The United States Embassy to the Holy See has been the focus of a good deal of media attention lately.
Shortly after Ambassador Ken Hackett, who served for 40 years in Catholic Relief Services, presented his credentials to the Holy See, reports emerged that the embassy would controversially move from its original location to nearer the US Embassy to Italy. The State Department held a recent press conference to dispel “myths” regarding what some have criticized as a snub to relations with the Holy See.
In this first of two parts of a Dec. 5th interview with ZENIT, Ambassador Hackett discusses his hopes of fostering a positive relationship with the Holy See, shares his reflections on the recent visits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and talks about the possibility of President Obama visiting Pope Francis.
ZENIT: Ambassador Hackett, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ambassador Hackett: I am originally from Boston. I went to Boston College. I eventually hired and married my wife who is also from the Boston area. Although we never really lived there. After we got married we moved to the Philippines, had our first child in the Philippines. I was transferred 5 years later to Kenya, and we had our second child in Kenya. I came back to the United States as the Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Relief Services. I lived for almost 24 years in Baltimore trying to run Catholic Relief Services. I retired in February 2012, went to Florida, and was happy. I went to the beach, played tennis, played golf. And then we got the call from the White House asking if we would take this position which we were honored and pleased about. And here we are!
With Catholic Relief Services, we lived in the Philippines. For 12 years, I was the Africa Regional Director so I spent most of my time traveling around Sub-Saharan Africa. I had a position with CRS following that in which I dealt with all of the dioceses of the United States and fund raising.
ZENIT: You presented your credentials to the Holy Father? Was there anything in particular that struck you from that meeting or that you discussed?
Ambassador Hackett: Well I presented my credentials on October 21st, which is the anniversary of the American Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. My wife had ordered a Kateri Tekakwitha coin, we didn’t get it on time so I couldn’t get it from home. We talked about the situations in the world – the terrible situation in Syria, the suffering, the hope for peace, the hope for efforts where the government of the United States and the Holy See can collaborate on issues, whether it be sectoral issues, such as trafficking of persons, to the bigger issues of peace and conflict. We didn’t get into game plans but there was a very generalized discussion.
What I got from [the audience] is, first of all, [that] he has a very pastoral way about his persona. He gives off vibrations that make you feel very close, very comfortable, and that he really cares. And he talks to you as a person. He was speaking Spanish, I was speaking English and we had a translator. He understood the English much more than I understood the Spanish. He did speak slowly and he was trying to communicate in Spanish even though I didn’t get it. And it was that nice, warm closeness that he gives off to virtually everybody. It’s a special aura that he has that comes from his deep faith.
ZENIT: Pope Francis has placed much emphasis on issues such as poverty, immigration and peaceful resolutions to conflicts in the world – issues that are relevant to the United States. As US Ambassador, what are your thoughts on the Holy Father’s stance on those issues? What areas do you see where the Holy See and the United States can work together?
Ambassador Hackett: The United States is deeply concerned about the conditions of migrants. Not just the people coming from North Africa, from places like Eritrea and Syria that are coming into Europe, but the whole question of migration. The US has, for many years, been actively supporting efforts to deal with refugees, displaced persons and we want to continue to do that.
The Holy Father has, it appears, a particular concern about the whole issue of trafficking. So this is trafficking of persons, trafficking of labor, and when you really get down to the terrible part, trafficking people for body parts, the sex trade. And he has encouraged those in the Vatican to find some ways to encourage. And we, the United States government, want to engage as well and we’re ready to support those issues. For instance, there is a nun here in town. She is a Philippine nun and she has done terrific work in engaging and helping other women religious to understand this whole phenomenon of trafficking and how horrible it is and what they can do about it. And we’ve been financially supporting them and we hope to continue to do that. That is one small issue. There’s going to be a press service for World Hunger next week. It’s going to be in Trastevere and the whole Caritas network, which includes my old agency Catholic Relief Services, will be taking part in it. And I’ll be down and present there. It’s small efforts that we do here but the US government does much more around the world. In taking care of the Syrian refugees, most of that assistance is US assistance on the humanitarian side. And we want to continue some of those things – and to get to the most substantive things where there are opportunities to work together in issues of peace between the United States and the Holy See. Those are the areas we will collaborate.
ZENIT: Given the situation in Syria, it seemed that Russia and the Holy See were more on the same page than with the United States. What are your thoughts on President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the Holy Father?
Ambassador Hackett: I wouldn’t read it exactly that way. I think we had a touch of opportunism on the part of [President] Putin. I think the Holy See was saying “Let’s find a peaceful way.” President Obama also wanted to find a peaceful way. But to this day there are still terrible horrors being perpetrated on the people of Syria and we haven’t found a peaceful resolution yet. So, to get people to the table it looks like it’s going to happen but it took some arm twisting. And that’s part of diplomacy: sometimes, you need to twist it pretty hard to get people to see a path forward.
I believe the Holy See is actively engaged in supporting peaceful resolutions of the situation there. And in that we can find common cause on for certain. But every day we hear more horrors: the twelve nuns who were taken, we don’t know what has happened to them. But I wouldn’t characterize it as Pope Francis and President Putin lined up on one side of the field and President Obama and President Hollande on the other. That, to me, is a mischaracterization.
ZENIT: What are your thoughts on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the Holy Father?
Ambassador Hackett: What I have learned is that it was positive. Prime Minister Netanyahu certainly wants a visit with Pope Francis. According to people I have talked to, there is no specific date, they are still in discussion. There are discussions with the Israelis, with Patriarch Bartholomew, with the Palestinians, with the Jordanians. And it looks like there will be a visit sometime in May. You’ve heard speculation for the end of May but others have told me that there really isn’t a date yet. That’s one side of it.
The other side is the whole negotiation on the relationships between the Holy See and the State of Israel on property, on school, on taxes, etc. I don’t believe the Holy Father went into all those details but I would have to believe that Archbishop [Pietro] Parolin did.
And then the bigger, more substantive and fundamental issue of peace between Israel and Palestine. I’m sure the Holy Father encouraged a movement in that direction. I understand that the Prime Minister went into a long history of the relationship between Israel and Palestine. I believe there might have been some mention of the Iranian situation in the meeting between the Prime Minister and the Holy Father. I know there was a discussion about it during the meeting with the [Vatican] Secretary of State.
These opportunities for dialogue are good. And it would be my hope that sometime we can get Secretary Kerry or President Obama out here. That is my hope.
ZENIT: That was going to be my next question. Are there any plans for a visit by Secretary of State Kerry or President Obama?
Ambassador Hackett: There are no dates on the table. Secretary Kerry told me at my meeting with him back in Washington that he indeed wanted to come and that his wife also wanted to come. I know that President Obama would like to come at the right time and the right occasion. I know it’s not on the desk calendar yet but it’s not going to be left off the desk calendar.
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On ZENIT’s web page:
To read part 2, go to: