Diplomacy — Where Pope Francis Has Had the Greatest Impact

Pope Francis meeting former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014. Photo: EMP Photos
Pope Francis meeting former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in 2014. Photo: EMP Photos (photo: Screenshot)

Looking back on Pope Francis’ pontificate, which marks its third anniversary on Sunday, one of the most surprising areas where the Holy Father has made the greatest impact is on the international scene.

Despite his wish to resemble a parish priest, his emphasis on being principally the Bishop of Rome, and his preference for being a “homebody” than a traveler, the Holy Father has crisscrossed the globe, visiting 21 countries on five continents in the space of just 36 months.  

But extensive papal travel is just one unexpected international aspect of this pontificate. Another involves diplomacy.

From the time of his election, the Holy Father wanted to live up to his Latin appellation of pontifex, or bridge builder. And through some expert mediation, helped not a little by his discrete and diplomatically astute Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Francis has made some surprising and highly significant diplomatic achievements.

Heading the list in this regard is his truly historic and long-desired encounter with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Cuba that took place last month. Then there is the key role the Holy Father played in helping the United States and Cuba re-establish diplomatic ties at the end of 2014.

But almost from the start, the Pope’s focus on peacemaking was visible. He helped stave off an armed intervention in Syria in September 2013 by writing to world leaders and holding a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square — an initiative that Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem would later say led to a miraculous avoidance of a seemingly inevitable U.S.-led military attack on Syria.

Had it taken place and fulfilled its aim of weakening or toppling the regime of Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad, ISIS might have an even greater foothold in the Middle East than they have now.

In 2014, he visited the Holy Land and invited both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican for a “prayer for peace” encounter later in the year.

And although many are skeptical that the Chinese authorities will loosen its control over China’s Catholics anytime soon, Beijing and the Holy See appear to be talking more with one another.

More interaction has also taken place with Islam: last month, Francis wrote Ahmed el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Islam’s top academic institution, saying he was keen to meet him. Soon after his election, the Pope made a point of re-establishing relations with Al-Azhar (in 2011, it broke ties with the Vatican after it disagreed with comments Benedict XVI made decrying attacks on Egypt’s Christian minority).

The Holy Father’s goodwill notwithstanding, none of these diplomatic achievements has naturally escaped criticism. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, although it welcomed the meeting with Patriarch Kirill, was disappointed with the joint declaration that it produced; the U.S.-Cuba deal was criticized for ignoring continual human rights abuses and offering too little to the United States in return; and the success of the Syrian intervention allowed Assad to allegedly use chemical weapons on his own people with impunity.

The Pope himself has faced criticism for the style of diplomacy he has employed, and for his persistent emphasis on dialogue, which critics argue can only go so far.

The main diplomatic goals of this pontificate have been identified as “the four Ps”: poverty, peace, people and the planet. But perhaps another ‘p’ could be added: “pragmatism”. 

Members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and of the Chinese underground Church that is loyal to Rome, for instance, are wary of the reintroduction in this pontificate of Ostpolitik — a form of pragmatic diplomacy, used in the Soviet era, that seeks to bypass obstacles and past wounds in a bid to foster dialogue.

In the case of this pontificate, Francis’ vision is to throw open the doors of God’s mercy to attend to those in a “field hospital” urgently in need of spiritual help. The downside is that it can tend to overlook the wounds of the past and so be unable to offer long-term healing.

China, Russia, Cuba, and to some extent Iran, have all been recipients of this approach, one detractors see as compromising with unscrupulous regimes in an effort to achieve short-term gain at the expense of the grassroots who are most affected. Proponents argue it is better to speak first and deal with the obstacles later or no progress will ever be made.

Whatever the merits or problems with this diplomatic approach, the international impact of such a globally popular Pope has been undoubtedly significant and, so far at least, largely positive. Francis has drawn on his worldwide popularity to extend his international moral authority to build bridges and effectively highlight global concerns such as migration and human trafficking, and his successes have been considerably greater than on his home turf where differences have sharpened and widened.

Benedict XVI was personally successful in trying to bring the world’s nations to Christ through diplomacy, but was hampered by a languishing Holy See that was failing to transmit an international agenda.

Francis is now without that disadvantage. As he enters the fourth year of his pontificate, many will therefore be eager to see how he builds on the gains of the past three years, and further expends his globally recognized moral capital to bring Christ to today’s international relations.