The role of nuncios

An old black-and-white photograph shows a Catholic archbishop standing in front of a group of men, all in formal dress, facing Adolf Hitler. The archbishop obviously is reading some document.

Ah, ha! It is more proof that the Vatican at best tolerated the horrors brought upon Germany, and the world, by Hitler.

The photograph proves nothing of the kind. It was New Year’s Day in the late 1930s. Customarily, the head of the German government, then it was Adolf Hitler, invited all the ambassadors sent to Berlin to a New Year’s reception. (Presumably, the American ambassador was present.)

At the reception, the ambassadors brought New Year’s greetings to the German people, represented by the head of state. Their spokesman was the apostolic nuncio, the representative of the pope. Hence, the nuncio was photographed addressing Hitler.

Today, world powers great and small send ambassadors to the pope, who himself is officially represented in over 175 world capitals. His representatives, or ambassadors, are called apostolic nuncios.

Pope Francis is sending a new ambassador to President Barack Obama, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, French by birth, who has served in similar positions in Haiti and Mexico. All papal dealings with the Obama administration, on questions such as world peace, human need, natural disasters and so on, will be through Archbishop Pierre.

Each apostolic nuncio also represents the pope in the country to which the ambassador is assigned. As such, he oversees the bishops in that country, to maintain the teaching and law of the Church. He assists in appointing bishops.

Kenneth Hackett, a prominent American Catholic layman, is President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Pope Francis. Under our Constitution, an American ambassador to the pope cannot involve himself in Church matters.

One U.S. ambassador to the pope, from some years past, told me that a delegation from a major American city came to see him, asking him to support a given priest as a choice for the episcopacy. The ambassador interrupted them and asked them to leave his office. Church business is not U.S. government business.

American ambassadors are sent to the pope, whoever is the pope, to communicate with him. Through the ambassador, the pope communicates with the government in Washington.

All this is very interesting but maybe somewhat incidental unless the importance of the papacy is realized. The embassies to the pope reveal that the world’s governments, not all of which are Catholic, or even Christian, to say the least, know that every pope is without equal in the world as a trusted leader and advocate for the good.

World governments also realize that often the Vatican knows things that even the most clever intelligence systems do not know.

The Turkish government does not maintain a full embassy to the pope in Rome just to have a building over which it can fly the Turkish flag.

Many governments, Germany for example, even back in Hitler’s day, have such regard for the papacy that they give the nuncios in their capitals places of honor ahead of all the other ambassadors. So, at that New Year’s reception in Berlin long ago, the nuncio spoke in behalf of all the ambassadors.

No American president, Republican or Democrat, has ever granted this distinction to papal representatives. Even so, American presidents repeatedly have sent ambassadors to the pope, and they have received apostolic nuncios, as President Obama will receive Ambassador Pierre.

The pope is that important.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.