The Roman Curia is a black box with well-kept secrets, who assists the pope in governing the universal Church. Immersed in this Machine that is both a powerful government organization and a small NGO. Today, Vatican diplomacy works to bring the message of the Catholic Church to the international arena, including in times of war.
This Thursday 24 february 2022, the Apostolic Palace wakes up. Russia's invasion of Ukraine cold-gathers Secretariat of State 'Second Section' personnel – translate : Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Holy See. The Vatican may have one of the most informed diplomatic networks in the world, no more than others did he foresee that events would thus accelerate during the night. " Honestly, no one expected it", remember, disappointed, one of the diplomats who roam the halls of the third floor of the palace.
The pope received the news via the encrypted channel reserved for the most serious cases. He has the habit of consulting the dispatches of his services as soon as 4 hours of the morning, before retiring to his chapel to pray. The staff of the second section, his, arrives later, around 8 hours. Sixty men and women, in total, including a good number of priests and nuns. Behind the high walls that encircle the smallest state in the world, they have been following the evolution of the crisis in eastern Europe for months. It is a Romanian prelate who is in charge of the Ukraine-Russia-Belarus zone.. These last months, he kept sending alarmist memos to his superiors, Mgr Paul R. Gallagher, Pope's Foreign Minister, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Holy See Secretary of State. In the field, the nuncios (ambassadors) in kyiv and Moscow have also multiplied diplomatic notes. It is with this information that, a few weeks earlier, the pope deemed it necessary to launch a solemn appeal for dialogue and peace.
No result. Like other chancelleries, many in the Holy See believed Vladimir Putin would not follow through on his threat. “I was convinced that he would not go all the way”, entrusts a diplomat of the pope. Besides, how far will he go ? No one knows. » Our contact person, That day, is deeply pessimistic. Faced with such a situation, what is the power of the vatican ? no army, no economic power. How then to influence the affairs of the world ? Putin's cynicism has nothing to envy to that of Stalin in his time (" Pope, how many divisions ? »). The current Russian president does not hesitate to embark the highest authorities of Orthodoxy to endorse his military adventures.
In these conditions, the Holy See must limit itself to this role of mediator, the one he has often played in recent decades, especially in Latin America. Assets, discreet, well established, his field diplomats intervened in Bolivia, in Colombia or Nicaragua. But these were essentially internal conflicts.. The Ukrainian case is different. In the first weeks after the invasion, in the “second section” it is hinted that Vatican mediation is possible. Without really having any illusions. " Basically, nobody believed it, but it made sense to offer our services”, comments a Vatican source with hindsight.
An element further complicates the situation in this troubled period. You have to reckon with the unpredictability of Pope Francis. His tendency to go it alone (read our editions of Monday August 1st) disconcerts its administration but also all the diplomatic corps which gravitates around the Holy See. The ambassadors rack their brains to try to explain to their governments the positioning of the sovereign pontiff. His discourse of condemning the war without ever naming those who started it arouses perplexity among Westerners. Not to mention this gesture with a very strong symbolic significance but difficult to interpret which marked the spirits in the first hours of the war.. Friday 25 february, after the invasion of Ukraine, François goes without notice to the Russian ambassador. This impromptu visit provokes severe reactions from diplomats stationed in Rome : " It makes no sense ", one of them sighs, discovering the images of the pope leaving the Russian embassy in an unmarked car, a stone's throw from Saint-Pierre square.
The misunderstanding is all the greater because the majority of men and women on mission here hold Vatican diplomacy in high esteem.. The small team of the Apostolic Palace is much smaller than those of the Quai d'Orsay, from the US State Department or the British Foreign Office. She lives up to her reputation by playing to her strengths. Starting with this exceptional network which is admired by chancelleries around the world.
In 183 pays, the apostolic nuncios collect the information transmitted by the religious communities which finely mesh the territories, both in cities and in more remote areas. The Pope's Ambassadors Never Leave Their Posts, even in case of conflict. This was the case in Iraq or Syria. And of course in Ukraine. The Apostolic Nuncio, Mgr Visvaldas Kulbokas, is one of only two Western diplomats – along with his Polish counterpart – to have remained in kyiv during the first weeks of the war. Local disorders, political changes, natural disasters : nothing escapes the antennas of the “second section”. At the risk of saturation. “They have a lot of information but do not always know how to interpret it, do we temper in an embassy in Rome. For analysis, They need us. »
Internally too, Vatican diplomacy enjoys a special status and reputation. These last months, the Pope has never ceased to praise the qualities of Bishop Gallagher but also those of the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinals Pietro Parolin. “He trusts them”, summarizes a familiar from Sainte-Marthe, where francis lives. The “second section” is moreover one of the only services to have been spared by the great reform of the Curia, coming into force in June 2022.
"Probably because we have no money, and therefore not much power, smiles an inside source. This guarantees us to be relatively quiet. " Fact, the cost of this exceptional network is quite modest. The Holy See certainly spends 40 million euros per year to run the apostolic nunciatures. But for the rest, Vatican diplomacy works on the economy. Apart from the papal trips and the trips of Pietro Parolin and Paul Gallagher, the heads of the various offices travel very little.
It is that the diplomacy of the Holy See does not practice the coup. Its specificity is to be part of the long term. Relations with China are an interesting example on this point.. When two years ago, the agreement between Rome and Beijing governing the appointments of bishops needs to be extended, the discussions drag on, to the point that they seem to get bogged down. Who is surprised, a negotiator retorts : “We are not fifty years away. It is this same relationship to time that explains the balancing act of the Holy See in the Ukrainian conflict.. Talk to all, waiting for the next. Keep the doors open, hoping for a ceasefire and return, one day, at the negotiating table. In good time, number of political leaders will have handed over. Papal diplomacy, elle, will always be there.