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Two experts' views on the diplomatic approach of Pope Francis

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 26, 2014

Two of Rome’s most influential Vatican-watching journalists have recently offered different perspectives on how Pope Francis has changed Vatican diplomacy.

Andrea Tornielli of La Stampa observes that when this Pope has traveled abroad, the destinations that he has chosen indicate his priorities: “attention to the outskirts, closeness with the more difficult situations even when they disappear from the radar of international attention.” Apart from his visit to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, Pope Francis has not chosen glamorous cities for his trips.

Within Italy, the Pope has opted for visits to regions hard-pressed by natural disaster, criminal influence, and the flood of immigration: Sardinia, Calabria, and Lampedusa. His next trip within Europe will take him to Albania, a country rarely mentioned in the international headlines. His schedule now includes two trips to Asia, where he will visit South Korea, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

These are not the sort of destinations that would be chosen by a globe-trotting politician, a man hoping to gain international influence. Pope Francis has not headed for the centers of power; he has chosen cities in countries that need publicity, rather than those that ensure publicity.

In other words, Pope Francis is not trying to use his foreign trips to enhance the international influence of the Holy See. Rather, he is trying to use his travel to draw attention to the world’s problem areas, to rouse public interest, to mobilize the world’s people into action to solve pressing problems that have not been adequately addressed. In a real sense he has engaged in apostolate rather than foreign policy.

When he does enter into situations fraught with political significance, Pope Francis “replaces negotiation with prayer,” says the other Vatican-watcher, Sandro Magister of L’Espresso. Magister, characterizing the Pope’s approach as the Diplomacy of the Impossible, points out that during his trip to the Holy Land, Pope Francis made his greatest impact by two unexpected gestures: stopping to pray at the “security wall” that divides Palestinian communities, and inviting the presidents of Israel and Palestine to pray together at the Vatican.

Each of these gestures was dramatic, Magister observes. Each caught observers by surprise. And each was a call to conscience rather than to political analysis. The Pope relied on simple gestures rather than on carefully crafted policy statements.

Indeed, when the Israeli and Palestinian leaders did come to Rome, Magister notes that the Pope organized the afternoon’s events without the help of the Vatican’s seasoned diplomats. The man at the Pope’s side during the ceremonies was Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the head of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, rather than the Secretary of State.

This does not mean that Pope Francis ignores the value of diplomacy, Magister argues. The Pope’s unusual approach is an attempt to touch minds and hearts directly. But he is capable of using more conventional diplomatic means as well.

For example, Magister reports, shortly after Miriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death in Sudan, the Pope met with that country’s ambassador to the Holy See. There was no public statement about that meeting, either at the time it took place or subsequently. In fact the Vatican has been quite silent on the matter. Apparently the Pope believes that whatever moral pressure he can put on the Sudanese government by quiet contact will be more effective than another public denunciation.

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