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The Universal Papacy

British Ambassador to Holy See Reflects on Pope Francis’ Speech to Diplomats

Below are the reflections of British Ambassador to the Holy See Nigel Baker on the Pope’s speech to diplomats given this Monday at the Vatican. This reflection, entitled ‘The Universal Papacy,’ is from Ambassador Baker’s blog available on the British Embassy to the Holy See Website:


The Universal Papacy

The title may have startled you. It was Pope Innocent III, back in the 13th century, who declared that as ‘Vicar of Christ’ the Pope had received from God “not only the universal church but the whole world to govern”. Even at the time, secular rulers begged to differ, leading to centuries of competition for authority between popes and kings. By the 19th century, any Papal pretensions to secular power had vanished entirely. No one today, least of all Pope Francis, talks of the Pope’s “plenitude of power” as did Innocent III.

And yet this week has seen more than a hint of the application of papal global authority. Not, of course, in secular terms. But with Pope Francis embarking on a major tour of Sri Lanka and the Philippines – just a few months after his last foray to Asia in South Korea – and his traditional New Year’s speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See still ringing in my ears, it is worth pausing to reflect on the modern ‘universal’ role of the Pope.

In short, it is difficult to imagine any other leader with similar stature addressing the world in quite the way Pope Francis is currently doing. The Secretary General of the United Nations does have a global mandate, but he is at the beck and call of the 193 member states of the organisation. Pope Francis speaks for himself, the Catholic Church, and the global Holy See network, and does so in a ‘universal’ fashion that, despite globalisation, few others are prepared to do.

Who else, in a single tour d’horizon, can address with such force religious fundamentalism – which “before it eliminates human beings by perpetrating horrendous killings, eliminates God himself, turning him into a mere ideological pretext”? Or the civil conflicts ravaging Africa requiring “common commitment … to pursue reconciliation, peace, and the defence of the transcendent dignity of the person”; the need for action against the causes and not only the effects” of global migration; the role of diplomacy and dialogue to counter “the full potential of man’s destructive power”? Which other leader is addressing the increasing range and intensity of global conflict – “ a true world war fought piecemeal” – by joining up the dots from Ukraine (requiring “a renewed spirit of respect for international law”) to Nigeria, Pakistan to Colombia?

The visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines will see the Pope reaching out to Asia, addressing vital global issues like inter-religious tension, the need for a better pattern of development, and climate change. This year will see further visits to Africa, Latin America, Europe, and to the United Nations itself. The Papal footprint is growing. It would be wrong even to try to make a comparison with the medieval papacy. But I think even Innocent III would be impressed.

Nigel Baker


On ZENIT’s Web page:

Pope’s Address to Diplomats:

On the NET:

Link to the original piece on Ambassador Baker’s Blog:

About Nigel Baker

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