SALT LAKE CITY — The significance of a global network of priests sank in for Thomas Reese on the day the president of Rwanda's plane was shot down.
The Catholic analyst and author had been interviewing a church leader at the Vatican when his source's phone rang. The call about the plane crash had been made to notify the headquarters of the Catholic Church that trouble was brewing.
"That was the beginning of an absolute disaster," Reese said, referring to the 1994 Rwandan genocide that led to approximately 800,000 deaths.
By sitting in a Vatican office building, Reese learned of the assassination before millions of others. The call helped him understand why the Vatican is widely regarded as one of the best listening posts in the world.
"The Vatican has sources of information that the CIA would kill to get," said the Jesuit priest, who is also chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
For that reason and others, the United States has sent an ambassador to the Holy See, a term that refers to the sovereign government of the headquarters of the Catholic Church, since 1984. American diplomats throughout the world benefit from the eyes and ears of the world's largest faith, while the Vatican relies on U.S. military and economic might to aid in humanitarian crises.
"We clearly are a superpower, but they are a superpower of soft power," said Miguel Diaz, who served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 2012.
America and the Holy See continue to need one another to find solutions to the refugee crisis in Europe, ongoing armed conflict in the Middle East and pending turmoil elsewhere in the world. However, relations have been tense since the election of President Donald Trump, whose "America first" thinking contradicts Pope Francis' appeal for all countries to do more to help marginalized people around the globe, Diaz and others noted.
This month, the Trump administration took steps toward soothing early tensions, announcing a new ambassador to the Holy See and planning the president's first meeting with the pope, which will take place at the Vatican on Wednesday. More public clashes are likely, but the U.S. won't risk a serious rift with one of its most important friends, experts said.
"Even if it has no military power, (the Vatican) has a body of knowledge and experience that makes it listened to and respected," said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of religious studies at Villanova University.
Vatican City, which consists of a little more than 100 acres completely surrounded by Rome, is home to a religion and an independent nation-state. Members of its diplomatic corps embody this dual identity.
Vatican diplomats train as priests before attending the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the oldest school for diplomacy in the world. Once enrolled, "they learn international law, how to write reports, how to do work in different languages, the history of the Vatican's diplomatic relations and other diplomacy skills," Reese said.
Some graduates are sent to other countries as papal nuncios, or diplomatic representatives from the Holy See. Others staff the Vatican's Secretariat of State, the equivalent of the U.S. State Department.
In addition to the official diplomatic work of papal nuncios, the Secretariat of State and others at the Vatican draw on Catholic leaders posted throughout the world to understand developing conflicts, Reese said.
"Imagine a riot between Muslims and Christians in some village in Africa. If the U.S. wants to know what's going on, (the government) could send a satellite overhead and tap everyone's phones. But (Americans) probably couldn't leave (their) embassy without a four-car caravan with armed guards," he said. "The Vatican could call the bishop and the bishop could then call a pastor in the village and see what's going on."
As ordained priests, Vatican diplomats are fulfilling a religious mission, although whether they're doing so directly or indirectly depends on the day, Reese said. The Holy See wants to keep the lines of communication open with all countries, but it also hopes to use its connections to further the church's social interests, such as caring for the poor and working for peace.
"In the worst moments of world history, like World War II and the Cold War, the Vatican was always willing to talk to anybody and everybody," Faggioli said. "When there's a serious crisis, you may have to talk with the devil himself."
That appeared to be the case when the Holy See maintained diplomatic relations with Cuba after the rise of Fidel Castro, who oppressed the Catholic community. More recently, Pope Francis offered blessings for the Philippines and President Rodrigo Duterte in January, although the controversial leader has been an outspoken critic of Catholic priests and the pope himself.
History will always question the Holy See's wisdom, however, in signing a concordat with Nazi officials in 1933. The agreement allowed the Catholic Church to continue freely operating in Germany, but it also required bishops to swear loyalty to the Reich.
In the past, American officials have turned to Catholic leaders for help defeating communism in Poland and for information about riots in Haiti when it wasn't safe for Americans to leave their embassy.
"The church is in every corner of the world," Diaz said.
The Holy See, on the other hand, benefits from America's economic and military resources, Faggioli said, noting that it looks to the U.S. for help during wars and other humanitarian emergencies.
"The Vatican knows it must have a channel of communication open with Washington to have their voice heard," he said.
