Marco Impagliaccio

Marco Impagliaccio

Interview with Marco Impagliaccio, President of the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, known for its work for peace and the poor.

By Giuseppe Rusconi

Pope Francis greets diplomats during an audience with the Vatican diplomatic corps in the Apostolic Palace’s Sala Regia,  March 22, 2013 (CNS photo/ Tony Gentile, Reuters).

Pope Francis greets diplomats during an audience with the Vatican diplomatic corps in the Apostolic Palace’s Sala Regia,
March 22, 2013 (CNS photo/
Tony Gentile, Reuters).

In the heart of Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, near the historic, artistic basilica of Saint Mary’s, the Community of Sant’Egidio has its headquarters. Founded by Andrea Riccardi in 1968, it has distinguished itself in recent years for its constant emphasis on inter-religious dialogue, peace in the war-torn parts of the world (thanks to the Community’s intervention, there is peace in Mozambique), the poor and the marginalized, and education. Fifty-three-year-old Marco Impagliaccio has been the Community’s president since 2003. As his predecessor Riccardi – who is still fully active – Impagliaccio is also a professor of modern history, and is president of the Administrative Council of Perugia’s University for Foreigners. In February, he greeted German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Rome, who wished to stop by for an hour and visit the Community after her audience with the Pope. We asked Impagliaccio some questions about the innovations Pope Francis has introduced in the sphere of pontifical diplomacy.

On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as Pope for the Catholic Church. After more than two years, we are seeing a great amount of analysis of his pontificate, which up to now has shown itself to be unique and multifaceted. He has denounced our current twisted economic system, which favors an inhumane “culture” of waste to the detriment of children (born and unborn), youth (often unemployed), the elderly (seen as an unjustifiable expense for the public tax office). This condemnation shows through in the Holy See’s international policies. Professor Impagliazzo, you are the president of the Community of Sant’Egidio, which is very active in seeking out peaceful solutions to many conflicts around the world; this service requires discretion and prudence in contacts that are necessary for reaching its objectives. Pope Francis has become known for his spontaneous and impromptu gestures, along with a choice of language (in this and other delicate contexts) that seems geared more towards sincerity and directness (at times messianic) than diplomatic calculation. I ask you: with Pope Francis, has the nature of pontifical diplomacy changed?

Marco Impagliaccio: Throughout his education and formation, the Pope never studied diplomacy, nor did he ever seem cut out for a diplomatic career, it is true. Still, he enjoys an inestimable advantage: he is a man on the ground — one who knows and understands people’s daily reality and what it means to be on the outskirts of society and, above all, who has a great empathy for people’s sufferings. And so, with this eye towards the marginalized, he has developed —and continues to develop — a particular sensitivity towards those who are suffering; I recall here his appeals against human trafficking, the exploitation of children, the enslavement of child soldiers, the long and deep-reaching tentacles of the drug world and the scourge of drug trafficking. In a world such as ours, where the most suffering is often seen on the outskirts, this Pope’s personal experience is an enormous opportunity to be put to good use by Vatican diplomacy: it has a structure, a work method and style all its own.

Is Francis’ approach compatible with the traditional approach of the Secretariat of State?

Impagliaccio: I believe so. It seems to me that a positive synergy between the two approaches has been created: Pope Francis’ new and fresh approach has enriched the pre-existing one, which was already solid to begin with. The two approaches are thus complementary. The Pope needs the structure of the Vatican’s diplomatic machine, and the latter cannot ignore the worldview of this spokesman for the world’s suffering. This synergy can bring about very positive developments for Vatican diplomacy; certainly, Pope Francis asks that pontifical representatives be even more active and incisive than usual, and he urges them to move more quickly. This can bring about diplomatic success in shorter time spans…

… even if quickness and diplomacy seem to be conflicting terms…

Impagliaccio: In my experience, it really does seem to be working. I know many apostolic nuncios, because the Community of Sant’Egidio operates in many parts of the world, and when we come up against delicate international situations we enter into contact with the Vatican diplomatic structure. I have seen that the Pope has regular meetings with each nuncio…

Didn’t this happen before?

