Vatican diplomat who acts as Pope’s eyes on the world

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Vatican diplomat who acts as Pope’s eyes on the world

Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who was born in Liverpool, heads the world’s oldest diplomatic service, reports Paddy Agnew from Rome


HELPING HAND: As foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, left, is a ‘close collaborator’ with Pope Francis, meeting him at least once a week, if not more often.
HELPING HAND: As foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, left, is a ‘close collaborator’ with Pope Francis, meeting him at least once a week, if not more often.

As you walk along the marble-lined Terza Loggia in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, it is hard to ignore the sense that right here you are at the heart of power. I am on my way to talk to Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Liverpool-born priest who serves as the Vatican’s Foreign Minister.

The magnificent Terza Loggia, an inner walkway or cloister added in the Renaissance, is not only where the Secretariat of State (Prime Minister’s Office) is situated, but also where the infamous papal apartments are based. Until Pope Francis opted for the Vatican B&B, Domus Santa Marta, this was where the Pope lived and where he would take to the cloister for an evening stroll. When you see those “Urbi et Orbi” TV images of the Pope offering his blessing from an apartment window, you are looking at the Terza Loggia.

Tourists and the general public rarely get to walk around the Terza Loggia. On the way up to meet Archbishop Gallagher, I was stopped and checked by six sets of Swiss Guards or Vatican Gendarmerie. Even if I was clearly wearing my Holy See permanent accreditation, security remains understandably “tight”.

Walking along the Loggia, the painted wall “maps” all around you are a reminder not only that the Holy See has been playing the diplomatic game for a long time, but also that it has been playing it off a 360-degree, multinational canvas.

Back in the 16th Century, Pope Pius IV decided that if you were going to go out and spread the Gospel, then you had better know where you were going. So, he commissioned French cartographer Etienne Duperac to run him up a Renaissance SatNav on his walls.

The point is that the Vatican’s diplomatic mission has always been global. Depending on your viewpoint, that sees the Church sticking in its interfering nose anywhere it sees fit, to the annoyance of many. Or it can see the Church finding itself at the centre of strife and conflict.

Foreign Minister Gallagher, for example, in December 2003 was hastily summoned to the post of papal nuncio of Burundi in order to replace Tipperary man Michael Courtney, who had been assassinated, probably by militant Hutus.

Even though his car carried the Vatican’s yellow and white flag, his killers showed no respect for the nuncio’s diplomatic status, hitting his car with a burst of automatic weapon fire.

When I sat down last week with Archbishop Gallagher, I asked him about Burundi and the Courtney assassination. Had that been an especially dangerous posting?

“For the first year [2004], there was a civil war going on… It was dangerous but you learn in this trade that war has its rules and if you know the rules and keep the rules, chances are that you will probably be all right…”

Spoken like a seasoned diplomat. And Archbishop Gallagher (64), head of arguably the world’s oldest diplomatic service, is nothing if not a seasoned diplomat.

He held posts in Tanzania, Uruguay, the Philippines, Strasbourg, Burundi, Guatemala and Australia before being nominated Foreign Minister by Francis in 2014. To call him a seasoned diplomat is about as redundant as calling Cristiano Ronaldo a talented footballer.

Elegantly bearded, soft spoken with an accent that carries no hint of Liverpool, Archbishop Gallagher’s correct job description is Secretary For Relations With States or Head of the Second Section of the Secretariat of State. As such he is responsible for the diplomatic relations that the Holy See enjoys with 183 states, UN and international organisations.

Sitting in the ornate ante-chamber beside his office in the Terza Loggia, he reminds me that the Vatican diplomatic service has a vocation to serve not only the 1.3 billion-strong Catholic Church, but also all mankind.

“The Vatican diplomatic service’s role… is that of a mission rooted in the mission of Christ and the mission of Christ isn’t just directed at Christians and Catholics, it is a mission to the rest of the world…”

He concedes, however, that as players on the world stage go, the Holy See is rather different.

The Vatican state is roughly the size of an 18-hole golf course, it has no industrial economy, it has a population of approximately 1,000 and, of course, as Stalin observed, it has “no tanks”.

“So far, anyway,” agreed the foreign minister.

Today, Vatican diplomacy talks justice and peace, religious freedom, conflict resolution and environmental concerns. One of its most spectacular recent successes came in December 2014, when US President Barack Obama thanked the Pope and the Vatican for their role in helping the USA and Cuba arrive at a historic agreement.

I asked how the Holy See regarded the rather less enthusiastic view of that agreement, taken by the current White House incumbent. “Things are perhaps not perfect, progress is not rapid or as quick as we would want…”

With that, the archbishop made a hand gesture which said loud and clear that he had no wish to comment further. Worth noticing, however, that at a recent Washington seminar on religious liberty, Archbishop Gallagher sat beside US Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, wife of senior Republican Newt Gingrich.

This is called keeping all points of dialogue open. After all, he is a consummate diplomat.

Archbishop Gallagher is also the diplomat who in June 2015 signed the Vatican’s first treaty with the State of Palestine, a treaty calling for “courageous decisions” to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and backing a two-state solution. Needless to say, Israel was not much impressed, calling it a “hasty step”.

In that context of conflict resolution, I asked the foreign minister if this month’s 36-hour visit to Ireland by Pope Francis was not an opportunity missed in relation to Catholic-Protestant community tensions in Northern Ireland.

Clearly, he said, the Pope has wanted to maintain the focus of his visit on the World Meeting of Families, adding: “There will still be an ecumenical dimension to his visit to Ireland, however… He is going to encourage all the Irish to work for the peace process and to defend what has been achieved particularly since the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 20 years ago…”

Furthermore, a visit to Northern Ireland remains a possibility, he added. “I don’t think that a future visit to the North is excluded at all, perhaps it could come as part of a visit to the United Kingdom but that’s for the future…”

Last week in this newspaper, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke of how he, the majority of the Irish people and the Pope will simply have to agree to differ on issues such as the same-sex marriage and abortion referenda.

Did the foreign minister find this disrespectful?

“Not at all… Obviously, the relationship with the Catholic Church in Ireland has changed… The Church has a long tradition of being realistic, and we have to accept that this is the state of affairs at the moment, the state of the Church and society… two complicated, complex entities that have to remain in a dialogue…

“After all, family has a lot of diversities… you don’t ditch your brother or your sister because you disagree with them.”

As foreign minister, Archbishop Gallagher is nothing if not a “close collaborator” with Pope Francis. He meets with him at least once per week, if not more often.

They communicate almost always in Italian, occasionally breaking into Spanish.

The foreign minister added: “The Pope has enormous energy and a great memory, so when he asks you to do something, he has a tendency to want it to be done for yesterday and not today…

“And then the next time you see him, he immediately asks what has happened to that issue, so he keeps us on our toes.”

Curiously, Archbishop Gallagher does not owe his position to any previous familiarity with Francis, for example through his diplomatic service in Latin America.

When he first met Francis in 2013, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires had already been elected Pope.

Probably Archbishop Gallagher’s experience of having worked alongside the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was more important.

Then, too, even the Holy See cannot fail to see the advantage of having an Anglophone at the head of its diplomatic service in a world where French long ago stopped being the language of diplomacy.

And that Irish surname? He thinks that his Irish ancestors “ended up in England at the time of the Famine” but he confesses that he knows little else about the family line. Perhaps, when he has retired, he will check it out.

In the meantime, he has some more pressing business to handle, starting with 183 assorted countries.

Sunday Independent

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