Western diplomats say new Secretary of State is a man “who is able to build bridges and maintain relations” and has the ability to present Holy See’s fundamental positions “without offending or alienating people”
Pope Francis has made an excellent and wise choice in appointing the Italian archbishop, Pietro Parolin, an experienced and highly esteemed 58-year old Holy See diplomat, as his new Secretary of State, according to several senior Western diplomats and Vatican colleagues.
“It’s a concrete sign of reform, there’s no doubt about it”, a colleague who worked with Parolin for many years in the Vatican told me, but he – like others I have spoken to for this article, requested anonymity.
After months of widespread consultation, serious reflection and prayer, the Jesuit Pope chose Parolin to be his “first collaborator in the governance of the Universal Church” and “the one primarily responsible for the diplomatic and political activity of the Holy See, and in some circumstances representing the person of the Supreme Pontiff himself”, as the Vatican website describes the role of Secretary of State,
In doing so, he has chosen a man whom he came to know when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. His choice has met with immediate approval in many quarters and, in the first place from those who in these years have worked with the new pro-Secretary of State (He only becomes Secretary of State – a post equivalent to that of Prime Minister – once he is made cardinal, probably in 2014).
Parolin, the youngest Secretary of State since Eugenio Pacelli (who later became Pope Pius XII), succeeds Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who held that post since September 2006. He will now head a staff of some 250 persons – clergy, religious and laity, in the 500 years-old Secretariat of State, the Roman Curia dicastery or super-department that works most closely with the Bishop of Rome in the exercise of his universal mission, and coordinates the work of all the other Vatican offices.
“Pope Francis has chosen a person of outstanding integrity, an intelligent, discreet, serious and patient diplomat, a man of the Church”, one source who worked with Parolin for several years told me. Another source who also knows him well agreed and recalled that “he had a very good rapport with the Diplomatic Corps and is well thought of in capitals around the world.”
Much sought after by ambassadors from the different continents when he was under-Secretary for Relations with States (2002-2009), Parolin’s popularity among ambassadors sparked envy and even criticism from some Vatican colleagues during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, but he bore all this with patience and humility and never sought to defend himself.
Western diplomats and Vatican officials to whom I have spoken to since the breaking news of his appointment, concurred in describing Parolin as a “profoundly spiritual man, professionally competent as a diplomat, a loyal Churchman and man of dialogue.”
Significantly, both the diplomats and Vatican officials alike highlighted “humility” as one of his distinguishing marks. Many also noted that he is not an ambitious man. “He is not in the slightest ambitious”, one Vatican colleague stated.
“He’s the best combination of priest-diplomat that I have come across, and priest first”, a senior European diplomat who’s had many dealings with the Vatican told me.
“He’s able to set an agenda, he’s able to look for opportunities, and at the same time he’s able to defend the Holy See’s fundamental positions without offending or alienating people. Moreover, he has the imagination to make things happen”, he said. He recalled that “the building of bridges and the maintaining of relations is at the heart of diplomacy”, and said “Parolin is able to do both very well.”
Another senior diplomat said Parolin understands well “the nuances of the situation”, and “understands the exercise of power as service”. “He’s very respectful of the local Churches”, he said, and “He’s very much his own man.”
A former European ambassador to the Holy See with wide experience in the international field described Parolin as “a highly professional, self-effacing diplomat, who carried a huge amount of responsibility with great skill and patience”. “He was respected by all of the Diplomatic Corps when I was there”, he told me.
At the time of his appointment, Parolin was nuncio to Venezuela – a particularly difficult assignment, but prior to that he had worked in the Second Section of the Secretariat of State – the one for relations with States, from 1992 to 2009, under both John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He served as under-Secretary for Relations with States (a rank equivalent to that of deputy-Foreign Minister) from 2002-2009, and in that role was a key point of point of reference for the diplomatic corps, to whom he made himself totally available.
He joined the Holy See’s diplomatic corps in 1986, at the age of 31, and since then has served in missions in Nigeria (1986-89), Mexico (1989-92) and Venezuela (2009-2013).
During his seven years service as under-Secretary for Relations with States, Parolin was the Holy See’s chief negotiator with China, Israel, and Vietnam, and headed its delegations at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meetings.
Building on the progress made by his predecessor, Mgr. Claudio Mari Celli, he engaged in successful negotiations with Vietnam that led to the historic visit of Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to Pope Benedict in January 2007. That visit opened the path to further positive development in relations between the two sides – under his successor, Mgr Ettore Balestrero, which have resulted in the agreement to have a special non-resident representative of the Pope to that country, with the establishment of diplomatic relations as the stated final goal.
In those seven years too, Monsignor Parolin worked hard to improve relations between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China and from 2007 to 2009 he was the Vatican’s chief negotiator in sensitive talks with Beijing aimed at reaching an accord on the crucial issue of the appointment of bishops in that country, with a view to gaining greater religious freedom for the Church, and the eventual establishment of diplomatic relations. Those talks were said to be making considerable progress but ground to a halt in the years soon after his reassignment as nuncio to Venezuela.
In those years too, Parolin was the Holy See’s chief negotiator with Israel and its neighboring states, and many in the diplomatic corps credited him with making a vital contribution to the success of Pope Benedict’s trip to the Holy Land in May 2009. Earlier, he had participated in the Middle East Peace Conference at Annapolis, Maryland, November 2007.
When he left Rome for Venezuela in 2009, after being ordained bishop by Pope Benedict XVI, many then predicted that Parolin could return one day to a position of higher responsibility in the Vatican, perhaps as Secretary of State. Thanks to Pope Francis this has now become a reality, and sooner than most people had expected. He will take up his new post on October 15.