Vatican ambassador

President Trump has named Callista Gingrich, wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to be the next ambassador of the United States to the Holy See.

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Callista Gingrich

To clarify her title, she will not be an “ambassador to the Vatican,” referring only to the tiny piece of independent territory surrounding St. Peter’s Basilica. Contrary to what some assume, no ambassador goes to the Vatican City State. Instead, 183 sovereign governments send ambassadors to the head of the Roman Catholic Church and to the organization through which he governs the Church, officially called the “Holy See”.

Among these governments, from Albania to Zimbabwe, are all the major powers, except China.  France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States, are all there. Muslim Algeria, Buddhist Thailand, Hindu India, Orthodox Romania, Jewish Israel, and Lutheran Norway maintain embassies to the Holy See too.

No embassy to the Holy See is a mere department of a country’s embassy to Italy. The American embassy to the Holy See is an operation totally separate from the embassy of the United States to Italy. The ambassadors are different. Personnel are different.

Until recently the American ambassador to the Holy See had been Kenneth Hackett, former head of Catholic Relief Services, who represented President Obama. Customarily, American ambassadors to foreign powers, such as Ambassador Hackett, resign when a new president takes office so that the next ambassador will be the personal choice of the current presidential administration.

World powers long have seen the papacy as a unique center of principle and of respect. Governments around the world can contact, often informally, powers with which they are at odds through their embassies to the Holy See. The United States and Cuba communicated via their Holy See embassies when President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro wished to revisit the tension between Washington and Havana several years ago.

The American and Cuban embassies to the Holy See coordinated the discussion. After the thaw in relations, President Obama acknowledged the Pope’s help, as did Raul Castro. Both Presidents Obama and Castro trusted the Pope to have first and foremost in his mind world peace, honor and the well-being of people everywhere.

Popes in turn send ambassadors, historically called apostolic nuncios, to foreign capitals.  The current apostolic nuncio in Washington is Archbishop Christophe Pierre.  He has several duties.  He represents the Holy Father before the American Catholic bishops.  He also represents the Vatican state. President Trump, as did his predecessors, recognizes the nuncio as the assigned delegate of Pope Francis in this country.

Customarily, every embassy in any capital displays its country’s emblem. In Washington, for instance, the Spanish embassy has on its facade the coat-of-arms of Spain, the Australian embassy has Australia’s symbol, the Peruvian embassy has that of Peru.

At embassies to the Holy See, foreign countries have their own respective emblem on their doors but alongside the coat-of-arms of the Pope. It is the only place in the world where any foreign embassy so honors its host, another tribute to the Roman Catholic Pope.

The Pope also sends representatives to the UN, the European Union, and the Organization of American States.

The enormous prestige of the papacy is amazing to behold.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.