Building bridges – an insight into the diplomatic work of the Holy See

SOCIETY Magazin spoke with H.E. Pedro López Quintana, Ambassador of the Holy See, about his work as Apostolic Nuncio to Austria.

What are your special duties as Apostolic Nuncio in Austria?

An Apostolic Nunciature is the top-level diplomatic mission of the Holy See, equivalent to an Embassy.

The head of the Apostolic Nunciature is called a nuncio, an ecclesiastical diplomatic title. A papal nuncio (officially known as an Apostolic nuncio) is a permanent diplomatic representative (head of diplomatic mission) of the Holy See with the ecclesiastical rank of titular archbishop.

In several countries that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the Apostolic Nuncio is ipso facto the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps,  by virtue of his office, regardless of seniority. The Congress of Vienna and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations provided that any country may choose to give nuncios a different precedence than other Ambassadors.

The nuncio is first in the order of precedence among all the diplomats accredited to the country, and he speaks for the diplomatic corps in matters of diplomatic privilege and protocol. Most countries that concede priority to the nuncio are officially Catholic, but some are not.

The diplomatic corps may also cooperate amongst itself on a number of matters, including certain dealings with the host government. In practical terms, the dean of the diplomatic corps may have a role to play in negotiating with local authorities regarding the application of aspects of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and diplomatic immunity, such as the payment of certain fees or taxes, since the receiving country is required „not to discriminate between states“ (Even though the reciprocity is the rule in many cases). In this sense, the dean has the role of representing the entire diplomatic corps for matters that affect the corps as a whole.

In Austria there are not many questions to deal because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing a good work trying to facilitate the life of the diplomatic representations. The Austrian government has a long experience in these matters, since Vienna is the base of many diplomatic representations and International Organizations.

In addition, the nuncio serves as the liaison between the Holy See and the Church in that particular nation. The nuncio has an important role in the selection of bishops.

Where have you been before coming to Austria?

Before arriving in Austria, as Apostolic Nuncio I was in India, in Canada and in the Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). I also stayed in Madagascar and in the Philippines and India, as diplomat. I was twice in India, the first time as diplomatic counsellor and afterwards as Ambassador. I really enjoyed living in all these countries.

In India I had the opportunity to visit almost every part of the country, knowing its culture and traditions, and also tasting the different cuisine. I prefer the cuisine of the North, because it is more varied and not so spicy. I truly like to experience the traditions and culture in different countries.

Does the Pope have any plans about coming to Austria?

 As you know the Holy Father is constantly travelling. Every year he is visiting almost two or three countries, but for the moment, as he says, he prefers to visit “small countries” or countries with a particular or peculiar situation. In Europe he has visited Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Romania, the Caucasian countries or the Baltic countries. There are other countries with a specific history and situation, where there might be more need for the Pope to visit. Besides, the Holy Father has not even been yet to his country of origin, Argentina. He visited Chile and the neighboring countries but not his own, because these visits are not out of pleasure. As you see, all his journeys have a specific aim.For instance, he was in Arab Emirates and Morocco to establish and reinforce the dialogue with the Islamic world. He will also travel to Thailand and Japan, to dialogue with the Buddhism and also to remember the nuclear history. The Holy Father is very involved in these actions and questions.

Other topics that are very important to him are peacekeeping, protection of the nature and the promotion of the human being. Additionally, as I already said, he is busy with creating and promoting dialogues between different cultural and religious groups and the social promotion which is the need of this time.

What does the Pope think about Greta Thunberg?

There is not an official opinion of the Holy Father. But I can say that we are encouraging her actions to protect and defend nature. We support everything related to the protection of our world and we want to educate people about that. That is also what Greta Thunberg does, making people aware of the climate crisis. In other words, she creates sensitivities about environmental problems, especially among young people. All of this is very important, because it is their future, if we destroy the planet, we destroy their future and their lives. Hence, we have to protect nature and save their future. The Church in Austria is also doing a lot in this regard.

Is your work in Austria different from other countries?

Every post has its own peculiarity. There is a part though, which is similar to the work in other countries, the work with the church. We have to represent the Holy See in front of the local church, including the communication between the local church in Austria and the Holy Father. Secondly, we as diplomats represent the Holy See in front of the government.

In particular, our goals are to defend the human being and the human and christian values and to promote that in foreign countries. We try to animate the countries in this way, and also to promote disarmament and to create peace.

In Austria, the Catholic Church and the government have a good relationship, based on mutual respect. Our job as Nuncios is to maintain these relations and to collaborate with the government in common actions. In other countries, as it was the case in India, we have also to defend the Catholic Church more than in other parts of the world.

