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Gerard O’ConnellAugust 07, 2015
Pope Francis exchanges greetings with Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, and his wife, Joan, during a meeting with ambassadors to the Holy See at the Vatican, Jan. 13, 2014 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

What is the relationship between President Barack Obama and Pope Francis? Which are the areas of agreement and difference between them?  Apart from the fact that Francis will make history by addressing Congress, what are the other high points of this much anticipated visit that is sparking such enthusiasm and interest?

I put these and many other questions to the US Ambassador to the Holy See, Kenneth F. Hackett, when I met him at the embassy that looks out on Rome’s Circus Maximus and Coliseum, as he was preparing to transfer to a new embassy building next week.

Appointed by President Obama, June 14, 2013, as the tenth US ambassador to the Holy See, Ken Hackett took up that post the following September at the head of a staff of 15 persons, including five U.S. diplomats. A former student at Jesuit schools (including Boston College), he has a distinguished record in the humanitarian field, having worked for 40 years with Catholic Relief Services and, as Executive Director (1993-2011), directed its operations in over 100 countries. This jovial, astute married man, with considerable diplomatic and political skills, is deeply involved in the preparation of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States.

The following is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation on August 5.

As representative of the President and the people of the United States to the Holy See you’re playing an important role in preparing for the pope’s visit.  What can you say about the visit with its variety of possibilities? What are the key issues?

Yes, there are a variety of possibilities and the key issues are still not locked down, firmed up.  But, to understand it well, I think you have to go back to the visit of President Obama to the Pope on March 27, 2014 which, in a way, came after the decision to visit Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Francis just picked up Benedict’s commitment on that, and carried it forward. But the President’s visit did more than just lock in that commitment.

The President invited him to the United States?

Yes, the President invited him and more importantly, in the context of that invitation, the dynamic, the personal interaction, was more than warm; they hit it off on a number of issues including, I think, migration, poverty, exclusion, and people falling through the cracks. Those are the kind of things that I believe they were discussing behind closed doors. As soon as we were let in immediately afterwards you could feel the atmosphere in the room was very positive. So somehow Pope Francis had a very positive view of President Obama and what he is trying to do, and they clicked. And I think that led to his decision to come.  

Then the following September I carried the invitation from Speaker Boehner to speak to Congress and I probably said at the time that this is a long shot, but Francis picked it up and there it goes.

The UN was not on the cards in the very beginning because we kept hearing it’s going to be a pastoral visit, and yes he’ll go to the White House, and then he’ll go to Congress.  But all of a sudden (UN Secretary General) Ban Ki-moon came in and locked down the UN because a lot of people were saying it is the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s visit to the UN, and Francis could speak about climate and about the sustainable development goals, and so they were creating an environment for him to speak at the UN.

But I believe the President’s coming made the difference about him coming to Washington.

What precisely clicked between the two men?  You accompanied him to the Vatican for that visit, then you waited in the anteroom and afterwards you were present at the public session after their private conversation.  I was watching and the body language struck me as very, very positive, a sign that their encounter had gone very well.

Yes, it was very positive. My advice to the President was talk about your family to start with, talk about something very human, and I think he did.  His wife and kids did not come with him – they were in China.  I don’t know what actually happened but I did encourage very strongly that they start the conversation making a human connection.

What was the President’s reaction afterwards?

As you know well, the private conversation went on for a very long time.  And coming out of the Pope’s meeting Obama was refreshed. He was happy!

What is your own personal memory of that meeting?

It was two friends talking about things, even though they had never met before.  As I was seeing it, this was warm and positive, and everything I have heard from the White House since he got back says the President was overjoyed with the visit.

Since then the United States and Cuba have made a breakthrough in relations, and I understand the Pope played an important role in facilitating that.  But on the flight back from Paraguay in July, when asked about this, Francis really played down his own role. When you read what he said then what did you think?

I think he was understating it! I don’t know precisely what happened but I do know that in addition to what was going on behind the scenes here and in Canada there were telephone calls.  I think it has come out in the press about Cardinal Ortega (from Cuba) going to the White House; it was all orchestrated.  I mean Ortega comes here and a month later he shows up at the White House, so there were all kind of things like that happening.

Have the Pope and Obama spoken by phone since they met in the Vatican?

