland, France, Germany or others -- and travel to the Vatican only occasionally.

Tim Fischer, a former deputy prime minister and politician, is Australia's first resident ambassador to the Vatican.

"For all that Twitter and mobile video" can keep people informed and bring them together instantly, "you still cannot risk doing away with old-fashioned networking ... wearing out shoe leather," Fischer said.

For him, he said, "this is about building up contacts and an information database, gaining a local knowledge and understanding local tricks of the trade, all in the cause of 'Team Australia' and its policies and priorities."

The Vatican is a sovereign nation, but it does not hide the fact that it engages with other governments as an entity motivated by ethical principles drawn from religion.

As Pope Benedict XVI said Oct. 21, welcoming the Netherland's new ambassador to the Vatican: "Bilateral relations between a nation-state and the Holy See are clearly of a different character from those between nation-states.

"The Holy See is not an economic or military power. Yet, as you yourself have indicated, its moral voice exerts considerable influence around the world. Among the reasons for this is precisely the fact that the Holy See's moral stance is unaffected by the political or economic interests of a nation-state or the electoral concerns of a political party. Its contribution to international diplomacy consists largely in articulating the ethical principles that ought to underpin the social and political order, and in drawing attention to the need for action to remedy violations of such principles," he told the new ambassador.

Leahy, Fischer and a small group of other ambassadors got together Nov. 2 at Rome's Oratory of Caravita for a conversation -- mostly off the record -- about Vatican diplomacy.

Several said two recent events demonstrate clearly the Vatican's attempt to bring its voice to bear on issues of public concern, whether or not the religious element is clear.

The pope's day of pilgrimage, reflection, dialogue and prayer for peace Oct. 27 in Assisi was the first. The ambassadors did not go on the train with the pope and religious leaders but were driven to Assisi by bus and attended the public sessions where the pope and religious leaders reflected on the role of religion in building peace and renewed their commitments to promoting peace and justice in the world.

Promoting peace is the first task of diplomacy everywhere and encouraging interreligious dialogue is an official policy of many nations, including Australia.

The second event was the release of a note by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Oct. 24 on the causes of and possible solutions to the global economic crisis.

One diplomat at the Caravita conversation said the document's call for a global financial authority and a new financial order marked by greater sharing and solidarity with the poor seemed a bit "utopian" and even strange, given the technical nature of economics and the religious nature of the Vatican.

No one can deny the document got people talking about economics and ethics, even if more time and energy was spent debating how seriously one had to take the reflections of a pontifical council versus the pope.

But, the diplomat said, the pontifical council isn't the only religious voice attempting to move from lamenting the impact the economic crisis is having on the poor to looking for concrete ideas for ensuring greater ethical behavior in the markets.

Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury, writing in the Financial Times newspaper Nov. 1, said: "Many people are frustrated beyond measure at what they see as the disastrous effects of global capitalism; but it isn't easy to say what we should do differently. It is time we tried to be more specific. There is help to be had from a bold statement on our financial situation emerging last week from the Vatican."

As one ambassador said, "The Vatican mixes religion and diplomacy all the time, but it's the nature of the institution." Another added that often it is needed; "mainstream religions ... are in the pole position to step up against the worst excesses of the secular and business world."

END


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