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Gerard O’ConnellMay 23, 2022
Pope Francis greets Joe Donnelly, new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, during a meeting for the ambassador to present his letters of credential, at the Vatican April 11, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

When Joseph Donnelly, the new U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, presented his credentials to Pope Francis on April 11, they talked together in private for about half an hour and devoted much of that time to discuss the war in Ukraine.

Mr. Donnelly talked about this in an interview with America at Villa Richardson, the ambassador’s official residence in Rome, on May 19. He also spoke about how he views his role as ambassador; his close, personal relationship with President Joe Biden; and some of the hot-button issues that are on his agenda in his relations with senior Vatican officials—including Ukraine, the Holy Land, China, climate change, health care, human rights and religious freedom.

As a U.S. senator from Indiana from 2013 to 2019, Mr. Donnelly was present when Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress on Sept. 24, 2015. But the two only met face-to-face for the first time last month when Mr. Donnelly presented his credentials and became the 12th U.S. ambassador to the Holy See since the two sides established full diplomatic relations in 1984.

“When I was in the Senate and he spoke before Congress,” Mr. Donnelly recalled, “it was like a rockstar coming down off the podium. I was fairly close up. It was an amazing moment.”

Speaking about his impression of Francis, Mr. Donnelly said his first memory of the pope was when he heard he was elected. “I laughed and said to myself, ‘I guess it is true that the Holy Spirit was in that room. He must have been working on Francis’ behalf,’” he said. “I was so excited to hear that Pope Francis had been elected. He has been much more than I ever dreamed of: a figure caring about the poor, [about] those in need, and about reflecting Jesus’ words.”

“When I was in the Senate and he spoke before Congress,” Mr. Donnelly recalled, “it was like a rockstar coming down off the podium. I was fairly close up. It was an amazing moment.”

However, even his proximity was not enough to allow a personal encounter with Francis. “By the time I got up to give a final applause, everybody had rushed to the podium—all the other members of the Senate—so I said, ‘O.K., I’m behind a very big crowd here. I just feel lucky to be here,’” Mr. Donnelly said. “I didn’t get a chance to speak to him personally then.”

Pope Francis and the War in Ukraine

On April 11, however, “when I had a chance to meet him at the Vatican, it was really clear to me that I was in the presence of someone of great holiness,” Mr. Donnelly said, “like Jesus’ face on earth. It was really stunning to be with him, and to have him talk to [me] and talk to [my] family. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.”

Francis first received Mr. Donnelly with his family, including his 1-year-old granddaughter. “It was very, very clear that she was the pope’s favorite,” the ambassador said with a laugh. “And the pope was her favorite, too. Like, [she was] pulling on his clothing.”

His private conversation with the pope was of a more serious nature, Mr. Donnelly said. “It was really to the point. You could see that this man, who is also a man of God, has the weight of the world on his shoulders. You could see he also feels it.”

“We talked about Ukraine extensively,” the ambassador said. “And he said to me: ‘I am willing to try anything to bring peace. I will go to Moscow. I will go to Kyiv. I will do whatever is needed if it would bring peace.’”

“You could see he agonizes every day, not only over this [war] but over refugees around the world, and anyone who is struggling and suffering,” Mr. Donnelly said. “He feels that.”

Since the time allocated for the audience was limited, he said that “most of the conversation covered the affair regarding Ukraine, where to go and what to do.” Other concerns shared by the United States and the Holy See entered the conversation, too, Mr. Donnelly said, such as violations of human dignity, human rights abuses and human trafficking.

I asked the ambassador what struck him most during his audience with the pope. “What’s so stunning is when you’re sitting there, you realize that the rest of the world is looking toward Pope Francis as maybe the one person who could end this [war], who could bring peace, and people would listen to him,” he said. “And to hear him saying, ‘I’m trying everything....’ I thought to myself, ‘He’s trying everything, trying to find the solution, and it’s so hard to find.’ The rest of us are all looking toward him, asking, ‘Can he do this?’ To realize the burden that he must carry every single day. That really struck me.”

Ambassador Donnelly: “You realize that the rest of the world is looking toward Pope Francis as maybe the one person who could end this [war], who could bring peace.”

At the same time, the ambassador said he could see that Francis “also has a great sense of humor. We had a couple of really good laughs, and at the end I said, ‘I hope your soccer team does well!’”

The pope “has a great love for the people of the United States,” the ambassador said. “And when I told him, ‘The people of my country love you, Pope Francis,’ he smiled and laughed a little bit.” When I remarked to the ambassador that not all the people of the United States love Pope Francis, he laughed heartily. “There are parts of the discussion that are classified,” he quipped.

Referring to his earlier life in politics, Ambassador Donnelly recalled that when he served on the Senate’s Foreign Services Committee, “I dealt with Russia” and also “traveled to Ukraine a number of times.” As a result of this, he understands well what’s happening today. “It’s very, very clear that Russia invaded Ukraine, that Russia is committing genocide there.” He revealed he has already told this to people at the Vatican Secretariat of State.

“I feel very strongly that what we, what our nation wants is peace,” Mr. Donnelly added. “But we stand by our friends, [and] if our friends are attacked, we will stand with them.... We believe that a nation ought to be able to determine its own destiny, not be attacked by its neighbor.”

It's no secret that Ambassador Donnelly has a very close personal relationship with President Biden, and this is considered an asset in relations with the Holy See. When I asked how he envisioned his role in the administration’s relationship with the Vatican, he said he hopes to be “a trusted liaison for the Vatican—somebody that, if I tell them something, they can trust my word.”