I can’t say that, but there was something that indicated – we didn’t set up the call, let’s say that  - a call was made, I think before Raul (Castro) came here; it was a call to Raul, and whether one was also made to the White House I do not know.

You mean there was a call from the Pope to Cuban President Raul Castro before he came to the Vatican?


So it’s quite possible the Pope also phoned Obama around that same time too?

Well he didn’t have to encourage Obama to do more on Cuba. I think they had worked out the broad parameters on it when they met on March 27; but broadly, as there were a lot of strings to be tied on that package before it could go much further from there. That was a big reach, and I think the Pope gave it his blessing.  Parolin was involved, others were involved.

Speaking about the areas of broad agreement between Francis and Obama you mentioned immigration, what are the others?

(They include) poverty, religious freedom, concern about persecuted Christians and minorities, and really a reach for peace.  Then climate, of course, and what the President announced yesterday (August 4) on this climate change plan is big!  I just want to believe – I can’t say it for sure –that he was given a kind of (blessing) and felt I can do this.

When Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came here – and you were at a meeting with her too - she didn’t go in (to the Vatican) pushing Co2 levels or anything like that; she went in to try to find out whether there was convergence on policy on where the administration was going and where the Vatican was going.  And she came away saying we’re on the same page; maybe not on every detail, but we’re on the same page and we have to do something about this issue.  And I think what we saw on Monday (August 3, “Clean Power Plan’) was a manifestation of that.  

Where are the differences between Obama and Francis?

There are differences on the domestic side. We don’t deal with a whole lot of those differences, thank God!  I think they would not find unanimity of opinion on some of the issues on gay marriage.  But they’re not going to discuss differences; I cannot believe they will go into differences. Obama wants to do something domestically on reform of the minimum wage, on the criminal justice system, and on climate change.  We agree to differ on things like gay marriage, but really there are not a lot of other such issues.

Are they on the same page in regard to the Middle East?

I can tell you that before the talks collapsed between Israel and Palestine (end of April 2014), Secretary Kerry came here twice before that and they were on the same page; not only on the same page in terms of tactics but also of aspirations and hopes. So Israel and Palestine yes, I think they are on the same page.

As for ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS):  We’ve had a number of people come here to explain what we’re trying to do to counter some of the imagined rhetoric that it’s a conspiracy there. And this (rhetoric) is coming out of the Middle East, that the US is engaged in some kind of conspiracy there. The fact is that ISIS - DAESH is a heinous thing. It’s going to drive the Christians out of the Middle East at a faster pace than anything else, and particularly out of Lebanon, and this is of great concern here (in the Vatican)  and of great concern to us. It just kind of starts the collapse all around.  So I think there’s unanimity here.

Does the Pope like the fact that we’re using airstrikes? I don’t know, but he hasn’t said anything.  Remember what he said coming back from Korea.

Yes, I remember, I was on the plane.  He was very careful in what he said then, but his remarks got blown up in another way.

Didn’t he say something about that we need the UN and the Security Council to be involved?

Yes, he said one state alone cannot decide how to stop an unjust aggressor; the question has to be taken to the United Nations for decision on the best means to do so.

Well we knew that we would never get the approval on that (at the UN); it just wouldn’t happen with Russia or maybe China too. So we brought people in here to explain our approach, which is to form a coalition that now consists of maybe a couple of dozen countries, I don’t remember the number exactly. So we’re not going it alone, but we weren’t going to the Security Council either to get their backing, because we knew we wouldn’t get it.

The Vatican has expressed satisfaction with the accord on Iran.

At first it gave a positive reaction, but in an interview with Vatican Insider yesterday (August 4), Archbishop Gallagher (the Secretary for Relations with States) expressed a very positive reaction. In the early days they weren’t sure exactly how this is going to play out. Other nations in the area are coming out and saying our initial reaction was generally positive and is now significantly so; they will generally support it.

Francis is the first pope ever to address Congress. How do you read this?

I think it’s terrific. Speaker Boehner is a Catholic and he said I’m going to invite him. And Francis, a pope of surprises, said I’m going to do it!

Did Francis take long to say yes?