In spite of these mutual benefits, the road to a stable relationship between the U.S. and Holy See has been long and full of twists and turns.
Soon after the United States was founded, American leaders sent a representative to the Vatican. At the time, the Catholic Church controlled around one-third of what is now Italy.
"We had a representative there because of commercial interests," Reese said. "Our boats wanted to go into their harbor."
However, that position became unnecessary after the Vatican shrunk to its current size. In general, support for a diplomatic relationship with the Holy See was low around the turn of the 20th century because of rising anti-Catholic sentiment.
"For a long time, there were high tensions between the papacy and the United States because the U.S. was afraid of faithful Catholics in their own country," Faggioli said.
U.S. officials also worried about the optics of sending an ambassador to the Vatican, noted John McGreevy, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame.
"There was a perception that the U.S. might be favoring a particular religion if it had a relationship with the Vatican as a nation-state," he said.
Presidents and State Department officials circumvented these fears in a variety of ways, supporting informal relationships and accepting opportunities to meet with the pope on official trips to Rome.
For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a non-salaried personal representative to the Vatican during World War II because he knew it would provide ample opportunities to spy on the Nazis. The next several administrations continued this trend, in spite of resistance from Congress and the public.
By 1984, Americans were more accepting of the Vatican's role in global affairs, and President Ronald Reagan restored full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. It's only fitting for these two great empires to work closely together, Faggioli said.
President Ronald Reagan smiles at the crowd as Pope John Paul II stands by his side during a joint appearance at the airport in Fairbanks, Alaska, May 2, 1984. The two leaders worked together throughout the 1980s to topple communism in Poland. | Scott Stewart, AP
"One is based on military and economic power and the other on spiritual power. They have always looked to each other," he said.
Formal and informal relations between these two powers have led to a variety of interesting and even life-saving developments over the years.
One of the most famous examples involves the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and a letter from Pope John XXIII.
Pope John XXIII, sitting at a temporary altar in the benediction hall of his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, Sept. 10, 1961, reads a message in which he appealed to world leaders to turn to negotiations to avoid a third world war. The pontiff mentioned no leader specifically but his appeal came and pressure from non-aligned nations to bring President Kennedy and Premier Khrushchev together in face to face talks. | Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, AP
President John F. Kennedy, whose Catholic faith was viewed as a liability as a candidate, contacted the pope about the Soviet Union's troubling presence on Cuba as he weighed military intervention. Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, swore that any interference would be met with force.
The U.S. and Soviet governments were on the brink of nuclear war when Pope John XXIII sent a note to their embassies urging them to stand down.
"He pleaded with them not to go forward with this confrontation," Faggioli said, adding that both leaders acknowledged the role of the pope after the incident was resolved.
Another well-known event made possible by this "holy alliance" — documented by an article of the same name on the cover of Time magazine — was the fall of communism in Poland.
Throughout the 1980s, Reagan and Pope John Paul II worked together to destabilize the Soviet Union's hold in the region. "Lech Walesa and other leaders of Solidarity received strategic advice — often conveyed by priests or American and European labor experts working undercover in Poland — that reflect the thinking of the Vatican and the Reagan Administration," Time reported.
People look at a new statue of former President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II that was unveiled in Gdansk, Poland, on Saturday, July 14, 2012. The statue honors the two men whom many Poles credit with helping to topple communism. | Czarek Sokolowski, AP
Most recently, Pope Francis worked closely with the presidents of the United States and Cuba to restore full diplomatic relations between the two nations and work toward open trade. He wrote letters to Barack Obama and Raul Castro urging friendship and then hosted delegations from both countries to iron out the details.
"I want to thank His Holiness, Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is," Obama said as he announced America's new Cuba policy in December 2014, according to CNN.
Vatican diplomats have changed the course of history hundreds of times through their relationships with world leaders, experts said.
"A lot of backdoor diplomacy occurs that people are not aware of," Diaz said.
"There should be many more movies made about Vatican diplomats," noted Faggioli.
Working at the embassy
In many ways, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See is like any other ambassador advocating for U.S. interests. They are not fangirls of the pope or men who love gelato, said Diaz, who accepted the role after working to drum up Catholic support for Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
In this Thursday, March 27, 2014 file photo, U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP
"The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See is not there to represent his or her faith or religious tradition. They are there to represent the president and the people of the United States," he said.
