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Vatican Diplomacy: A Listening Post for a South Africa in turmoil


Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu is a Soweto-born Catholic cleric, lecturer, writer, poet and speaker, and arts enthusiast. He has written for Spotlight Africa, Daily Maverick, The Thinker, The Huffington Post, News24, The Southern Cross and The South African. He is a lecturer in the theology department at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is chairperson of the Choral Music Archive NPC, a trustee of the St Augustine Education Foundation Trust and an advisory council member of the Southern Cross Weekly. He was listed by the Mail & Guardian in the South African Top 200 Young South Africans list 2016. He is also the recipient of the 2016 Youth Trailblazer Award from the Gauteng provincial government.

While the news of “state capture” unravelled in South Africa, his Holiness Pope Francis appointed Monsignor Peter Wells to become the Apostolic Nuncio (ambassador) of the Holy See to South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia.

Monsignor Peter Bryan Wells was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the US and was ordained in 1991 for the diocese of Tulsa. After his time at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy (diplomatic college) he served in his first diplomatic assignment in Nigeria and in 2002 was recalled to work in the Vatican. He has immense experience having worked in several capacities in the Secretariat of State.

Besides English, he speaks Italian, Spanish and German fluently. He has gained a reputation for being a hard-working man who had been the go-to man for most bishops from English-speaking countries. Upon announcing him as the new Apostolic Nuncio, Pope Francis also elevated him to Archbishop. He was ordained as such by Pope Francis in St Peter’s Basilica on 19 March 2016. Such occurrences are an opportunity to look at the man appointed, but also the entire machinery of the Holy See’s diplomatic service.

It is interesting to note that even though it has been in existence for some time very little is known about it.

The Vatican City State does not maintain relations with states and intergovernmental bodies but rather it is the Holy See that establishes relations. So even though there is a loose use of the term “Vatican diplomacy”, this does not apply formally. The Holy See is the universal government of the Catholic Church and it operates from the Vatican City State, an independent territory over which the Holy See is sovereign. Both the Holy See and the Vatican are ruled by the pope.

The two are distinct in that the Holy See predates the Vatican City State, which was only established as an independent state in 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy. The Holy See dates back to early Christianity (with the arrival of the Apostle Peter in Rome). It stretches beyond the Vatican City State and encompasses all places where there is a Catholic presence.

Diplomatic activities of the Holy See date back to medieval times. There had always been, from the earliest period of the church, different forms of papal representatives but it was in the year 1500 that the first Papal Nunciature (embassy) was established in Venice. This makes the diplomatic service of the Holy See the oldest surviving in the world. The Holy See has diplomatic relations with 180 sovereign states and has formal contacts without diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, Brunei, Somalia, Oman and Saudi Arabia. It also participates in intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations, European Union, African Union and the Organisation of American States.

The UK’s ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell, noted that what is distinct about the Holy See’s diplomacy is its vast reach. It is perhaps the only diplomatic body that stretches beyond the missions (embassies) and intergovernmental exchanges to reach even ordinary people in various countries. This vast network includes dioceses across the world and in the case of Southern Africa about 29 dioceses including Swaziland and Botswana.

These dioceses have diocesan bishops, members of the clergy, missionaries, lay organisations and even Catholic lay people. In addition, it has access to all Catholic charitable and outreach organisations such as schools, hospitals, hospices and other such organisations which spread the diplomatic access to even ordinary (nonCatholic) citizens of any given country.

This particular feature, the presence in all sectors of society, is the reason why the Holy See’s diplomatic service is considered to be an indispensable “listening post”. Edward Pentin, writing in Diplomat Magazine, notes that Vatican diplomats are very informed and are in a unique position to mediate disputes and prevent conflicts. He adds that some of their efforts do not make news because they are done behind closed doors.

  • He cites for example that in 1978 Holy See diplomats averted the “Beagle Conflict”, a border dispute between Argentina and Chile over three islands on the tip of South America, from escalating to war.
  • Other examples are the roles played by Holy See diplomats in Eastern Congo, Mozambique and even the efforts of Archbishop Pablo Puente Buces in his contribution towards the end of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.
  • In 2007, Iran captured 15 British military personnel for trespassing. The UK approached the Holy See to mediate. Holy See diplomats convinced Pope Benedict XVI to send a letter to Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei to plead for the release of captives. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad freed the captives as an Easter gift to Britain. That was a direct response to the Pope’s letter which had requested that the captives be released as an “Easter gesture of goodwill”.
  • Perhaps the most poignant example of its strength and its discreet excellence was recently displayed in the mediation between the US and Cuba which led to a deal being brokered and relations restored in December 2014. In fact, both the US and Cuba publicly credited Pope Francis and the Holy See’s ultra-discreet diplomacy.

In his address to papal representatives and nuncios in 2013, Pope Francis reminded all of his Nuncios, “We are pastors! And that we must not ever forget that. Dear Papal Representatives, be the presence of Christ, be a priestly presence, as pastors. Of course, you will not teach a particular portion of the People of God entrusted to you, you will not guide a local church, but you are pastors who serve the Church, with the role to encourage, to be ministers of communion, and also with the not always easy task of reprimanding. Always do everything with deep love. Even in relations with the civil authorities and your colleagues you are pastors: always seek the good, the good of all, the good of the Church and of every person.”

Perhaps this is the other distinctive character of a Vatican diplomat – that fundamentally their work is seen through the outlook of service. Personal sacrifice and being priests first makes them understand that even though they serve the church and indeed humanity in a global scale, they are no different to a priest who serves in a particular church in a particular place.

This notion of having the mind of a pastor makes them view those whom they serve as their flock. Thus, like a good pastor, they are prepared to risk even their lives. Archbishop Michael Courtney, who was apostolic nuncio to Burundi, was killed in 2003 after campaigning for peace in that country. Another example is Archbishop Fernando Filoni who, while he was Nuncio in Baghdad, was against the US invasion and refused to leave Baghdad as American bombs ravished Iraq.

Holy See diplomats also have another function which is of outmost importance. They assist in the affairs of the local church and are the link between local churches and the Vatican. For example, we heard from the office of the Archbishop of Durban that Cardinal Wilfrid Napier had submitted his resignation as expected upon reaching the age of 75. He did this through the Nunciature and when the Pope accepts that resignation it will be communicated through diplomatic channels. The same applies in the process of selecting bishops.

A particular feature of the Holy See’s commitment to diplomacy is that it has its own college where future diplomats of the Holy See are trained. The Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy was founded in 1701. Training lasts four years. During this time the students are taught Canon Law, languages, diplomatic history, diplomatic writings and other practical skills needed for diplomatic service. There are very few Holy See diplomats who have not gone through the academy. For this reason the standard and understanding of diplomacy among Holy See diplomats is very high.

There are countless successes of the Holy See’s diplomatic service. There are also some not so successful efforts. There are also some, both within and outside the Church, who view the Holy See’s diplomatic corps as a relic of the past or even an infringement of the separation of the Church and the state.

However, it is important to note that because the Holy See does not seek standard political agreements such as trade and so on it is positioned to contribute in other ways such as mediation, aid and emergency relief efforts. It has proven to be a very valuable resource and a good gauge of the zeitgeist of nations. DM


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