No, he didn’t, not at all!  It really surprised me but I believe – and you know him much better than I – his instinct was: this is how I can address the American people.   When I’m speaking to the bishops, I’m really only speaking to the bishops and not to the American people, but this is how I can speak to the American people. That will be both the legacy and the issue that people will try to interpret and misinterpret.

America is deeply divided politically and Congress reflects this polarization. If you were to advise him how to navigate through this polarization what would you say?

Call on the members of Congress and the American people to rise up to the goals of our nation, what we stood for, what we stand for. You’re right, when we look at some of the candidates it’s attracting this aggressiveness that we see in some parts of America, but at the same time Americans are compassionate, they reach out, they are concerned, they work very hard to try to get by - and that’s usually in a capitalist way.  They work hard and they don’t steal a lot.    So I think he will call Congress – as representatives of the American people –to reach their potential. (And tell them) you are great and you can become greater, you can become compassionate, your level of volunteerism in your communities is greater than anywhere else in the world.  You do more, you help people around the world, you should be compassionate with your visitors, and you are a nation of immigrants. You know some of the Irish and Italian Congress people forget that their grandparents came over on some boat. So I think he would call Congress and the people to that.

You mean he should appeal to their better instincts?

Yes, appeal to their better instincts. And he’ll score one.

Some of his statements in the encyclical “on our common home” and in his speech to the Popular Movements, during his visit to Bolivia, were strong critiques of the way the economy is run. Many in the US read them as a strong critique of capitalism.  What do you say to these critics?

I didn’t read them as a strong critique to all forms of capitalism. I think he’s basically saying what his predecessors said, but he is doing it with a Latin flare. He talks about the excesses of capitalism, and as I pick up the paper and I see who has been jailed in this place and that place for some banking scandal, I see there are excesses.  I cannot believe that he is saying that the capitalist system which rewards hard work, good decisions, is totally wrong. He’s certainly not saying that the socialist system is the answer! He just saying don’t abuse things, don’t abuse your capitalism.

He’s certainly has raised this concern in various quarters about the stratification of our society, that so few at the very top have accumulated so much wealth and have left out the entire next three or four levels, and not just the poorest but even those who are struggling to get by on 30,000 dollars with three kids – that’s below the poverty line in some cities.  He recognizes the issues, and I think those who are criticizing him as anti-capitalist are going too far. I may be wrong but that’s the way I read it.

During his visit do you expect him, or would you advise him, to tone down his statements on capitalism, poverty, the plight of the migrants and climate change?

No!  Tone down? No! I would hope that he would listen to people who are saying this is how you can say that, because we don’t have favelas (shanty towns) in the United States but we do have awfully poor neighborhoods but they are not favelas. And you can say it in a different way.

The average American goes to church, works hard, tries to take care of their family, is probably divorced and there are whole bunch of other characteristics. It’s not the same as the average person in Latin America. 

(I hope they advise him to) speak to the reality of the United States, and that’s a complex reality. I don’t think he’s going to back away from migration, I don’t think he’s going to back away from poverty.  He could well talk about the criminal justice system.

He’s going to visit a prison in Philadelphia so I imagine he won’t miss the opportunity to say something then.

You know that our criminal justice system is unique and pretty horrifying.

I know the United States has 2.2 million people in prison.  No other country in the world has so many people in prison, not even China.

You are right and it’s pretty horrifying. And it’s targeted at blacks and Hispanics and that’s pretty horrifying too, and so we have to do something about it.

So, if he speaks to Congress and he raises issues that are of great concern to him – on immigration, on lifting the Cuban embargo, on the climate, on poverty, on America’s role in the world – then what I think people will take away from his visit is “Didn’t the Pope say something about that? Shouldn’t I be thinking about that too?”  I think he will leave that question, that doubt. And maybe they’ll go back and read his encyclical!

Francis is a pope who likes to make physical contact with people; he wants to be close, to reach out to people. This raises the question of security. America is a country with a lot of guns, so how do you rate the risk for his safety?  Will he be able to reach out in the way he would like?

There’s been a long preparation for this visit.  The American Secret Service has been involved from early on in the preparation.  They’re good and they have said repeatedly to his security people we can handle anything if we know in advance. So if we know that he’s going to stop the car and reach out to that baby over there, we can handle it.  If he wants to go to a prison and meet with the prisoners, we can handle it. Just tell us in advance!  So that has been a lot of the preparation that has been going on, and so the secret service together with the police departments in Washington, New York and Philadelphia are ready for this Pope.

