What the Church Is Doing at UNESCO

Holy See Ambassador Talks of His Mission, and Christmas as a Child

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By Anita S. Bourdin

ROME, DEC. 22, 2011 (Zenit.org).- There are four main reasons that the Holy See seeks to participate with permanent observer status in the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris.

Monsignor Francesco Follo, the permanent observer, has just explained the Holy See’s mission there in a book, «La mission du Saint-Siege a l’Unesco: La Paix en question.»

Monsignor Follo spoke to ZENIT about his role — and also agreed to give us a reflection on Christmas, just three days away.

ZENIT: How does it feel to be a priest in UNESCO?

Monsignor Follo: UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is concerned with education, the sciences (natural and human), culture, communication and information. Its main objective is to contribute to maintaining peace and security precisely through education, science and culture, communication and information, collaboration between nations, to ensure universal respect for justice, the law, the rights of man and the fundamental liberties of all, with no distinctions of race, sex, language or religion, which the United Nations Charter recognizes for all nations.

The Holy See is present due to its specific sovereignty, but due primarily «to the organic and constitutive bond that exists between religion in general and Christianity in particular, on one hand, and culture on the other hand» (John Paul II’s address during his visit to UNESCO, June 2, 1980), and «to be part of the reflection and commitment» of UNESCO (Benedict XVI’s Message for the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s visit to UNESCO, June 2, 2005).

The presence of a priest — with diplomatic status — represents the Vatican in an entity with 193 member states, and is desired and considered useful for a dialogue with the world and for the Church to be able to make her contribution to an entity that was created in favor of peace, because, as the preamble of UNESCO’s act of foundation states, «[S]ince wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.»

Said in a different way and briefly, the Holy See is in UNESCO for four main reasons. First to have the voice of the Catholic Church heard in matters of education, natural and social sciences, culture and communication.

Second, to be a connection between UNESCO’s member states and the Holy See, which coordinates its activities in the whole of international organizations.

Third, to reinforce UNESCO’s international cooperation with UNESCO’s family members but also with organisms of the civil society such as NGOs.

And finally, to contribute to build a civilization of love as Pope John Paul II often affirmed and as Benedict XVI has reiterated forcefully in his teaching.

Personally, I try to carry out my task being a teacher because I am a father, a happy father in the Spirit for the greatest possible number of sons and daughters.

ZENIT: Now share with us a recollection of your youth, in the spirit of helping us celebrate Christmas.

Monsignor Follo: I remember a particular Christmas of my youth: I was in Lourdes when I heard a song that told about the visit of the Wise Kings to Jesus. The song said that the three Wise Men arrived in the cave with love, bringing their gifts: gold, incense and myrrh, and that they were accompanied by many servants, among them a clown. This small man, dressed in a ridiculous way, had been judged unworthy to be introduced to the Holy Family. So he stayed behind and a wall of people was raised between him and the Child Jesus. As he was small in stature, he couldn’t see anything and would jump to be able to see Jesus. His agitation made the little bells ring that were hanging from his buffoon’s costume. Hearing the ting-a-ling and fearing that it would awaken the newborn, the Virgin asked who was responsible for it. The wall of people opened and someone pointed to the clown as the one responsible for the noise. The Savior’s Mother smiled and after receiving the Wise Kings’ gifts, she asked this poor man what present he brought for Jesus. The clown had empty hands, but he quickly answered: «I bring him my capacity to marvel.»

After hearing this story I tried to live Holy Christmas cultivating the capacity to wonder with gratitude because God loves me, to the point of coming into our midst. I also try to see myself as he sees me, in the light of his holiness and in the love of his heart that gives itself to us. And it is with this look in my eyes and heart that I try to look at others who are with me, before the Crib.

ZENIT: Where should Christmas be celebrated?

Monsignor Follo: If it is a question of being astonished before God who makes himself small. The place to do so is the home: that of the family, that of God. If we do not live in communion with others, beginning with those in our family … there is no common life and no real community life, except in the praise of God who brings us to contemplate his birth.

ZENIT: Why did you choose the priesthood?

Monsignor Follo: Rather, for whom did I do so. This «for whom» is Christ. He has always fascinated me, I have always esteemed him and I have always and increasingly loved him more, and I have looked on him as my friend.

ZENIT: How did Christ call you to this vocation?

Monsignor Follo: Through persons, among them the holy priest of my parish. Love influenced me when I was small, the example and good sense of my parents, whose simple and solid faith (my father was a laborer and my mother a hairdresser), helped me find Christ in the concreteness of daily life and in the midst of the family and of the people. But I must also add the vicar who managed the sponsorship, when I was in primary school. His priestly devotion made me appreciate the life of the priest. Finally, my spiritual father, who has died, but who made my vocation solid, helping me to make an intelligent and enamored experience of the Church in as much as communion. 

This priest made me understand, among other things, that there is no true life if it isn’t in communion with our brothers and sisters of humanity, but that there is no life in communion unless in the praise of God. From that moment my main desire has been to fill the Church with faithful. And if I’m asked: What prayer would you say now without thinking twice about it? I would answer immediately: Thy Kingdom come. And the Church is the sacramental sign of his royalty of God over the world. The Church isn’t against the world, or outside the world. The Church is on the side of the saved world.

ZENIT: Have other persons helped you to put down roots in your vocation?

Monsignor Follo: Certainly. One of them was Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who taught me to serve God by recognizing him in the poor. … In Rome for 30 years, and now in Paris, I work with the Missionaries of Charity. 

Another person who helped me a lot was Blessed John Paul II, whom I had the good fortune to meet thanks to my work in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State. He taught me how to be a teacher and guide to truth for the persons entrusted to me in my priestly ministry: being a strong father because of being a «man of God,» and praying, because prayer is the soul of every apostolate (in the confessional or in the office). And working for the Church where obedience puts us.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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