The ambassador and embassy staffers meet with officials at the Secretariat of State on core foreign policy concerns, such as Christian persecution in the Middle East. They look for opportunities to work with the Holy See to further shared goals.
"In many ways, it's just like any bilateral mission," said Rep. Francis Rooney, a recently elected Republican from Florida who served as ambassador from 2005 to 2008.
In addition to addressing natural disasters or political uprisings as they emerge, the ambassador works regularly with the Vatican on six shared interest areas: combatting hunger, human rights violations, religious freedom, global health, human trafficking and preventing conflict.
The ambassador also pays attention to how the pope and other Vatican officials feel about controversial issues. Opposition from the Catholic Church can complicate America's efforts to recruit allies, said Jim Nicholson, who was U.S. ambassador to the Holy See from 2001 until 2005.
For example, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Holy See was supportive of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and attacks on Al Qaeda, he noted. However, Pope John Paul II opposed military action in Iraq, making it harder for the U.S. to build a coalition of countries supporting its occupation of that country.
The pope has a "phenomenal moral megaphone. When he speaks, state leaders listen," said Nicholson, who is now senior counsel with the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
State Department officials expect the ambassador to the Holy See to sort out potential responses to U.S. policies and report back, Reese said.
"You listen and ask the right questions so that you get the information to put in your reports," he said.
This part of the job description hints at one of the ways a diplomatic assignment at the Vatican is unique. The Holy See may not have money or soldiers to share, but its good opinion can go a long way, Rooney said.
"The Holy See, lacking territory and a hegemonic agenda, speaks with a different level of authority than a typical, secular state," he said.
The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See does not need to be Catholic, but all the men and women who have filled that role since 1984 have been. As part of their official duties, these diplomats attend ceremonies at St. Peter's Basilica, one of the most famous sacred spaces in the world.
"It's not a pre-condition that the ambassador be Catholic, but it sure makes it a lot more fun," Rooney said.
The experiences of ambassadors like Rooney and Diaz have helped inform the State Department's approach to religion in general. In recent years, there's been a greater focus on building relationships with faith leaders around the world.
Cardinal Pio Laghi of Italy, left, and U.S. ambassador to the Holy See Francis Rooney, center, talk with Massimo Franco, author of the book "Imperi Paralleli" (Parallel Empires), on the relations between the Vatican and the United States of America, prior to its presentation in Rome, Friday, Nov. 18, 2005. In the background is a bust of Italian Neoclassical Sculptor Antonio Canova. | PIER PAOLO CITO, AP/i>
"We train people in languages and history," said Diaz, who now teaches at Loyola University Chicago. "We needed to augment and deepen training when it came to religion."
Trump and the Vatican
The next four years should be another interesting chapter in U.S.-Vatican relations.
"There are going to be significant areas of disagreement," Diaz said, highlighting the president and the pope's differing views on climate change, the refugee crisis and health care.
U.S. ambassador to The Holy See Miguel H. Diaz walks past two Swiss Guards as he arrives at the Vatican for the address of Pope Benedict XVI to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican, Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. | Pier Paolo Cito, AP/Pool
On Friday, the White House announced its pick for ambassador to the Holy See. Callista Gingrich, wife of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, is an active Catholic who has produced two documentaries on Pope John Paul II. She's met Pope Francis before and may be able to improve what many see as a tense relationship between him and Trump.
This relationship got off to a rocky start during the election. In February 2016, the pope criticized some of the then-candidate Trump's remarks on immigration.
"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," Pope Francis said during a press conference on the papal plane, according to CNN.
The pope's statements raised eyebrows because the Holy See generally steers clear of commenting on elections, Faggioli said.
Trump rejected the remarks, referring to them as "disgraceful." The pair has mostly steered clear of each other in the media since then, but their meeting on Wednesday will be carefully analyzed.
Faggioli said the pope is a difficult figure for the president and other non-Catholics to understand.
"When the president talks to the pope, he talks to one person who wears many different hats. He's the global leader of the biggest church in the world, the most important spokesperson today for human rights and a head of state," he said.15 comments on this story
As for the Holy See, officials there have plenty of reasons to be patient with the Trump administration, experts said. The Vatican needs America's help in keeping people safe around the world right now, as millions of people are currently displaced by wars while economic collapse has led to food shortages in South America.
"The Vatican has dealt with and will continue to deal with all kinds of governments — left, right, center, dictators, people who have been illegitimately elected," Diaz said. "That is what diplomacy is about."
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