My first six months at the Holy See

Aug 2, 2013 |

My first six months at the Holy See

Mass of Inauguration of the Pontificate of Pope Francis, 19 March 2013.

The following is a guest blog by Steve Townsend, Deputy Head of Mission. It is difficult to think that I have already finished the first six months of my four-year posting to the Holy See. The time seems to flown past.

Why did I apply for the job? I am interested in “soft power” – the ability to achieve your objectives through attraction or by working with others, rather than coercion. The United Kingdom is quite good at this, but we would not claim that we have all the answers. The Holy See must also be one of the main proponents of soft power – Stalin was right that the Pope does not have any divisions. However they have a network of nuncios, NGOs, religious and faithful spread throughout the world; providing a range of views and information unique among nations. How does this all tie together, and how can the UK work with them for our mutual gain? Many of our international priorities, such as human rights, are the Holy See’s priorities as well – although we do not always totally see eye-to-eye. We have different contacts and information sources – together they can provide a fuller picture, and possibly suggest solutions.

I was told that it would take a good six months to get into the rhythm of the Holy See and to work out how the institution fitted together. However, my plans for a gentle introduction were thrown into disarray by Benedict XVI’s announcement of his resignation. My learning curve suddenly became very steep. Without the help and patience of my colleagues in the Embassy, and people all around Rome and the Vatican, I would have been lost. The run-up to the conclave, and the event itself, were fascinating. I learnt that events in 1294 still have a resonance today.  I learnt that just a shot of a chimney, with the occasional visit by a passing gull, could make riveting television. I shared the initial “Who?” moment when the new Pope was introduced on the balcony for the first time (and no, like many much more experienced than me, I did not pick Cardinal Bergoglio as the next Pope).

And the effect of Pope Francis has been extraordinary. He is now the second most followed world leader on Twitter, but he is the most influential if you include re-tweets. Acres of newsprint have been dedicated to him and his homilies. He has intrigued the world with the little touches, such as paying his own hotel bill, or staying in the Domus Santa Marta rather than moving into the Papal apartments. His recent visit to Lampedusa has re-invigorated the debate about migration. His homilies have spoken directly to people, in the words that they can relate to. Three million young people on Copacabana beach (in the pouring rain) is a testament to his pulling-power.

There are many questions outstanding. How will Pope Francis reform the Curia? How will he affect the Holy See’s foreign policy? Will the Church’s teaching change on any of the key issues confronting it? What will happen to the Vatican Bank?  I do not know – but I look forward to finding out!


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