The new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth Hackett, presented his credentials to Pope Francis on Oct. 21. Prior to his appointment, he had given 40 years’ service to Catholic Relief Services, serving from 1993 to 2012 as president of the U.S. bishops’ humanitarian-aid organization.
In this Oct. 25 interview, Hackett explains how he hopes his wealth of international experience and close contacts with the Church across the world will complement his new role. He also discusses his likely priorities as ambassador and his approach to serving the Obama administration in the face of its well-known differences with the Church over important life and freedom-of-conscience issues.
Ambassador, how was your private audience with the Holy Father?
It was wonderful; it was inspiring. He just exudes a human spirit that reaches into you, and it’s so personal, so touching. I have met three popes, but, of course, I never had the time that I had with this pope, just sitting down, one-on-one, like we’re doing. He’s an inspiring, exciting personage.
Was he very interested in what the embassy is doing?
Yes, he was interested in issues where we absolutely have a convergence of interests — issues of peace, justice, concern for the poor and the marginalized. He’s already spoken in his short pontificate about the people in Lampedusa. He’s calling the world’s attention, asking people to take their faith seriously, whatever faith it is, but particularly Christianity — to be concerned for your brothers and sisters who have less. So that resonates, at least, with my president and my government: a concern for the poor. That’s something that’s there.
What are your hopes and plans as ambassador?
I’ve had a long history of engagement in human development around the world, and I hope I can bring some of those connections, those people I’ve met, those people who’ve inspired me, given me hospitality — nuns, priests, catechists, laypeople from around the world. [I hope to] link with them and hopefully support them in some ways, first by just giving them hope and encouragement, but also to see if there are ways I can understand their situation better as they pass through here [the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See] and meet them here, as I’ve already done this past month.
And then to share with those in the Vatican the opportunities that we will have for collaboration and to expand those. My predecessors have had a long engagement on issues like trafficking in human people, human rights, care for marginalized people, religious freedom, religious liberty for people, care for persecuted Christians. I hope we can do something on those areas as well.
There seems to be a providential synergy with your past career and Pope Francis, with his emphasis on the poor and the marginalized. Is there a great complementarity there?
There certainly appears to be. It was either the Holy Spirit, somebody in the White House or both! But it’s not lost on anybody that the White House chose somebody who had 40 years’ background in this type of thing.
In addition to your extensive contacts, drawing on your past experience, what do you hope that you will bring to your new role?
[My experience] gives me an appreciation for the breadth of the Catholic Church, for one thing; the profound influence the Church has on events in the world, starting right at the community. I hope I can bring that to our own government so that there is a mesh of interest.
Already, there’s a convergence of interest, but if I can be specific and say: "Here’s what we could possibly do in Syria because we’ve just heard bishop so-and-so from Syria pass that message back to our government," then that’s hopeful.
How much does your faith influence your working life?
Spending 40 years working for an organization owned by the Catholic bishops in the United States, my faith plays a very profound role. Our faith drives us, inspires us, motivates us. It gives us the basis for our moral judgments, and so here I am. I’m a product of eight years’ Jesuit education, 40 years working for the poor with Catholic Relief Services and one year (of) retirement.
Given that you were retired, were you quite surprised to be appointed?
I was. I retired in February 2012, and so, a year later, it was a wonderful moment to get called by the White House and be asked to represent the president here to the Holy See.
Despite well-known differences between the Church and the Obama administration, the United States and the Holy See have a good number of issues in common. Which will you focus most on?
There are abiding issues, and then there are issues that need attention right now. So, obviously, peace in the Middle East and Israel, Palestine: what can be done and how the Holy See can play a role in that search for peace in the Holy Land, in Syria, in other areas. So where we can find convergence, complementarity and support; we have the same goal in mind, and that’s peace. How we get there: I think we can share tactics and approaches. And then there are other things, like trafficking in persons.
The whole question of migration in our own country, the United States, is such a serious issue, but lumped under the banner of trafficking in human persons it takes on a more poignant and urgent call, and that’s where the Holy See has really come out aggressively.
Is this seen primarily as a security issue?
There are some in the U.S. who call it a security issue. I don’t particularly see it as big a security issue there. Here, in Europe, it’s a very big security issue, and here, in Italy, the burden of taking care of so many people is enormous.
I was over at the Missionaries of Charity. They take in the homeless, and when you go and see their clients — they take in men only — there are men from around the world living in the streets here. That’s not a security issue; that’s a terrible justice issue, but when you bring thousands and thousands of people in and you can’t screen them all, then it becomes a security issue.
One of your predecessors, Ambassador James Nicholson, told the Register earlier this year that he would find it "very difficult" to represent this administration because of its conflicts with the Church "on life, freedom of religion and freedom of conscience." How do you aim to deal with this strong challenge of bridging the gap in these areas?
I don’t have a problem representing this administration. There are so many issues where I feel the Obama administration is exactly on the right track. I’m going to focus on those issues and lift them up, so that we are a nation that is concerned about the poor in the world, the injustices in the world and the issues of peace. Those are the issues that I can represent well.
Certainly, there will be differences — there are differences between where the Holy See is and where the administration is. But those differences do not overwhelm or overtake or color the relationship that has been long-standing between the U.S. government, the Obama administration and this administration [the Holy See].
Equally, among the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are many issues that the conference works very closely on with the Obama administration, as it did with the Bush administration on issues of migration.
There are elements of the health-care agenda that are beneficial to the poor, and you can’t dismiss that — that poor people are getting care that they didn’t get before. Others may have views that are different, but I don’t have a problem representing them.
But as someone who is pro-life, do you suffer from a strong internal tension in representing this administration?
It’s not at tension because there are elements that are pro-life that I see in the policies of this administration. There are some that cause some tension, but not in my life. I like to focus on the positive.
Will you try to convey back to Washington, perhaps in a more effective way than in the past, some of those concerns about abortion and conscience rights?
The Holy See and those in the Curia have a pretty clear sense of where the U.S. administration is on certain issues, and if there are changes, obviously I will communicate them back. But the dialogue has been going on for quite a while, and there’s recognition that on some things we agree, some things we don’t.
If we agree on a goal, let’s talk about how we get to that objective. And when that happens, that’s when I’ll have my input.