After spending four years in Venezuela, Archbishop Pietro Parolin will return to the Vatican as the new secretary of state. Pope Francis announced his decision during the hot Roman summer, in August (in theory, the summer holiday of the Curia). Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone will hand over his office to his successor on October 15. The Pope has chosen a 58-year-old diplomat who will pay great attention to issues of international policy, but will also have to collaborate with him in the long-advocated reform of the Curia. The appointment of Parolin restores the tradition of the secretary of state’s being chosen from among the diplomatic corps, a tradition interrupted with the appointment of Cardinal Bertone, who did not come from the diplomatic corps. Also, it confirms the principle that the secretary of state serving under foreign Popes be Italian.
I talked about the appointment of Parolin with his former superior, Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo. When Lajolo was in charge of the Section for Relations with the States (the Vatican equivalent of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Parolin was his undersecretary, i.e. his vicar.
Eminence, there has been so much talk of the problems confronting the Curia that questions relating to the diplomatic corps have been overshadowed. Could you please tell us about the role of Vatican diplomacy?
Monsignor Giovanni Lajolo: To begin with, I would like to point out that the Holy See’s diplomatic activity is basically pastoral activity aimed at God’s people and the whole world, following the guidelines supplied by the Pope in his capacity as pastor of the Universal Church. Apostolic nuncios are first of all bishops, i.e., successors of the Apostles united with other bishops by links of collegiality, both effective and affective. The peculiarity of their diplomatic action lies in their complying with the rules of international diplomacy when it comes to relations with states. Since all apostolic nuncios, like all ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, work with the secretariat of state, it may be useful for the secretary of state to be familiar with diplomatic questions, too. However, he does not have to be, as he does not have to be Italian. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis, though not Italians, have shown great consideration for Italy, where the Chair of Peter is located, by choosing a secretary of state from among the Italian nuncios.
You too, Eminence, have served in the diplomatic corps of the Holy See. When did you meet your “younger” colleague, then — Monsignor Parolin?
Lajolo: I met him in November 2003 when I was appointed secretary for relations with states. At the time, Monsignor Parolin had been undersecretary of that section for about one year. He received me with brotherly warmth and introduced me to the complex work of that office.
What do you remember about your collaboration with Monsignor Parolin?
Lajolo: From a professional point of view, he had very accurate knowledge of dossiers down to the last detail. He was capable of penetrating analysis as well as sober and appropriate judgement. However, what made him an agreeable workmate were his qualities, both as a man and as a priest: an exquisite man with the heart of a pastor. He created a serene and friendly atmosphere which favored collegiality and fruitful work.
What dossiers did Monsignor Parolin deal with on behalf of the Holy See during his long diplomatic career?
Lajolo: Dossiers of all kinds! The Holy See’s diplomatic activity involves the whole world. There were 175 nuncios at the time (now there are 180) who sent information and suggestions from all corners of the world. Needless to say, on every continent there were countries of particular interest from which we received dossiers that engaged us more intensely than others. As for Europe, I could mention the European Constitution Project and the reference to the Christian roots of Europe, which John Paul II was greatly concerned about. As for Africa, war had broken out in the Darfur region of Sudan, creating a serious humanitarian crisis. As for Asia, the situation of Iraq was deteriorating, and in China, attempts were being made to improve the situation of the Catholic Church. Latin America was being confronted with the political change brought about in Venezuela by Chavez. These are just a few of the great many cases I worked on with the assistance of Monsignor Parolin and those instructed to follow the situation in each country.
Working closely with now-Archbisop Parolin, you have gotten to know him well. What are the qualities of the youngest Vatican secretary of state in more than 80 years?
Lajolo: I have already spoken about his human and professional qualities. I would like to add that he wins everybody’s favor with his modest and engaging smile. This too is important for success. The strength of his young age is another important element which will enable him to bear the weight of his task cheerfully: a “full-time round-the-clock job” which will give him plenty of headaches. As Jesus has taught us: “Each day has trouble sufficient for the day.” Archbishop Parolin has the courage and strength to cope with this task, alongside Pope Francis and in perfect agreement with him.
When the cardinals met before the conclave, they demanded a reform of the Curia. Does Archbishop Parolin have the qualities to deal with such a task?
Lajolo: Definitely, because he is animated, as shown by all his activity, by a spirit of service, not of domination, by the ability to always listen to other people’s opinions and above all by unconditional allegiance to the vicar of Christ, the Pope.
The appointment of Archbishop Parolin comes in the midst of a dramatic situation in the Middle East: the Holy Father fears the outbreak of a conflict of unpredictable proportions. Nevertheless, the problem of the persecution of Christians in Egypt, Iraq and other parts of the world remains. What emergencies will the new secretary of state have to deal with?
Lajolo: The first one, I think, will be the situation in Syria. All Middle Eastern countries and even countries outside the Middle East are threatened by the winds of war. Those in charge of international policy at the highest level must be aware of what is permitted and what is forbidden under international law. The Pope has spoken loudly and clearly in favor of peace. Any act of war not made necessary or inevitable by the duty of self-defense is to be condemned. Crimes against humanity cannot be punished with bombing or with military actions. Innocent victims, who will die in spite of precision bombing, should be considered. The political consequences worldwide should be considered too, along with the impact that a war would have on inter-ethnic relations. Haven’t the disasters of the last decades taught us enough? Diplomacy is the only way to justice and peace; violence can never be defeated with violence.
As for the emergency of anti-Christian persecutions in several countries, this is nothing new and there is reason to think that these are likely to grow. The question is actually very simple, as it can be reduced to religious freedom, but it is also extremely complex, as the problem of religious freedom is dealt with in difficult cultural contexts in which religious authorities, far from favoring tolerance, promote belligerent fundamentalism.
Your Eminence, do you think that in choosing Archbishop Parolin Pope Francis had in mind the mission which he carried out for four years in such a difficult context as Venezuela, a country situated in South America, the continent he comes from?
Lajolo: It is difficult for me to say what the Pope had in mind. However, the difficult mission in Venezuela, as well as other missions he brilliantly carried out in the past, have certainly tempered Archbishop Parolin for the difficult tasks awaiting him.