VATICAN CITY — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had a lengthy meeting Tuesday with his Vatican counterpart, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, marking the first serious engagement between the Holy See of Pope Francis and the Obama administration.
Speaking to Vatican Radio after the meeting, Father Federico Lombardi, Holy See Press Office director, said the meeting was “very important” and pointed to the lengthy duration of the encounter that lasted one hour and 40 minutes — usually such meetings last around half an hour.
“The meeting was very fruitful and also very rich in content,” Father Lombardi said. He added that Kerry was “made aware of the concerns and wishes of the Holy See” that were also expressed by Pope Francis Jan. 13 in his address to the diplomatic corps.
Kerry called it “a very comprehensive, very, very interesting conversation” that touched on “just about every major issue that we are both working on.”
In a statement, the Holy See said the meeting at the Vatican covered “the peace process in the Middle East, especially the situation in Syria and the preparations for the Geneva II Middle-East Peace Conference.” The Syrian government and opposition are to discuss forming a transitional government at the United Nations-backed talks, which begin Jan. 22.
The two parties also discussed “negotiations between Israel and Palestine” at today’s meeting, which was also attended by Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, and Kenneth Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
The Vatican said other issues considered at the meeting “were the situation in Africa, especially South Sudan, and matters of special interest to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, such as health-care reform.”
Father Lombardi said health-care reform was “touched upon,” and the concerns of the Holy See were expressed, “in tune with the American bishops, with regards to safeguards to religious freedom and conscientious objection.”
“There was also talk of Obama’s plan to fight poverty and improve the situation of the poorest sections of the population,” Father Lombardi added. He ended by saying the “atmosphere was positive,” that it was “an important and constructive meeting,” and its duration “is indicative of its underlying significance.”
Kerry: A ‘Privilege’
Secretary Kerry, a Catholic, has been taking a leading role in both peace processes as well as talks over Iran’s nuclear program, making him “a very important player” in the words of one Rome diplomat. But the U.S. politician hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the Holy See on foreign policy. Last year, he strongly lobbied for military strikes against the Syrian government following a chemical-weapons attack on a Damascus suburb in August.
Kerry, the Democrat Party’s candidate for president in 2004, said it was a “privilege” to be the first U.S. Catholic secretary of state in more than 30 years to have talks with the Vatican secretary of state. He remarked that the Obama administration welcomes the Holy See’s support on the Geneva II process and would be keeping in touch with regard to progress in the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, especially over the issue of Jerusalem.
He said Archbishop Parolin was especially interested in assisting the peace process in South Sudan, and he mentioned that religious freedom in Cuba, possible Holy See assistance in freeing an American prisoner there, and environmental concerns were also raised. Poverty was a further subject of discussion, as well as implications for international security.
“This was as comprehensive a conversation as I’ve had with any secretary of state or foreign minister in the course of my tenure,” Kerry said. “I think, happily, we agreed on an enormous amount of things that we can cooperate on. That’s what’s important.”
‘State of the World’ Speech
In his annual “State of the World” speech to the diplomatic corps yesterday, Pope Francis said what is now needed “is a renewed political will to end the conflict” in Syria. He stressed the need for “full respect for humanitarian law,” adding that it is “unacceptable that unarmed civilians, especially children, become targets.”
The Pope also raised other concerns about the region, namely Lebanon, Iraq and the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. He expressed his hope that both parties “will resolve, with the support of the international community, to take courageous decisions aimed at finding a just and lasting solution to a conflict, which urgently needs to end.”
Archbishop Parolin’s meeting with Kerry also followed a Vatican-sponsored meeting of experts on Syria, the conclusions of which have been communicated to Kerry, say diplomatic sources. The participants of the workshop agreed that an immediate cease-fire was vital, spoke of a “humanitarian imperative,” the need for “inter-community dialogue,” urgent reconstruction and a “political transformation.”
Prior to today’s meeting, the U.S. State Department was at pains to point out how important the Holy See is in international affairs. Deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Jan. 13 that the United States “values the Vatican’s vital role globally” and its lead on “international issues and peace efforts.” She also noted that this year marks the 30th anniversary of U.S.-Holy See diplomatic relations.
Given the importance of today’s meeting, some Vatican observers wondered why Kerry wasn’t able to meet Pope Francis. The Holy Father doesn’t usually meet foreign ministers on their own, but many felt an exception should have been made for the foreign minister of the world’s superpower.
The Vatican had no comment on the subject.
“I was a bit surprised the Pope wouldn’t see him simply to get a measure of the man and encourage him about Geneva II,” one diplomatic source told the Register. Being such a powerful figure in international politics, he said, “it’s interesting an approach appears not to have been made.”
Some observers contend that it’s perhaps because the Pope likes to avoid the nitty-gritty of politics and prefers to leave that to Archbishop Parolin, or that he wants to avoid being seen having talks with a pro-abortion Catholic politician. Others suggest it’s now Vatican policy to decline last-minute requests to see the Pope, as happened with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first attempt to meet Pope Francis last year.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.