Impagliaccio: In the last part of Benedict XVI’s pontificate it happened less, I believe because of his health conditions and over-abundance of commitments. Francis’ choice of gathering all the nuncios once a year, and meeting with them separately when they request it, seems to be paying off, because the Pope is giving an important impulse to the whole of Vatican diplomacy, spurring it on to take more interest in what is happening in the wider social context…

In this case, too: wasn’t this happening before?

Impagliaccio: It was happening less. Nuncios today are not working only on the political level; they are also delving into society’s problem situations. I have spoken with nuncios who have confirmed this stimulus on the Pope’s part: “Move around a lot, touch the people’s problems.” I presume that, before, there were nuncios who already did this, but that it was mainly a matter of personal sensitivity. Today, on the other hand, it is a general directive that comes from Rome, from the Pope, and that extends to every particular context…

So here we have a case where Roman centralism really does work…

Impagliaccio: (laughing) Abso­lutely.

Could you give us an example that shows how Pope Francis has brought about an acceleration of usual diplomatic time frames?

Impagliaccio: We can all see what has happened between Cuba and the United States…

Speaking of that, did Sant’Egidio contribute to those negotiations?

Pope John Paul II greets Cuban President Fidel Castro at the end of Mass in Havana on  January 25, 1998. Of the four public Masses celebrated by Pope John Paul II during his visit, Castro only attended the Havana service. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Pope John Paul II greets Cuban President Fidel Castro at the end of Mass in Havana on
January 25, 1998. Of the four public Masses celebrated by Pope John Paul II during his visit, Castro only attended the Havana service. (CNS photo/Reuters)

Impagliaccio: Sant’Egidio did play a part in that situation, in the sense that our Community has always cultivated an excellent relationship with the Cuban government. Last September, for example, in a square in the center of Havana, an inter-religious prayer meeting for peace was held, in the spirit of Assisi. The wide media coverage was a clear sign that the Cuban government had given its “blessing” to the event. On that occasion I said to myself, “Here, everything can change…”

Was this thaw between Cuba and the United States brought about in a significant way by the urging of Pope Francis?

Pope Benedict XVI and Cuba’s President Raul Castro gesture to the media as they appear for a photo opportunity outside the Palace of the Revolution in Havana March 27, 2012, just one year before his resignation (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

Pope Benedict XVI and Cuba’s President Raul Castro gesture to the media as they appear for a photo opportunity outside the Palace of the Revolution in Havana March 27, 2012, just one year before his resignation (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

Impagliaccio: Francis was thanked personally by Raul Castro and by Obama, and it seems to me that this points clearly to the importance of papal intervention. Events had been unfolding in that direction, with the progressive dissolving of Cuban isolation, thanks to the re-establishment of flights between Havana and Miami, to give an example. But I’d like to call attention to something that has generally been ignored by the media, but which to me seems very significant: I refer to the Pope’s trip to Korea and his homily in Seoul’s cathedral, before he returned to Rome…

…during the “Mass for Peace and Reconciliation”…

Impagliaccio:Yes, that was the context. In his homily, Pope Francis remarked that “all Koreans are brothers and sisters, members of the same family and the same people. They speak the same language.” I can state, through direct experience, that these words were very much appreciated at the higher levels of the North Korean government. This is an important fact that should cause us to reflect on the future, on eventual diplomatic relations between North Korea and the Holy See. The great difficulty with North Korea is that it is impossible for us to find out anything about the current situation of Catholics. Regarding this, the Community of Sant’­Egidio has sent a humanitarian mission to the capital city of Pyongyang several times; members of the mission were allowed to meet leaders of the “Patriotic Catholic Church,” but no more. With the establishment of diplomatic ties, we would probably be able to discover the presence of a certain number of Christians who have been officially “invisible” up to now.

The Patriotic Church and the underground Church: this problem calls to mind the situation in China. After Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics, there emerged a strong desire for establishing diplomatic ties, but apparently it seems that, de facto, nothing has been done.

Impagliaccio: Apparently. For us, Pope Benedict XVI’s initiative was a wonderful surprise, and much appreciated by the Chinese government as well. I must say that the most recent external sign of movement recorded was the permission granted to Pope Francis to fly over Chinese airspace on his way to Korea: thus, the Pope was able send the traditional message of good wishes and divine blessings, this time (and it was a first) to Chinese President Xi Jinping. I am presuming that this situation will evolve little by little, in a positive way, also because the Pope benefits from the vast experience of his Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, who, a few years ago, laid a solid foundation for a draft of agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China.

