When it comes to international relations, Pope Francis’ priorities are unlikely to greatly differ from those of Pope Benedict XVI. But his difference in style could potentially harvest abundant fruit in terms of bringing others to Christ and strengthening ties with the Holy See.
Like his immediate predecessors, Francis is expected to continue to stand up for persecuted Christians, religious freedom and conscience rights. He will take up the challenge of reminding the world not to eliminate God from the public square.
He will carry on working to build up relations with Jews, Muslims and followers of other religions, finding areas of common ground on which to collaborate. And he will probably endeavor to build diplomatic relations with states that have no formal ties with the Holy See, most notably with China and Saudi Arabia.
His Franciscan emphasis promises to be a strong attraction, protecting the poor, promoting peace, safeguarding creation and overall presenting the world with a truly Catholic vision of justice and peace. Furthermore, the simplicity with which Pope Francis is likely to apply those values in dealing with world issues — always with Christ placed at the center — promises to be highly effective.
But it is his openness, warmth and spontaneity, coupled with uncompromising fidelity to the Magisterium, which could have the biggest impact.
Speaking on background to ZENIT, a Vatican diplomat said he foresaw continuity with Benedict’s ever-present desire to spread the message of the Gospel and help people to know Christ. But in addition, the official said he believes people could become even “more conscious of the grace they have received” due to Francis’ warmth and closeness to the people.
“Pope Francis has all the qualities to be a very good diplomat because the most important thing in a diplomat is to love the people and to love God,” he said. “But he is also strong on doctrine without losing that openness and closeness to the people.” He stressed that without being close to the people, “it can seem like a pretense, or arrogance.”
As Pope, Francis has tried to show this closeness by shunning some of the visual trappings of papal power and placing himself among the people.
He showed this again on Wednesday when he addressed fraternal delegates with respect, in particular by referring to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as “my brother Andrew” — an allusion to the patriarchs of Constantinople as successors of the Apostle Andrew.
But Pope Francis also used the occasion to underline how important it is to maintain good relations with non-Catholics, and placed emphasis on the importance of “friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions.”
Such an approach was clearly a hallmark of his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires. After addressing the delegations on Wednesday, the Argentine Jewish and Muslim representatives embraced Pope Francis like a dear old friend. His relations also remain cordial with President Cristina Kirchner: Despite the fact that the two recently locking horns over same-sex “marriage” and other issues, they met privately and lunched together last week.
Vatican sources say many delegations attending Pope Francis’s inaugural Mass were “very happy” after meeting him immediately following the ceremony. So much so, that even Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe told reporters on his return from Rome that he wants Pope Francis to visit Africa because he is “a man of God who will be praying for all of us, praying for the sinful world to repent.” Mugabe, long accused of systematic human rights abuses, even urged reporters to go to church, lead a morally guided life, and avoid heavy drinking, according to an AP report.
As a Pope who is able and wants to be among the people, Pope Francis is expected to continue a tradition of making foreign trips begun by Paul VI. He’s already received a number of invitations, including of course one to Argentina. It’s thought, however, that he won’t be visiting the country before or after World Youth Day in Rio in July, but toward the end of the year, in order to avoid elections taking place at that time.
In terms of intervening in disputes, such as that over the Falkland Islands between Argentina and Britain, officials believe he will take the usual papal position and remain neutral. The British government is known not to be happy with comments Francis made as cardinal (like most Argentines, he said the islands were “usurped” by Britain), but it remains respectful of the Pope.
The Holy Father may adopt a mediatory role if the dispute again deteriorates into a military conflict, but in such a case, he will probably assign a neutral Vatican diplomat to mediate, as Blessed John Paul II successfully did when Argentina and Chile clashed over disputed islands in the Beagle Channel in the 1980s.
Pope Francis is likely to continue Benedict’s efforts and try to forge diplomatic ties with states such as Saudi Arabia and China. His familiar style and natural diplomatic skills may bring him more success in this area.
But Vatican sources say this won’t be a priority for him; rather his focus will be on the internal workings of the Church. That naturally includes the Roman Curia, which many see as needing reform, particularly in the realm of improving internal communications between the Vatican Secretariat of State, missions to the Holy See and other dicasteries.
But stories of power struggles, worldly ambition and turf wars in the Vatican are being overplayed, say some officials, and they don’t recognize the reports of widespread scandal. One senior official in the Secretariat of State told ZENIT he learned about the whole Vatileaks affair in the newspapers, and the controversy didn’t impinge on his daily life at all.
“They’re the sort of problems that go on anywhere, but it’s not been my experience,” he said, although he did imply efficiency could be improved with regards communication — possibly pointing to why he hadn’t heard of incidents of malpractice.
“We relate to our superiors, and not horizontally, so we don’t know very much of what’s going on in other sections,” he explained. “We have no direct access to what goes on in other dicasteries or other parts of the Secretariat of State. Indeed, there have been times I’ve read in newspapers what was happening down the corridor.”
The Curial diplomat also said he and his colleagues were hard working, and that in their free time, they spend time in a parish and carry out pastoral work. “There’s collaboration among us, and I don’t see corruption around, though of course all of us have to convert every day,” he said. “It’s not a job for us, it’s a vocation, and we’re happy to serve the Church here and try to do our best.”
A better picture of Pope Francis’s priorities in terms of Holy See diplomacy will emerge on Friday, when he addresses diplomats accredited to the Holy See. Also highly significant will be who he chooses as Secretary of State, Secretary for Relations with States (the Holy See’s “foreign minister) and other key appointments.
How Pope Francis ultimately approaches foreign relations will also depend on who he chooses to be his closest aides. So far, he has reappointed them only on a temporary basis, and a raft of new appointments is expected in the coming weeks.