U.S.-Holy See Relations at 30

Three decades of diplomatic partnership were celebrated at a Vatican gathering — as well as the rich history beforehand.

Archbishop Dominique Mamberti addresses 30 years of Vatican-U.S. relations at the launch of a photo exhibit in Palazzo della Cancelleria as U.S. Ambassador Ken Hackett looks on.
Archbishop Dominique Mamberti addresses 30 years of Vatican-U.S. relations at the launch of a photo exhibit in Palazzo della Cancelleria as U.S. Ambassador Ken Hackett looks on. (photo: Edward Pentin)

VATICAN CITY — The United States and the Holy See celebrated 30 years of full diplomatic relations Jan. 23 at a reception in the Vatican’s 16th-century Palazzo della Cancelleria in the center of Rome.

The event was marked by the launch of a photo exhibit that tells the history of U.S.-Holy See engagement over the past century.

Addressing a group of diplomats and media in the Renaissance palace’s magnificent Sala dei Cento Giorni, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See’s secretary for relations with states, said that U.S.-Holy See ties have grown “slowly but steadily stronger over time” and that he was confident the bond between them would grow stronger still.

Full diplomatic relations were established on Jan. 10, 1984, under President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II.

William Wilson, a Los Angeles businessman and close friend of the president, was appointed the first U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. A World War II veteran, he died in 2009 at 95. Since Wilson’s tenure, the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See has been served by nine ambassadors.

Archbishop Mamberti recalled that diplomatic ties date back to 1788, when Benjamin Franklin conveyed to Pope Pius VI a message from George Washington. In it, he said that the newly independent state saw no need to appoint bishops, as the American Revolution brought not only freedom for the colonies, but, above all, religious liberty. 

The Holy See diplomat went on to say that formal ties are important “if indeed the United States represents one of the principal actors on the international scene, and the Church and the Holy See share in the ‘joys and the hopes, the sorrows and the anxieties’ of humanity,’” referencing Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI’s apostolic constitution on the Church in the modern world.

Reflecting on the seriousness of the many problems facing the world today, the archbishop said “an ever-closer dialogue between the Holy See and the United States” is needed to properly respond to them.

“May the friendship and cooperation between the Holy See and the United States of America be ever more strengthened within the family of nations, in order that the world may progress in building peace, justice and fraternity,” Archbishop Mamberti said.


Ambassador Hackett

Speaking to the Register during the reception, current Ambassador Ken Hackett said he particularly enjoyed the archbishop’s speech. “He is someone who enjoys looking back into the [diplomatic] history, seeing how things evolve, so you try not to make the same mistakes but advance from opportunities,” he said.

“They were some very special times, when you go back to the days of Ben Franklin — and Joe Kennedy being sent over from the U.K. to carry messages when we were first dealing with [Soviet] Communism,” he added. “Those were difficult times.”

In his address, Ambassador Hackett recalled how Pius VII named Jesuit Father John Carroll, a good friend of Benjamin Franklin, as “Superior to the Mission to the Thirteen States” and then apostolic prefect. Carroll then went on to become the first U.S. bishop.

“As we celebrate our 30th anniversary of relations this year, we celebrate a strong and positive relationship,” the ambassador said. He added that this reality was underscored recently by the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — and will be again with President Barack Obama’s planned visit to Pope Francis on March 27.

“There are so many opportunities, big and small, where there is real cooperation,” the ambassador told the Register. “I can only believe that will just grow and continue, as Archbishop Mamberti said.”

Five months after the U.S. and Holy See established diplomatic relations in 1984, Pope John Paul II visited the United States. Asked if plans are afoot for Pope Francis to visit the U.S. during this anniversary year, Ambassador Hackett said, “I don’t know — that might be a big jump for this year.”

“Let’s hope,” he added, “our 30th anniversary extends to whenever he does come.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.