Event Recap: Pope Francis: Reshaping the Diplomatic Role of the Vatican

popeevent_1 Hannah Purkey is an intern with the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. Her post below discusses the highlights of our recent event, “Pope Francis: Reshaping the Diplomatic Role of the Vatican”, held at Power Center, Duquesne University, September 17, 2015. Our speaker was Ambassador Anne Leahy, former Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See.

More than 150 people were in attendance at last week’s event to welcome former Canadian Ambassador to the Holy See, Anne Leahy. Leahy spoke for around 45 minutes about Pope Francis’s influential international power as both the leader of the Catholic Church and head of a sovereign state. Many of Pope Francis’s recent achievements and current efforts for his papacy were mentioned throughout Leahy’s speech, but perhaps the most significant aspect–and the resounding theme of the evening–was the creation and development of lasting peace.

The event commenced with a short opening prayer and speech by the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Bishop David A. Zubik. Bishop Zubik began by reminding the audience of four dates that have had a great impact on both American society as well as foreign policy- December 7, 1941, November 22, 1963, September 11, 2001, and March 19, 2013. While the first three are remembered in infamy for the tragic and horrific events that occurred on those days, the latter is remembered as a landmark celebration for the inauguration of Pope Francis. On this day, thousands of people gathered to watch the Mass as the newest leader of the Roman Catholic Church took over the diocese. In the time since, Pope Francis has been using his position of power in many significant ways. Bishop Zubik expressed his own admiration for Pope Francis’s efforts to use sincerity and passion as tactics of peace and acknowledged the Pope’s role in taking action on some of the most pressing issues of our time- climate change, the refugee crisis, and human trafficking, among others.

popeevent_2During her speech, Anne Leahy examined Pope Francis’s efforts further, and in particular, she discussed their implications on a larger level. She acknowledged this by emphasizing the Pope’s character as a contributing factor for his impact on the global community. Later this week, Pope Francis will be greeted by President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. He is only the fourth Pope to meet with a U.S. president, but this visit will be monumental as Pope Francis continues to play a large role in facilitating international relations. Although his governance is based in religious scripture and he uses this as his main basis for decision making, Leahy reiterated the complexity of the multiple positions the pope plays – the Vicar of Christ, Bishop of Rome, and the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics. In this multitude of roles, Pope Francis oversees powers of legation, negotiation of treaties and mediation of states.

Pope Francis also presides over the Holy See, a sovereign state with a centralized government and relations with almost every nation in the world. The Holy See remains neutral and constantly advocates for peace and justice above all else. Pope Francis is able to use his significant international influence as a way to encourage peaceful decisions and Leahy reiterated his thoughts that peace-building and nurturing are not easy, straightforward goals- rather they take time and effort. It is in this capacity that he is able to appeal to people adhering not just to Christianity, but to all religions.

As it stands, however, being a religious leader certainly faces opposition as some people believe the epithet “religion engenders violence.” Leahy counteracts this by stating that this “simply isn’t true.” Religion is not a cause of violence, a belief Pope Francis has fought hard to uphold. Instead, he condemns those who abuse religion with violence and stands by his overarching mission of peace in order to foster stability and justice between all religious (and non-religious) communities.

Leahy draws attention to some of the main perspectives that are responsible for revering Pope Francis as such an influential and trusted person of power. For example, she lists his ability to connect with people from all different backgrounds and cultures, his concern with present issues to inspire and initiate immediate action (particularly on lesser-known issues), and his sense of urgency for proactivity in these issues.

In particular, three of the Pope’s most significant accomplishments to date stand as a direct result of his call for action. These efforts have received great admiration worldwide as key elements to promoting global stability. One of Pope Francis’s first successes was being the pioneer of efforts to assist the refugee crisis, even before the dire situation was receiving as much media attention as it is today.

In the early 2000s, Lampedusa, a small island off the coast of Italy, became a vital location for migrants fleeing parts of Africa and the Middle East as way to get to Europe. As more and more refugees came to the island, immigrant reception centers became overcrowded and living conditions slowly became inhabitable. Italy was condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) for not fulfilling a greater role in assisting the refugees, but despite its constant attempts to ask the European Union for help in resolving the refugee crisis, the European Union has repeatedly turned the Italian government down. Speaking firmly about this issue, Pope Francis shamed Europeans into taking responsibility and he held a mass vigil for the living and the dead.

In addition, Pope Francis also called for a day of fasting in hopes to inspire action to change the grim reality in Syria. The Syrian Civil War has been ongoing since uprisings began during the Arab Spring in 2011, and over 3 million refugees have fled Syria to-date (and another 3 million have been displaced within Syria). The immensity of this conflict has only increased in recent years and Pope Francis has sought to encourage understanding and pray for an end to the mass violence that has been the cause of this mass-scale displacement.

The last issue that Leahy acknowledged that has been vastly important to Pope Francis’s papacy is his position as a mediator in the restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. These countries have been in a stalemate since the Cold War, but the pope served as an intermediary between Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro in a push to reopen the borders between the two nations. Pope Francis has also planned a visit to Cuba prior to coming to the United States in order to continue to promote peace and the messages of the church.

Although Pope Francis has only a little more than two years in his position, his efforts towards peacebuilding and fostering diplomacy have been commendable. Leahy states that some of the reasons the Pope has risen to such a powerful example of change and hope is due to his credibility, continuity, and consistency. He aims to uncover issues that receive limited worldwide attention, build peace, and construct bridges. He wants to rally people to take ownership and responsibility for their own actions. In this regard, the Pope’s visit to the United States and meeting with the President will be an important step to further foster international diplomacy.