New Irish Ambassador Sees Partnership With Vatican In New European Union

ROME — Philip McDonagh, the Republic of Ireland's new ambassador to the Holy See, is one of his country's most senior diplomats. His appointment, coming at a time when the Irish government has been giving an unusual amount of support to the Church, has given rise to speculation that he was given the posting to increase the chances of a papal visit next year.

McDonagh spoke Nov. 16 with Register correspondent Edward Pentin at the Palazzo Orsini in Rome.

How important is your faith to your work?

I suppose if we have a Christian faith then our work is bound to be an important expression of our relationships with other people. And work includes caring for one's children, it includes one's professional work, or it includes acting or painting or whatever activities we undertake.

But if you're a Christian, all your activities have to be undertaken with a perspective — the encyclical of the Holy Father, Laborem Exercens, which is one of his first encyclicals, brings out some very important themes about the world of work. He makes, to me, a really striking point that Adam and Eve worked in the Garden of Eden. Work was part of the creative expression of man before the fall, so it shouldn't be regarded simply as a means to an end or a necessary evil.

Now there's always the question of how one translates that into practice — for all of us. Newman said that only one man has been able to say with his dying breath, consumatum est (it is finished). Most people probably are always conscious there are things they could do better.

How have you found the job since you took up the position?

I've found it very interesting. We recently had a visit of the Taoiseach, the prime minister [Bertie Ahern], who came to Rome to sign the treaty providing for a European Constitution. But he took the opportunity to meet with all the Irish religious here in Rome, and also to visit a number of churches associated with Ireland, and we were involved in that as an embassy. He used the occasion of a reception, which my wife and I had the honor to host, to make a statement, a speech, about the Church in Ireland.

And then, of course, just last weekend, we had a visit of our own minister — the foreign minister — to mark the 75th anniversary of the embassy. Minister Dermot Ahern was invited to meet the Holy Father, and we met many other senior figures in the Curia. We had a wonderful Mass in San Giovanni Laterano, which was celebrated by many Irish bishops and where the principle celebrant was Cardinal Sodano, the secretary of state.

So the two visits of the Taoiseach and the foreign minister have been a very privileged opportunity for us at the embassy to understand what the work is about.

Did any impetus for Article 52 of the European Constitution come from Pope John Paul's emphasis on interreligious dialogue or ecumenism and his stress on the importance of dialogue?

Yes, it was influenced by suggestions made by John Paul II. I think if one looks at his statements in the year leading up to the concluding of the negotiations, I think you can see that that article does respond in some way to what the Pope had been saying.

So even though there wasn't the reference to Christianity in the Constitution, there was this provision that acted as kind of compromise?

I think this article of the European Constitution is there because it is recognized as something worthwhile. I wasn't personally involved in the negotiations of the European Constitution so I don't know the negotiating history, but this article, or something like this, was always under discussion in its own right as something worth having. It belongs in the general context of civil society and the relationship between civil society and the state or the government — the increasing recognition about Europe that the efforts of governments are best situated in the context of a thriving civil society.

How closely will you work with the Holy See to promote the Catholic faith in Ireland?

Well, that's not how I would describe the mission statement of an embassy to the Holy See. How many countries have diplomatic relations with the Holy See? It's the great majority of countries. There are, I suppose, approaching 100 residences here to the Holy See, and what are those embassies here to do?

The minister, when he was here at the weekend, referred to the voice of conscience represented by the Holy Father and the Holy See. He referred to the way in which the Holy See serves to set the direction of international life.

We know the Holy See supports the U.N. and its charter, that the Holy See favors unity and reconciliation on the continent of Europe, the Holy See wants us to overcome the gap between the rich and poor. The Holy See draws our attention to Africa. The Holy See encourages the peaceful resolution of disputes. So the Holy See is a voice of conscience that we want to relate to at a diplomatic level.

Also, the Holy See is a great source of insight on particular situations if you want to understand what's happening in certain parts of the world. The Holy See, because of the presence of the Church on the ground, often has a particularly fine understanding.

Now there is also, of course, the dimension of relations between the state and the Church, but I'm saying all this because I wouldn't characterize the role of an embassy to the Holy See in quite that phrase, but I would say that a fruitful relationship between the government and the Holy See is good for the Church. Without doubt, it's good for all the churches; it's good for society.

Do you think the Pope will visit Ireland next year as planned?

I think the possibility is there, but no decision has been taken and we don't expect any decision to be taken for several months. The bishops have issued an invitation to the Pope, which is the way these things are done, and the government, through the minister who was here at the weekend, and in other ways, has indicated that the Pope would be extremely welcome — the government and the people would warmly welcome the Pope to Ireland.