PHOTO: Ivan Leong

– Carlos M Frota

Some days ago, Pope Francis was received in Bangkok by the Thai King, Rama X, and afterwards in Tokyo by Naruhito, the new Japanese emperor.

In the two countries, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people followed the visitor, even if Catholics are a tiny minority in both nations. But thousands of believers attended the Masses celebrated by Francis in the large stadiums,  underscoring the importance of the Popes presence.

We are aware of the high esteem and respect Pope Francis enjoys around the world. And we know why he is the object of such feelings. Humble man, without a personal agenda promoting his self-importance, the Pope speaks on behalf of everybody, believers and non-believers, about issues that concern all of us: peace, development, social justice, women’s dignity and empowerment, offer of mediation in conflicts, etc.   

Welcomed always with the highest honors due to the Head of State he is, the Pope has access, in every trip abroad, to the national leaders of the countries he visits.

We can easily understand that this extraordinary position, assigned by tradition to the leader of the Catholic Church, is much more of a diplomatic tool used by the Pontiff to approach the authorities of every nation than a symbol of political power the Catholic  Church doesn’t have.    

Catholic Church, an international player

History made the Vatican an important international player for good causes, mainly in the humanitarian field. And this unique position is used by the Pope to deal with the difficulties we face to build a more peaceful world.

In this context, Pope Francis is the first diplomat of a diplomatic service. He is the boss …

During my thirty-three years in the Portuguese diplomatic service, I had the opportunity to meet different apostolic nuncios, usually bishops  – the Pope’s ambassadors – to countries linked to the Holy See by diplomatic relations.

And those countries don’t necessarily host huge Catholic communities. Israel and several Muslim countries are the best examples. 

Always very cautious and polite, the nuncios, in their usual demeanor, are the symbol of a certain esprit de corps they are trained in during their Diplomatic Academy, inside the Vatican. 

Being myself a Catholic and a diplomat, I had always nourished a huge curiosity to the institutional presence of the Catholic Church in the world and its contribution to a better relationship among countries/governments, outside and inside international organizations.

Being aware of the Church’s main agenda when dealing with the international system (fight against hunger and extreme poverty, education, health, basic rights and so on) I always judged favorably the Church’s intervention in the international arena.

An important diplomatic network

The Holy See’s diplomatic network of bilateral relations continues to grow. In 1900, only about 20 countries had diplomatic relations with the Holy See. In 1978 the number was 84; in 2005 it was 174. During Benedict XVI’s pontificate, six new countries were added to the list, and, under the leadership of Pope Francis that number has climbed to 183, with Myanmar, also called Burma, joining the list of states with full diplomatic ties with the Holy See.

There are only 13 States who have no diplomatic ties with the Holy See. Among these, eight have no Vatican envoy: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bhutan, the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Maldives and Tuvalu.

The Holy See has apostolic delegates, not fully recognized as ambassadors, in four countries: Comoros, Somalia, Brunei and Laos and it has started negotiations with Vietnam to reach full diplomatic ties, and in 2011 the Holy See appointed the first non-residential Vatican envoy to Hanoi.

Three main goals

Pontifical diplomacy has three main threads.

The first is a commitment to peace; the second is a commitment to human dignity; the third is a commitment to fight poverty.

The Vatican’s commitment to peace is practiced via the art of mediation, and the Holy See has been a critical participant in the mediation of global conflict for decades.

The Vatican’s commitment to human dignity is based on the principle that all people are equal and dignified in the sight of God. And the Church’s commitment to fight poverty is expressed in its diplomatic work for peace, international development, and support for marginalized.

Within that framework, there are two clear priorities for the diplomatic work of the Holy See.

The first is advocating for migrants and refugees. The United Nations finalized a Global Compact on Migration, that follows the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants issued in September 2016. The Holy See participated in all of the meetings, and presented 20 points of actions on the issue gathered under the four keyworks “welcome, protect, promote and integrate.”


The Pope has made migration a core issue of his pontificate: he established a special section for Migrants and Refugee within the ranks of the Vatican dicastery for the Promotion of the Integral Human Development, and the Pope is personally chairing it. The theme for the World Day of Peace 2018 was “Migrants and Refugees: Seekers of Peace,” underscoring the importance the issue has for the Holy See.

Peace and Peacekeeping

The second diplomatic focus is on peacekeeping. The Holy See aims to helping and assisting countries in achieving peace.

For at least the past 50 years, peacekeeping and the search for peace have dominated the Holy See’s public interventions.

The Holy See is working to create a path to peace by working on the formation of a new mentality, thanks to the World Day of Peace; the Holy See’s involvement in discussions on disarmament; and the Holy See’s encouragement to develop effective international institutions.

The Holy See carries on its commitment, first of all, with its work in the United Nations and other global institutions.

United Nations

The Holy See at the UN in New York delivers dozens of interventions. Its Head of Mission signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and in the name of and behalf of the Holy See was also an active participant in negotiations, and was one of the 122 States that voted in favor of the treaty, adopted on July 7, 2017.  The signing took place during the High Level Ceremony for the opening of the signing of the Treaty, in which the Holy See joined more than 40 states in signing the treaty, and was joined by only Thailand in simultaneously ratifying the treaty.”

The Holy See Mission at the UN Office in Geneva, delivered also many interventions, participating in many panels on the Global Compact on Migrations. The Holy See Mission in Geneva also represents the Holy See at the International Organization for Migration: the Holy See has been a member state of the IOM since 2012.

There is also a Holy See Diplomatic Mission in Vienna, accredited to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and to other special organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, to which the Holy See is a member state and founder.

No less important is the Holy See’s Mission at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Pope Francis has personally demonstrated that fighting world hunger is a priority to the Holy See.

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