Here, however, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiung, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, comes to mind. Highly critical of the Vatican’s current policies towards China, he feels that, in order to come to an agreement with Beijing, the Holy See may have to accept the selling out of Chinese Catholicism, the heroic Church that has remained faithful to Rome…

Impagliaccio: Cardinal Zen certainly expresses a unique sensitivity that the Holy See traditionally upholds. I believe that Zen is part of an extensive history, but that maybe he is more an integral part of the past, than of the present, of the Catholic Church in China. I think that an agreement between China and the Holy See is a necessary step and useful to both sides, after the right conditions will have been put into place, for the future of the Church entering into official relations with the most populous nation on Earth, as well as for the future of China, to be sure. It will be of great advantage to China to have as citizens Catholics who are free to profess their faith and, at the same time, available, and desiring, to place themselves at the service of the common good.

Let’s move on to the situation in the Middle East, a terribly thorny one both for Christians and the general population. Concerning that area, in September 2013, Pope Francis made a very powerful gesture…

Impagliaccio: The great prayer for peace, an initiative without precedent, which referred particularly to the threat of external armed intervention on Syria: our Community was very enthusiastic about taking part in this. In this gesture of the Pope’s, one finds the enormous idea that prayer is at the root of peace and can truly move mountains…

On that occasion, what change did prayer bring about?

Impagliaccio: It blocked the development of the idea of an armed international intervention against Syria. Any situation of war is followed by more uncertainty. As Monsignor Marchetto rightly said in a recent interview, we can never know what consequences a war will bring. I agree with this wholeheartedly. The idea of the strength of prayer to bring about peace was at the base of the inter-religious meeting in Assisi, desired by John Paul II in 1986; it was taken up again later by Benedict XVI.

In June 2014, within the Vatican Gardens, an invocation for peace in the Holy Land was made. Once again, I ask you what came about as a result of this?

Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana speaks during the 2011 Community of Sant’Egidio Christmas lunch in Havana. As it does around the world, the community in Havana celebrates every December 25 with those less fortunate (CNS photo/Orlando Marquez)

Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino of Havana speaks during the 2011 Community of Sant’Egidio Christmas lunch in Havana. As it does around the world, the community in Havana celebrates every December 25 with those less fortunate (CNS photo/Orlando Marquez)

Impagliaccio: In my opinion, it gave a signal of hope in a stalled situation. Pope Francis said, “I have opened a door. We’ll see what comes of it.” Since history is not always predictable, and it sometimes reserves for itself surprises that don’t coincide with human expectations, we always need to open doors. Our wondering “What for?” counts little in the spiritual sphere, and is not part of God’s thinking. We can’t know exactly what the Vatican invocation of peace brought about: certainly, it fostered a climate of more faith and hope…

But where?

Impagliaccio: First of all, in the wider world, in the sense that something positive could be done for peace in the Holy Land. More specifically, I think it was useful in the hearts of Palestinians and Israelis. To be sure, politics follow a different sort of logic. But I also know that ex-President Peres travels the world speaking for peace…

But doesn’t he also belong to “the past?”

Impagliaccio: Institutionally he does, but he doesn’t in terms of content: he speaks up with passion, and peace never goes out of style.

We are also facing, in Europe this time, another thorny situation, concerning Ukraine.

Impagliaccio: At first, the Pope’s position in favor of peace wasn’t understood by our Greek Catholic brothers, who didn’t appreciate the references Francis made during his general audience of February 4: he spoke of the scandal of war between Christians, violence between brothers, and the mistake of using the terms “victory” and “defeat”… In my opinion, what the Pope said then will have a decisive effect on the resolution of the conflict. But today the two sides in the conflict are not yet able to understand the prophetic nature of his words.

Others, especially the United States, insist that it is urgent to supply “lethal arms” to the Ukrainian army…

Impagliaccio: I am completely against this idea. Today the basic issue is another one: we need to strengthen diplomatic communication, and give more value to the Minsk accords. On February 21, German Chancellor Merkel, here in this room, described those accords as “very fragile, in need of constant shoring up”…

For the same reason, Cardinal Parolin was in Belarus, from March 12 to 15…

Impagliaccio: This initiative seemed to me to be absolutely positive; it showed the liveliness and tenaciousness of Vatican diplomacy, prodded continuously by Pope Francis.

