The Pope’s Pastoral Diplomacy Centers on Dialogue — Even When It ‘Stinks’

COMMENTARY: Throughout his pontificate’s diplomacy of encounter, Francis has prioritized opening lines of communication ahead of seeking predetermined outcomes.

Pope Francis speaks during a spiritual retreat for South Sudan leaders at the Vatican's Casa Santa Marta, April 11, 2019.
Pope Francis speaks during a spiritual retreat for South Sudan leaders at the Vatican's Casa Santa Marta, April 11, 2019. (photo: Vatican Media / CNA)

From the start of this pontificate, Francis has relished his diplomatic role, visiting 59 countries (some twice) outside Italy, almost one-third of the 184 nations with which the Holy See has bilateral relations. His purpose does not advance material interests. While most countries use foreign relations to advance trade or power, Francis practices pastoral diplomacy to spread the Gospel.

And while he has prioritized the periphery — traveling mainly to less powerful countries off the beaten path, including six nations never visited by a pope before (Bahrain, Iraq, Myanmar, North Macedonia, South Sudan) — he consistently emphasizes peace while proclaiming Jesus Christ.

The Vatican is constantly communicating across combatant lines, trying to maintain impartiality without losing moral authority. This is a role Francis enjoys — the limits of which he is willing to test.

But mainstream secular media does not always comprehend the Pope’s objectives, especially when he counsels communication with saints and sinners alike.

Dialogue First

When The New York Times, for example, suggested Francis was exaggerating when he referred to peace efforts in Ukraine (“Secret ‘Mission’ for Peace May Show Limits of Pope’s Influence”) it fails to understand that what is essential to Francis is dialogue, which allows parties to lay ground for agreement, rather than projecting endless battle.

Dialogue is “the oxygen of peace,” explained the Pontiff at a general audience. It is a precursor to negotiations.

What the Pope is trying to do is to open paths toward talks. For Francis, starting a process is a Christian responsibility, creating space into which the Holy Spirit can step. What we can never do is control outcomes.

In a section of Evangelii Gaudium dedicated to “The Common Good and Peace in Society,” Francis explains, “Time is greater than space” (222), one of four precepts guiding his diplomatic handiwork. He writes:

“Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces. … What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events” (223).

This describes how Francis’ diplomacy of encounter builds, step by step, expanding over time, as it did in South Sudan.

Warlords Form Government

The Pope’s pilgrimage to South Sudan in February was in the works for some eight years. The Holy Father met the country’s Catholic president, Salva Kiir, in Uganda in 2015, during Francis’ first trip to Africa. At the time, South Sudan — the world’s newest nation, formed in 2011 — was engulfed in a civil war pitting forces loyal to Kiir, mostly members of the Dinka people, against those loyal to First Vice President Riek Machar, a Nuer ethnic leader.

Between 2013 and 2018, some 400,000 people died as a result of violence that ravaged the country, and 4.5 million people were displaced. One of the only sources of hope was the dedication of South Sudanese Christians, across faith communities, working for reconciliation.

A study by the U.S. Institute of Peace found the country’s Catholic and Episcopalian bishops were, by far, the most respected community leaders. A delegation from South Sudan’s Council of Churches traveled to Rome and then to London in 2016 to request help from Catholic and Anglican church leaders.

Three years later, a retreat at Santa Marta, the Pope’s residence, brought South Sudan’s religious and political leaders, including Kiir and Machar. The unprecedented event ended with the extraordinary moment when Francis dropped to his knees to kiss the warlords’ feet — rivals who went on to form a unity government.

All this preceded the ecumenical pilgrimage to Juba of Francis, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Presbyterian moderator Rev. Iain Greenshields three months ago. The three leaders intended a dramatic show of unity to urge South Sudan’s politicians to recommit themselves to peace while counseling people to immunize themselves against the “venom of hatred.” The journey also served as a focus point for Church mobilization.

Francis clearly explained his outlook last year on a flight to Rome from Kazakhstan:

“[T]here is always the possibility that in dialogue we can change things, and also offer another point of view, another point of consideration. I don’t exclude dialogue with any power that is at war, even if it’s the aggressor ... sometimes dialogue has to be done in this manner, but it has to be done; it ‘stinks,’ but it has to be done. Always one step ahead, an outstretched hand, always! Because otherwise we close off the only reasonable door to peace.”

Step-by-Step in the Middle East

The region of the world where Francis has assiduously pursued his “step-by-step” mantra is in the Middle East. There, he has been quietly successful — with crucial support from the Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue and scant attention from the West — in strengthening relations with the Muslim world.

It’s a priority that underscores the Vatican’s independence from a Western worldview.

Against advisers preoccupied with his security, Francis insisted on making Iraq his first destination outside Italy after the pandemic. One major purpose was to meet one man, Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, at his modest home in Najaf, the world’s most sacred and influential Shiite center.

Al-Sistani’s statement after their meeting showed how closely aligned these two moral authorities are in calling for the rejection of violence and the “language of war” in favor of focusing on poverty, social justice and human dignity. (The Pope maintains relationships like this one the old-fashioned way: through letters. He recently sent a heartfelt note to al-Sistani.)

Sunni-Shia Dialogue

Through this encounter, Francis sought to offer an embrace to Shiite Islam, representing about 15% of the Prophet’s followers. At the time, Iraq’s prime minister was facilitating negotiations between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shiite-majority Iran, which the Pope wanted to encourage.

Why was this so important? Because conflict in the Middle East has been enflamed by Sunni-Shiite tension for more than 40 years, since the 1979 revolution in Iran. The devastating eight-year Iran-Iraq war, inter-confessional clashes in Lebanon, the emergence of ISIS, Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen — all were exacerbated by Sunni-Shiite conflict. Meanwhile, the human toll of post-9/11 wars in the Middle East is estimated at 929,000 deaths, while the cost to the U.S. budget has been $8 trillion.

Francis reached out to Sunni leaders early in his pontificate, at the height of ravaging religious violence in the Middle East. He developed a friendship with Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. Their relationship, deepened over time, led to the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed by the two men in Abu Dhabi, , United Arab Emirates , in 2019. Francis cites the document as an inspiration for Fratelli Tutti, released a year later.

In November 2022, Francis made another maiden voyage to a Gulf state: the small island nation of Bahrain, where most Catholics are guest workers from the Philippines, India or elsewhere in the Middle East.

At a buoyant Mass — including faithful who traveled by bridge from Saudi Arabia, where Mass is forbidden — Jesus Christ, You Are My Life rang out as 60,000 people welcomed the Pontiff in an extraordinary vision of what diplomacy can achieve.

Years of dialogue pursued by Francis led to that extraordinary Mass; in February, the Holy See established diplomatic relations with Oman, another Sunni Gulf country, making it the 184th nation with which the Vatican has formal ties.

Dialogue bears fruit for a Christian with patience and humility, especially when aided by God. Remember what happened with the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost? Suddenly, people from various nations could speak different languages and understand each other.

Thus began the Church’s mission to the world.