Francis the Diplomat

Pope Francis has a highly original approach to problems in the diplomatic field. This has emerged clearly in public on at least two separate occasions over the past six months; first in relation to Israel and Palestine and, more recently, in relation to China.

In this week’s Vatican Dispatch I want to take a first look at Francis’ originality, as I think it may help us understand a little better how he operates in other fields too as he governs the universal church.

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The originality, I believe, comes from the great inner freedom he enjoys, which is also a fruit of his Jesuit spirituality. Francis is not hidebound by traditions, customs or structures— however ancient or modern—that are not an essential part of the Gospel. He is not afraid to jettison them if they are not serving a good purpose or achieving the end for which they first came into existence.

His personal history shows he has always had a significant level of inner freedom, and this enabled him to act in some highly original ways both as Jesuit provincial superior in Argentina (1973-79) and during 21 years as bishop in Buenos Aires.

What strikes me most, however, is that since becoming pope 18 months ago, he seems to enjoy a much greater degree of inner freedom and originality. I would dare to say that there is no world leader today truly free like him, or as original. His inner freedom enables him to courageously think outside the box and act in unprecedented ways that traditional diplomacy might eschew.

We saw this clearly last May when, bypassing the Vatican’s diplomatic channels, he made direct contact with the presidents of Israel and Palestine through the intermediary of a Spanish-speaking Israeli TV reporter, Henrique Cymerman, whom he met for the first time on June 13, 2013, when the reporter interviewed him in the Vatican.

Francis is a strategist, with a particular gift for spotting people who may be able to help him achieve his goal in a particular area. Once identified, he deals directly with that person. As I explained in my first post on America’s blog In All Things (5/24), this is what happened when he discovered that Cymerman has direct contact with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He used him as a trusted intermediary to help him bring about the historic meeting to pray for peace in the Holy Land in the Vatican gardens on June 6 with President Shimon Peres of Israel and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. That event was the direct fruit of the Jesuit pope’s original initiative.

We saw another of his “thinking outside the box” diplomatic initiatives in early September, when Francis tapped Argentine intermediaries to give a personal letter to President Xi Jinping of China, inviting him to meet to discuss world peace.

Ever since his election, the Jesuit pope has been looking for a way to open a substantial conversation with the Chinese leadership and bridge the 63-year-old divide between the Holy See and China. He believes this would be to the benefit of humanity. He knows that Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried in various ways to resolve the differences using traditional Vatican diplomacy but without success. Francis wants to explore other routes.

As I explained in my blog post of Sept. 17, Francis tapped two Argentinians who claimed to have access to the highest levels of China’s leadership for this delicate task: Ricardo Romano, a leader of Argentina’s Justicialist Party (the main Peronist party in Congress), accompanied by José Lujan, a representative of the Academy of Chinese Sciences to Mercosur.

Francis had a 90-minute meeting with them on Sept. 3 and gave them a signed, sealed letter, which they took to Beijing and handed over to a Chinese diplomat, designated by China’s government, who is said to enjoy the confidence of President Xi Jinping.

Surprisingly, however, on Sept. 16, the lead intermediary, on his own initiative, revealed the story to an online news outlet in Buenos Aires. A senior Vatican diplomat told me he is concerned that this may be counterproductive, as China could misinterpret the publicizing of what was meant to be a confidential initiative. Francis has not commented; he’s praying for a breakthrough.

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