How are your relations with the Austrian official church?

They are very good. I mean, we are brothers of the same church. We are in the same boat. As brothers we work and collaborate to maintain the good relations between the universal church and the local church in Austria. To put it differently, we live in the same reality but we have our own responsibility.

You have diplomatic relations with more than 180 countries in the world. Could you describe them in more detail?

The Holy See has currently 104 Embassies worldwide with a resident Apostolic Nuncio. We have relations with 183 countries in the world, to these we must add the European Union and the Sovereign Order of Malta. It follows that, in order to cover all the countries that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, a number of Nuncios hold more than one title or are accredited to more than one country at the same time. For example myself, when I was covering the 3 Baltic countries.

At the multilateral level, these representations have developed very rapidly: the first was opened in 1949. Today the Holy See is present at 34 International Organizations and regional organizations – at some as members and at some as observers.

It is worth pointing out that the Holy See maintains this vast system of diplomatic relations with an extremely small staff. The total number of Apostolic Nuncios, as mentioned earlier, is about one hundred, while there are twelve Representatives to International Organizations. Junior diplomatic personnel – those who serve in the diplomatic missions of the Holy See – number of about 142 clerics. They come from more than 50 different nations.

It remains clear that the motivation of different States that wish to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See is not because of the international significance of Vatican City State – which although not negligible, is very small – but rather because of the importance of the Apostolic See, if not among their own population, then certainly on the international stage.

Which are the countries you do not have relations with?

For nations with which the Holy See has no diplomatic ties, it sends an Apostolic Delegate to serve as a liaison with the Roman Catholic Church in that nation, though not accredited to the government of the state. Apostolic delegates are also titular archbishops but have no formal diplomatic status, though in some countries they have some diplomatic privileges. These states are: Comoros, China, Maldives, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia and Oman), Brunei-Darussalam, Laos, Kosovo, Pacific Ocean (Tuvalu).

Without any relation: Afghanistan, Bhutan; Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

How can we imagine the role of the Holy See as mediator?

In the situations of conflict, we try to mediate and collaborate. When succeeding in establishing peace, we do not expect any special recognition for doing that. It is simply what we do.

Whenever there is a conflict in a country, we try to collaborate to end it. We try to mediate, to collaborate or to be a referee, sometimes not directly or officially, but in a more discrete way, depending on the local government.

For example, the Holy See has acted as a mediator in the conflict between Chile and Argentina, in 1984 .

Additionally, we try to meet the parts in conflict personally. Recently, for instance, the Holy Father has planned to visit South Sudan to mediate, because the country is still suffering from violence. He invited the different leaders of the conflict to the Vatican, after the meetings, the Holy Father kissed their feet as a sign of peace, according to the Bible verse “Blessed are the feet of the people who bring peace”. As a result, they achieved a compromise between the parties in conflict.

We try to mediate in our own way and to build a peace, also in the Middle East. Sometimes our work involves finding solutions for social problems too, for example to improve the situation of workers.

Furthermore, in Ecuador we recently mediated in the conflict between the president and the indigenous people. Also in Venezuela and Nicaragua, we tried to mediate with more or less success or acceptance. Some countries do not want our help but we still try to improve their situation. Other times, it is not possible to intervene directly, so we try to pacify people and to decrease violence. We animate them to resist peacefully and open the way of peace.

Also, after signing a peace agreement, our work is not always done. It is still necessary to cure many wounds. For example, when I was in Nepal, after the end of a long conflict, a new period for the country begun. Nevertheless, it was still necessary for the church to contribute to cure the wounds of the people and to try to reconcile the different parts. For example, we worked with the widows from both sides of the conflict and really tried to reconcile them and helped them finding back into their lives. As Ambassadors, we try to animate and push the local church to do that. This kind of work makes me happy as Nuncio of the Holy See.

Do you have a special aim for the diplomatic activities in Austria?

In Austria it is possible to achieve a lot of things, because it is a peaceful country. Especially Vienna is an important point for meetings and to plan activities because it is the place of many International Organisations and agencies that work together for peace in the world. For example, it is home to the nuclear agency, which tries to find a peaceful use of nuclear energy and promotes disarmament. 

Austria as a centre of all these peace-making organisations is very useful for Europe and the rest of the world and has a like bridge-making function. For this, I am very happy to work in Austria. As you know, the Holy Father is also called Pontifex, which means “the bridge builder”, and this is the main goal of our policy, to be bridge builder for peace, understanding, collaboration, respect, generosity, solidarity to create a better world.

Fotos: SOCIETY/Pobaschnig