“To know how to obey, to know how to be quiet, and to speak when necessary with measured words and with reserve…” Blessed Pope John XXIII used these words to describe Saint Joseph, and—it may come with some surprise—Vatican diplomats.
Our secular age may find it bizarre that the Church employs a diplomatic corps of ambassadors. In fact, no other ecclesial body in the world does such a thing.
Henry Cabot Lodge, President Nixon’s Special Envoy to the Vatican in the 1970s, may have thought the same when he asked a Muslim ambassador to the Holy See why his government thought it important to have a large embassy at “a place which did not seem to concern him very much.” The answer to that question—then, as now—sheds light on the unique role the Roman Catholic Church—and the Holy See, in particular—plays in world affairs. The diplomatic service of the Holy See is one of the oldest in the world—established in the first centuries of the Church—though it is not terribly well-known.
With over one billion members worldwide, the Roman Catholic Church is one of the largest “organizations” in the world. What we commonly call the “Vatican” is a sovereign, independent territory—a tiny City-State—of only 0.17 square miles in the heart of the city of Rome. The “Holy See” (for “Sancta Sedes” or “holy seat/chair” in Latin) refers to the seat of authority of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, who, together with his delegates, has a unique power of universal governance. The Bishop of Rome is both supreme pastor of the universal Church and the ruler of a sovereign state.
A superficial analysis would conclude that the Holy See mixes the politics of church and state, and seeks to influence the world according to its religious beliefs and practices. World leaders seem to have a different take. The facts support what Henry Cabot Lodge discovered forty years ago talking with the Muslim diplomat: that the Holy See plays a crucial role in international affairs, not because it seeks to make the world Catholic, but because it seeks to support the common good of all, especially the poor and disadvantaged, at the same time seeking to uphold the fundamental dignity of human beings throughout the world. In an increasingly globalized world, a trans-national and altruistic entity like the Holy See is regarded as a critical voice in international affairs.
The point is not the political power of the Church. Diplomats know that the Holy See is in a unique position to mediate disputes and prevent conflicts. Unknown to many, the Holy See frequently serves as an intermediary in international disputes between nations. For example, in 1978 the Holy See led negotiations regarding a tense border dispute between Argentina and Chile, ultimately preventing the conflict from escalating into war. Archbishop Pablo Puente Buces is credited with bringing to an end the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war; and more recently it became known that Bernard Cardinal Law helped to arrange an historic meeting between the Vietnamese president and the Pope concerning religious freedom in Vietnam. Pope John Paul II’s support of religious liberty and his instrumental role in the historic fall of Communism is well-known.
Diplomats of the Holy See work quietly. As Blessed Pope John XXIII reminded the world, the Holy See seeks to serve humankind discreetly with concern for all peoples and countries. It works diligently to uphold the natural law by supporting the inherent dignity of human beings made in the image and likeness of God.
The recent appointment of Archbishop-elect Charles Brown as Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland speaks of the perennial tradition: that a diplomat, in the spirit of Saint Joseph, is first a faithful, discreet, and powerful messenger of the truth of Jesus Christ and His Vicar on earth.
Image: San Pietro