Little over one year into his pontificate, Pope Francis’ widespread popularity may have put him on the covers of Time and Rolling Stone, but his gifts are also bringing much greater and more significant benefits in terms of international relations, according to diplomats.
"I think the right word to use must be ‘impact,’" said Nigel Baker, Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, when asked about Francis’ most significant achievement. "The Holy See has always been an international player; [and] Pope Francis has already, in his first year, shown this in action."
Diplomats in Rome have been noticeably busier than in previous years, reporting back to their governments Pope Francis’ concerns on a wide range of international issues these past 12 months. And world leaders are paying attention, keenly aware of the Holy Father’s popularity among their electorates.
"You cannot have impact if no one is listening," said Baker, "but the queues of international leaders wishing to meet the Pope show that world leaders are taking note."
Peace in Syria
In terms of global politics, arguably the Pope’s most effective intervention was when Francis called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria last September. Observers say the prayer vigil, held simultaneously in dioceses around the world, played a major role in leading to an almost immediate end to the threat of U.S.-led military action following a chemical-weapons attack on a Damascus suburb.
Many feared a strike would have significantly escalated a conflict that had already cost more than 100,000 lives. Francis’ letter to the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, was enough to make Russian President Vladimir Putin stop the proceedings and have it read aloud to the assembled world leaders. The Holy See also reinforced the Pope’s concerns by gathering Rome diplomats and presenting them with a draft peace plan.
The rapid easing of tensions that followed was seen, especially by leading Church figures in the Middle East, as nothing short of a miracle. "It had an impact on thinking in chancelleries around the world and was particularly well-received in the Muslim world," said Baker.
The Syria intervention was "very, very important and moving," a Vatican diplomat told the Register on condition of anonymity. The Pope’s role, he said by way of a reminder, "is not to be a diplomat or political leader, but what he says and does has significant influence, also on a political level."
Highlighting Those in Need
Pope Francis’ attention to the plight of refugees, including his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, a target for many illegal immigrants, has raised global consciousness about the scourge of human trafficking. Meanwhile, his firm warnings about the evils of a capitalism devoid of ethics and his support for improvements to global food security were addressed at this year’s World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
The Vatican diplomat said that world leaders, when they speak with him, see that he "follows the situation closely and that some points are important to him: persons in need, refugees, the poor, the economy." Because of this, he asserted, "little by little, these criteria are entering the international political arena; these gestures and his closeness to the people are having an important impact on politics and diplomacy."
It is a sentiment backed up by senior diplomats in Rome. "He’s showing world governments that things can be done about the oppressed and the persecuted and that there are ways towards peace and cooperation in the world," said one. "He has reaffirmed the role of the diplomatic missions to the Holy See, seeing them as part of the world mission of the Church."
As for Holy See diplomacy as a whole, Vatican diplomats deny any major changes and are quick to point out that Benedict XVI’s pontificate was highly successful. "He did many, many important things, which we’ll appreciate more as time goes on," said an official in the Secretariat of State. "The pontificate of Benedict XVI was very fruitful."
But for a political commentator like Massimo Franco, author of Once Upon a Time, There Was a Vatican, Vatican diplomacy had been gradually losing its focus since the end of the Cold War. But under Francis, he has noted "a change, a new dynamic approach," that was most visible during the Syria crisis.
"The Pope was quick to sense a diplomatic and political void, contributing decisively to stop a military attack," Franco told the Register.
He feels it will "take time to rebuild the Vatican presence on the world stage," but, like others, he believes Pope Francis is helping to achieve it, with the assistance of Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a seasoned Holy See diplomat, who "seems the right person to do the job."
Holy See relations with the United States are also said by some to be flourishing under Francis, despite major differences between the Church and the Obama administration. Vatican diplomats say there are elements in place for good collaboration, and they value the contribution of the U.S. ambassador, Ken Hackett, and his wide experience of the Church as a former head of Catholic Relief Services.
However, Franco, who has also written a book on Holy See-U.S. relations called Parallel Empires, takes a slightly less positive view. "My impression is that U.S.-Vatican relations are on a kind of ‘standby,’" he said.
Looking ahead, diplomats in Rome see further progress, especially when Francis visits the Holy Land and South Korea later this year. To these areas of conflict and tension, many will be hoping the impact of the "Francis effect" will lead to long-desired diplomatic breakthroughs. The September "miracle" over Syria may be just the start.