Let’s close with the situation in the Mediterranean, that seems to be getting grimmer and grimmer. It seems that a clamp is closing in on southern Europe, and first of all on Italy…

Impagliaccio: The Mediterranean has been a meeting place for centuries. But now, in this last century, with the First World War and the Armenian Genocide, this is no longer the case. Ever since the aggravation of nationalisms destroyed its fabric of peaceful cohabitation, the Mediterranean has become a problem place, most of all due to its complexity. This complexity has not been understood, and today it stands in great need of true understanding, without hysteria. It is true that there is a threat, and that there are also serious problems within Islam. The Muslim world needs to have more courage to rebel against the interpretation of the Koran given by violent Islamic extremists: this is a wrong reading of the Koran…

The extremists say, “But in the Koran it is written that…”

Impagliaccio: Their interpretations have by now been totally overturned by the great theological schools, first among them the University of al Azhar. Also for this reason, there is a need for a spiritual, religious and human revolt against violent interpretations of the Koran such as theirs. We also need to provide ourselves with new means of reading the situation. What does it mean when we say “war on terrorism?” Terrorism is an elusive entity, that moves around as ably as cynicism, in a territory without national borders. If we don’t define it well, the “war on terrorism” could be interpreted as a “war on Islam,” which is the worst thing we could do.

Can it be said that Islamic terrorism, the way it presents itself today, is also a poisoned outcome of the so-called “Arab Spring?”

Impagliaccio: I don’t think so. The “Arab Spring” happened, and it is true that it didn’t bring many hoped-for fruits with it: the exception is Tunisia, which today is under attack. There are cultures in which the idea of democracy has a hard time taking root, and this encourages us to reflect on how certain populations should be governed.

Why was there a desire to destabilize Syria, when it has always enjoyed a decorous cohabitation among ethnic groups and religions?

Impagliaccio: The first to wonder about this were the Arab Christians, both Syrian and Lebanese, who from the onset assumed a very critical position concerning the revolt against Assad. It is understandable that the Assad regime could only be defined as a dictatorship, from our Western point of view. However, when we consider the massacres, the many killings provoked as a consequence of the revolt, we see that the Arab Christians may have been right in the first place.

There is another country living through precarious times: Lebanon. It has taken in over one million Syrian refugees, besides the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already there, from previous conflicts…

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, meet in Minsk on March 13, 2015

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, meet in Minsk on
March 13, 2015

Impagliaccio: Lebanon and Is­rael are the only real democracies in the Middle East. We need to love Lebanon strongly, we need to protect it above all through prayer. I recall the beautiful words spoken by John Paul II in Lebanon, about Lebanon, and the splendid apostolic visit made by Benedict XVI: “The Church carries Lebanon in Her heart.” We need to defend Lebanon as a place of peaceful cohabitation and democracy. We need to increase our aid to Lebanon in this moment of difficulty and suffering, to alleviate the pressure that stems from the presence of so many refugees. We, as the European Union, need to be more generous.

One last question: sometimes it is said and written that the Community of Sant’Egidio, with its international initiatives, competes with Vatican diplomacy. Is this true?

Impagliaccio: We are conscious of our limits. We are an ecclesiastical group, we are small, and we do not strive to compete against the Secretariat of State; that would be ridiculous, given the disproportion in structure, strength and historical tradition between us. If someone describes Sant’Egidio in the way you mentioned, their opinion of us is probably too high. What we have learned, however, is that every Christian community can tap into an enormous font of energy in favor of peace. We experienced this in Mozambique. We didn’t ask it of the Holy See, and the Holy See didn’t ask it of us: it was the local disputing parties that invited us. Generally, the Holy See doesn’t ask Sant’Egidio to intervene at its side; the Holy See has its own channels, its own routes. Naturally, we serve those who suffer due to war — the mother of all forms of poverty, in the words of Andrea Riccardi — and we notify the Holy See about what is going on, locally. We seek to teach peace in schools on every continent, in the hopes of healing the wounds of war or preventing another one from ever starting. All of this is part of the gift we have been given, our charism as an ecclesiastical community.

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