Pope Francis will give his first address to diplomats Friday when he is expected to present his own vision of justice and peace for the world.
His priorities are unlikely to greatly differ from those of Pope Benedict XVI, but his difference in style could potentially strengthen diplomatic ties with the Holy See and provoke a few surprises, according to Vatican sources.
Like his immediate predecessors, Francis will 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 on relations with Jews, Muslims, and followers of other religions, finding areas of common ground on which to collaborate. And he will probably endeavour to build diplomatic relations with states that have no formal ties with the Holy See.
But his “Franciscan” emphasis — one that focuses on protecting the poor, promoting peace, and safeguarding creation — promises to be a strong attraction, particularly to non-Catholics. Furthermore, the simplicity with which Pope Francis is likely to apply those values — always placing Christ at the centre — could be highly effective.
His openness, warmth, and spontaneity, coupled with uncompromising fidelity to the Church’s teaching, may yield dividends. Speaking on background to Newsmax, a Vatican diplomat said Pope Francis has “all the qualities to be a very good diplomat” because their most important attribute “is to love the people and to love God.”
He added that Pope Francis is also strong on doctrine “without losing that openness and closeness to the people.” Without that familiarity with people, he stressed, “It can seem like a pretence, or arrogance.”
As Pope, Francis has tried to show this closeness by shunning some of the visual trappings of papal power, most clearly shown by taking the bus rather than a papal limousine, and dispensing with traditional papal vestments. He has also gone out of his way to meet the public and be among the people — much to the chagrin of his security detail.
Addressing ecumenical and religious leaders Wednesday, he stressed the importance of friendship and respect, and referred to Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as “my brother Andrew” — an allusion to the patriarchs of Constantinople as successors of the Apostle Andrew.
It’s an approach that won him friends 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 two recently locking horns over same-sex marriage and other contentious issues.
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.
As a pontiff who loves to be among the people, Pope Francis is expected to continue a tradition begun by Paul VI and make apostolic trips — an aspect of Benedict’s papacy that had much success. He’s already received a number of invitations and it’s likely, though not a foregone conclusion, he will add Buenos Aires to his trip to Rio for the Church’s “World Youth Day” in August.
When it comes to intervening in disputes — for example, Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands — the Pope will take the traditional neutral papal line. At the same time, he is expected to promote a particular vision of justice and peace that upholds human dignity, particularly for the weakest.
He may try to forge diplomatic ties with states such as Saudi Arabia and China, and his familiar style may bring him more success in this area than under Benedict. 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, who insist they work overtime and are happy to do so. Nor do they recognize the reports of scandal in the newspapers. “It’s not a job for us, it’s a vocation,” said the Curia diplomat. “We’re happy to serve the Church here and try to do our best.” Many also serve in a parish and do some pastoral work in their free time.
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.
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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