Vatican diplomacy has again been in the spotlight: Pope Benedict XVI upgraded diplomatic relations with the Russian Federation to the highest level.

The development came just a few days after the Holy Father highlighted what Vatican diplomacy can achieve when, together with the Argentine and Chilean presidents, he celebrated the 25th anniversary of a Vatican-brokered peace treaty between the two nations.

The Holy See established full diplomatic ties with Russia during a meeting at the Vatican Dec. 3 between the Pope and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. A communiqué from the Vatican press office confirmed that the two leaders met for some 30 minutes, and during the cordial discussions, it was “agreed to establish full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Russian Federation.”

The Vatican statement said that the Pope and the Russian president discussed “cultural and social questions of mutual interest, such as the value of the family and the contribution believers make to life in Russia.” They also exchanged opinions on the “international economic and political situation” and the “challenges currently facing security and peace.” The Holy Father presented the president with a Russian copy of his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth).

Natalia Timakova, the spokeswoman for the Russian president, confirmed that Medvedev “asked the foreign ministry to lead discussions to establish the relations and raise the level of representation to [the] apostolic nuncio and embassy.” The meeting “showed the highest level of dialogue between Russia and the Holy See,” she added.

The Vatican and the Russian Federation forged high-level official contacts in 1990, a year before the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It was the first time the two countries exchanged official representatives since full diplomatic relations had been broken after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The Vatican’s representative in Moscow has had the title of apostolic nuncio and Moscow’s representative to the Vatican has had the title of ambassador since 1990, but the diplomats’ functions have been that of representatives.

Tense relations between the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches had been partially responsible for the lack of establishing full diplomatic relations in the past, but it’s believed that improved Catholic-Orthodox relations facilitated this political step.

The news of upgraded Russian-Holy See relations brings the number of countries with full diplomatic ties with the Holy See to 178, plus the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The Palestinian Authority is now the only nation to have relations of a “special nature” with the Holy See.

Elsewhere, the Vatican has yet to establish formal diplomatic channels with Saudi Arabia, China, Myanmar and Vietnam. However, it has been one of Pope Benedict’s priorities to improve relations with these countries, with a view of establishing formal ties in the future.

Meanwhile, on Nov. 28, Pope Benedict unusually met two heads of state at the same time at the Apostolic Palace: the Argentine and Chilean Presidents Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Michelle Bachelet. The meeting was held to celebrate 25 years since Argentina and Chile signed the Peace and Friendship Treaty — a bilateral agreement brokered by the Holy See.

In 1978, when Argentina and Chile were ruled by military dictatorships, both countries were on the brink of war against each other over three very small islands in the Beagle Channel. The conflict was resolved through papal mediation; since the peace treaty was signed in 1984, Argentina has recognized the islands as Chilean territory.

It’s very rare that the Vatican involves itself so publicly in an international dispute, but these two nations were spared from going to war thanks to the determination of John Paul II and his special envoy at the time, Cardinal Antonio Samoré.

In his speech to the two leaders, Benedict said the ratification of the agreement between both countries was an “honorable, reasonable and impartial solution,” which avoided war between the two nations. “It was an example of choosing peace over barbaric violence,” he said, adding that the episode is “part of the great history of the two nations and of Latin America.”

The Holy Father also stressed that the treaty was “inseparable from the figure of John Paul II,” reminding that his predecessor was “tied by feelings of affection to the nations” and was an “unstoppable peace messenger.”

President Fernández de Kirchner said, “If a war would have taken place, it would have been an irreparable tragedy” and also recalled the important role of the Vatican. “We have to understand that we avoided a war thanks to Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Antonio Samoré,” she said.

Argentines and Chileans have “lived peacefully thanks to their actions,” she added.

Her husband, the former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, named a square in southern Argentina after Cardinal Samoré and repeated that “the role of the Vatican, John Paul II and Samoré has to be underlined.” Chilean President Bachelet also singled out the roles of the late Pontiff and cardinal.

Although such a public display of Vatican mediation is rare, the work carried out by Vatican diplomats in resolving or mitigating international disputes and conflicts is more frequent than it appears.

Because of the discretion of Vatican diplomats, together with a lack of media interest, this work — which has saved countless lives over the years — tends to go unnoticed.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.