How the Vatican Diplomatic Corps Serves Christ and His Church

An interview with Msgr. Steven Otellini, a California pastor who served with the Vatican Diplomatic Corps.

MAIN: Pope Francis addresses diplomats accredited to the Holy See during an audience for the traditional exchange of New Year greetings, in the Sala Regia at the Vatican on Jan. 9, 2020. The Holy See receives ambassadors from 87 nations, and in turn sends diplomatic missions worldwide through the Vatican Diplomatic Corps. INSET: Msgr. Steven Otellini.
MAIN: Pope Francis addresses diplomats accredited to the Holy See during an audience for the traditional exchange of New Year greetings, in the Sala Regia at the Vatican on Jan. 9, 2020. The Holy See receives ambassadors from 87 nations, and in turn sends diplomatic missions worldwide through the Vatican Diplomatic Corps. INSET: Msgr. Steven Otellini. (photo: Remo Casilli / Pool / AFP via Getty Images / Msgr. Steven Otellini)

Msgr. Steven Otellini, pastor of Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, California, since 2003, was once part of the Vatican Diplomatic Corps serving in Africa and Greece. Born in San Francisco, he studied for the priesthood in Rome and was ordained a priest there in 1978. After working as an associate pastor in a San Francisco parish, he was offered a position in the Corps in 1982. After four years of training in Rome, Monsignor was assigned as secretary to papal nuncio Archbishop Beniamino Stella, an Italian, in the countries of the Central African Republic, Chad and the Congo. In an interview, he shared about his time with the Vatican Diplomatic Corps.


What is the Vatican Diplomatic Corps?

It has always been the practice of the Holy See — that is, the Bishop of Rome — since the time of Constantine to maintain diplomatic relations in some way with heads of government. For example, when the emperor moved from Rome to Constantinople, the pope sent a legate to Constantinople to act as what we would now call an ambassador, who would report to the emperor. Eventually, over the centuries, very slowly, very slowly, more representatives from the Vatican came to visit other kingdoms of importance for certain periods of time, or sometimes in permanence, what we would now think of as a resident ambassador. 

That really was not solidified until the time of the Renaissance. The time of the Renaissance was really the first diplomacy as we know it in the modern sense, where heads of government sent ambassadors, which we call nuncios. There was a huge variety of problems and reasons why these people were sent. Sometimes it was for a specific problem or to implement a papal decree, sometimes it was to find out information, sometimes it was simply to establish relations, to show good will, just as an ambassador does now … until the end of the Second World War, there were really very few diplomatic representations from the Holy See to states and they were mostly confined to what we would call Catholic countries.

And it was really only not until after the Second World War, and really after the Second Vatican Council, that there was an explosion of ambassadors from Rome. I think that practically speaking you could say that before the Second World War there was something like 35 to 40 countries with Vatican representatives and [at the time of my service] the number was something like 132 …

One of the effects of the Second Vatican Council was to internationalize the service. Prior to that time, it was almost exclusively Italian and to some extent Europeans.


How many Americans were in the diplomatic service when you were in the Vatican Diplomatic Corps?

Nine in active service. One nuncio.


What was your role in the service?

I was a secretary to a nuncio. Most places you go are very small, where it is just you and a nuncio, or two diplomatic representatives. Some of the larger countries like the United States, Brazil, France and Germany would have maybe three or four, that is, a nuncio and two or three secretaries.


How was the Church faring in the central African countries when you were working there?

For the most part, at least in two of the countries, the Central African Republic and Chad were still very much missionary territories, in the sense that the majority of the religious there were missionaries. The Congo was somewhat different — you have a higher percentage of indigenous religious.


What were some of your duties?

They were duties that you would normally have as diplomatic representative. You’re basically acting as an agent of communication between the local bishops and Rome. Most specifically and most importantly, that would involve the nomination of bishops. All that goes through the nuncio.

The nuncio provides the information for and investigation of bishops and presents the results of that investigation to Rome. You look for candidates and once you’ve narrowed the list of candidates down you look at some very specific information, seeing how this particular person responds to a particular need in that diocese …


What is the relationship did you observe in your time between the Muslims and Christians in Africa?

It was a very delicate thing. On the positive side, in my experience in Chad there was a very good relationship. The state itself was non-confessional; it was not a Muslim state. Because the Church was involved in social programs, such as schools, and other cultural involvements, the relationship was good.


And the other countries in which you served?

The other countries had a very small Islamic influence because in numbers they make up were between 5% and 10% percent at most. Islam was not much of a factor, but it was becoming one. Their numbers are increasing and they had a certain financial clout. …


Did you experience any of the effects of the war between Chad and Libya in the mid-1980s?

We were obviously dealing with some of the effects of it … by the time I got there it was over for all practical purposes, except for a few skirmishes. But the effects are long term. The country was devastated by it.


What sort of traveling difficulties did you have?

A good deal of work, especially for the nuncio, is involved in traveling through the dioceses because in all three countries the communications are very poor. For example, there were not internal phone communications. We had radio contact with some of the more major mission centers but the nuncio or his secretary has to go out visiting places to really know what was going on.

Another large part of our communications with the local bishops was the funding for the Propagation of the Faith. All of the money that passed through Rome passed through the nuncio to be dispersed. So the process was that the dioceses sent in their requests and the requests went through the nuncio to Rome. Rome then made the considerations and then sent back the money according to who most needed the funds available.

A lot of times they’d ask the opinion of the nuncio in regards to the importance and the immediacy of a particular need: Do they really need a school in this particular area? Is it really essential this year to build a new wing onto this seminary? That sort of thing. So the nuncio gets to travel a lot to determine these needs. For example, during my tenure, we bought a Toyota Landcruiser and in 10 months we put 28,000 kilometers on it.


Did you observe any difference in attitude between U.S. Catholics and Catholics in Africa?

In this part of Africa, you were dealing with a very young Church, one that has, for all purposes, been evangelized only since the 1940s. Really, evangelization there has been occurring [since the late 19th century] but the real impetus really only began in the 40s. So, it’s an extremely young Church, with a lot of enthusiasm, yet at the same time problems arise.

The Church there has great difficulties financially and is absolutely dependent on Western support, funds from the Propagation of the Faith. … I would say that if you took all the assistance that the Church offers to Central Africa and lumped it together, that includes missionaries, personnel, subsidies and funds that are received not only from Rome but from throughout the world (because a lot of private donations come in from individual congregations or other agencies like the Knights of Malta, for example, sending medicines, supplies — other agencies like that which deliver school supplies, transportation), if you lumped that all together you could say that the biggest foreign donor in that sense in Central Africa has to be the Catholic Church.

I would also say that in Africa their identity as a Catholic is more immediate to them than in the U.S. For example, the minute you walk into a village and you’re with a sister or dressed as a priest, people walk up to you and say, “I’m a Catholic, baptized and confirmed,” and are very proud of that.


Any other thoughts?

[It is important to know that the Vatican Diplomatic Corps] exists, knowing how it functions and that it does provide a very important, if not central, service to the Holy Father. Sometimes it is not appreciated and is misunderstood by a lot of people. But they need to know that it exists simply as the organ of communication to assist the Holy Father in dealing with his flock dispersed throughout the world.