So there’s no fear for his security?

Oh, fear there is!  There is fear, but they have planned it minutely and they are ready for what they can be ready for.

As you look at the agenda for his visit, apart from the talk to Congress what other events resound strongly with you?

I see two events other than the visits to Congress and to the White House that are really big.  First, what he’s going to say at the United Nations is going to have a powerful impact on the world because they will be focused on it, and it’s likely to be something in regard to sustainable development, climate, integral ecology, a charge that the world do something more in Paris (at the summit on climate change later this year). And again if he speaks to the United Nations about the United Nations as a set of bodies that maybe has become a little bit creaky and maybe needs a little bit of refreshing so that it can play its role in the world.

Secondly, I think what he says at the World Meeting of Families is going to be immensely important. I don’t think he’s going to get involved in gay marriage and stuff like that.  I think he’s going to speak about how important family is, even if it’s broken, people are fighting, that is the thing that keeps us together and how important it is. And I hope that he can highlight and encourage those women who haven’t seen their husbands for a year and a half because he took off for Syria and left her with the kids, and promised he’d sent money but hasn’t.  All those kinds of situations, people in war, people in turmoil, divorced and broken marriages. And then, remember, he comes back to Rome and walks right into the synod on the family.  So I think that will be big, however he phrases and tones it. That will be big.

You started here as ambassador in September 2013, almost six months after Francis was elected. Have you seen him often since then?

Not that much, and although my Spanish and Italian are not so good I’ve been impressed every time I met him.  He’s so real! For example, when he came to the North American College (May 2) and the rector brought him over to greet me, when he was coming down the aisle before mass, I saw he had that frayed, tattered sleeve of his cassock.  He’s so real. Amazing! 

Have you been able to talk with him about the visit?

Not yet, but I hope this opportunity presents itself before he goes to the States. 

Who are your counterparts in the Vatican in preparing for the visit, and what are you trying to communicate to them?

It varies.  The Secretariat of State plays a special role, but there are many others too. I’m not sure I know all of them.

But what I’m concerned about is not what he says, the substance, but how he says it. Then, who he looks at and who he acknowledges in a generalized way. For instance - I don’t have to tell you this – women play a key role in the United States and they are no longer ready to play second fiddle to anybody about anything.  Not because they’re feminists, but because that’s the way we are as a nation. Now if you look at the major Catholic agencies in the United States: you have a woman heading up Catholic Relief Services, there’s a woman heading up Catholic Charities, a woman heading up Catholic Health Associations.  Numerous universities of stature are headed up by women. They should be there to meet him as well as the poor people, the disabled, and others.

Will that happen?

I don’t know, but that’s what I’m trying to get across, and there are other things too; not just meet the seminarians and women in habit, but meet the women and men who are out there too. He could meet the women perhaps in the South Lawn of the White House or in Philadelphia.

So, you’d like him to meet a cross section of American society

Yes. So those are the kinds of things.  For the pope, it’s how you say something; don’t say it the way you said it in Latin America, it won’t work. 

I understand he will speak in Spanish to the United Nations, and I presume he will speak in English to Congress.

Yes, probably. But it’s within the possibilities that he could say something in Spanish in Congress too because a goodly number of the members are Spanish speaking. But they will have a prepared text and that will be in English.

It’s going to be historic in Congress, and as we prepared for the visit and looked over what John Paul II and Benedict said in their talks when they came here, people don’t remember much. But they do remember John Paul II in New York, at the Yankee Stadium (celebrating mass).  That was big. But this visit in Congress will be a marker in people’s lives. That’s the legacy Francis will leave.

And his visit to Ground Zero, how big will that be?

Well that’s the ecumenical event. I think it’s going to be big, notable and important but not as important as his address to Congress and the United Nations.


Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Kevin Murphy
8 years 6 months ago
Personally, I'd like to see Francis ask Obama why he said "God bless Planned Parenthood.". Or why he needlessly saddled Catholic institutions with his Obamacare birth control regulations. Also, why Obama says/does nothing about Christian persecution. Some things shouldn't be glossed over in favor of climate change.

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