“It’s very, very clear that Russia invaded Ukraine, that Russia is committing genocide there.”

“I am very, very blessed to have been a friend of the president for a number of years, to have worked together with him on numerous issues,” the ambassador said, citing his work with then-Vice President Biden helping Indiana recover from the 2008 economic recession, which hit the state’s automobile industry particularly hard. He and Mr. Biden also worked together to pass the Affordable Care Act.

“Over the years, we have developed a trust in one another,” Mr. Donnelly said. “I hope the Vatican sees that and understands that I can be a trusted source of information for them, and that they can provide [information] to the United States.”

“So you have a hotline to the president!” I remarked. The ambassador responded with a laugh. “I’m not saying that,” he said. “I’m saying that he’s a wonderful friend and that he’s several pay grades higher than me.”

I asked if the president had given him a message for the pope; Mr. Donnelly said that he had. “It was in a sealed envelope, and I didn’t open it.”

The Wall Street Journal recently criticized Francis for saying that “perhaps” NATO’s “barking at the door” of Russia had provoked or facilitated President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I asked the ambassador for his comment. “The United States’ position—and my position from having been to Ukraine a number of times—is that it’s a free and independent nation, and they have a right to associate with whom they want,” he said. “Russia is a completely different country and doesn’t have the right to tell Ukraine what to do.

“The Vatican has clearly stated that Ukraine has the right to defend itself, the right to have weapons,” he added. “I read the pope’s remarks. They haven’t been repeated by anyone else. He hasn’t said them again himself. So, what you do is you continue to work forward and, I think when you see, overall, the view of the Vatican, they clearly support Ukraine’s aspirations and hopes.”

I asked how he viewed the visit of Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, to Ukraine, which are taking place May 19 to 21. “I think it’s a huge plus,” the ambassador replied. “For this reason, it is a great symbol of commitment to the Ukrainian people, to the Ukrainian church, that the Vatican is willing—again, as the pope said—to try anything they can to bring peace. And I think that is why we see the archbishop going there.”

Donnelly’s Goals as Ambassador

Every ambassador comes with some goals in mind, so I asked what his are in addition to those related to human rights and religious freedom, which have been a staple on the agenda of recent ambassadors from the United States to the Holy See.

He confirmed that human rights, human dignity and religious freedom would “continue to be significant areas of attention” as they were for his immediate predecessor, Ambassador Callista Gingrich. In addition, he said, “health care is critically important to me personally, to our nation.” He recalled that “one of the greatest partners we have [in advocating for health care] is the Catholic Church” both in the United States and worldwide. (Catholic organizations provide around 15 to 20 percent of health care in the United States, usually in the inner cities and rural areas, and 25 percent worldwide.)

“I hope the Vatican sees that and understands that I can be a trusted source of information for them, and that they can provide [information] to the United States.”

Aware that Pope Francis has called for vaccines to be made universally available to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, he said the United States is working “as fast as we can to provide vaccines to the world” and “already has provided more vaccines than certainly any other country, and close to more than almost everybody else together.” He added, “I know that President Biden and his administration and our Congress want to achieve that goal.”

Furthermore, he revealed that his embassy is “heavily involved” in a “WASH” (water, sanitation and hygiene) program together with the Vatican, which involves putting in place clean septic and water systems; the Vatican has indicated that “minimal investments can make a huge difference.”

The ambassador said climate change is another priority on his agenda. “President Biden is committed to that. I am committed to that,” he said. Mr. Donnelly added that “Pope Francis has been front and center on this with ‘Laudato Si’,’” which Mr. Donnelly said he has read.

The Holy Land

A longstanding, major concern for Pope Francis and the Holy See is the situation in the Holy Land, particularly the 74-year-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for which there is no sign of peace on the horizon. Indeed, the situation recently deteriorated with the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh—the Palestinian-American, Catholic journalist who reported for Al Jazeera—followed by beatings by Israeli police at her funeral.

I asked the ambassador if he had discussed this situation with the pope. He said he had not, partly because of the time limitation on the audience but also because “the [Russia-Ukraine] war was raging, so that was front and center.”

However, he called the United States “a strong supporter of Israel. We protect Israel’s right to exist and our commitment to them is ironclad. But, at the same time, both President Biden and myself support a two-state solution. We also support the democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people.”

“We work together on a lot of issues very, very closely. Sometimes we don’t align exactly the same way on the issues, but I support the positions of the United States.”

Mr. Donnelly knows the situation well, having been to the Holy Land “a number of times” and having had several meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Israeli prime minister, and with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian State. “I’ve been there a lot, and what we try to do is to continue to state our positions, to support a two-state solution. We hope that between the two [sides] they can work closer together.” But, he admitted, “we’re in a tough spot right now.”

Asked how he rated the Vatican’s position on this, he responded, “I rate the Vatican’s position as the Vatican’s position. I represent the United States. We work together on a lot of issues very, very closely. Sometimes we don’t align exactly the same way on the issues, but I support the positions of the United States.”

China

Since relations with China are an issue of great importance for both the Vatican and the United States, I asked if that is a major part of his brief as ambassador.

“It is,” Ambassador Donnelly said. “The United States has a clear position regarding China: that China has violated human rights, has violated religious freedoms of Muslims, Catholic worshippers, and in trying to influence the future of Tibet. China has clearly interfered in religious freedoms and human rights in all those areas. We expressed that to the Vatican.”

Ambassador Donnelly: the United States has been “much more vocal with the Chinese” than the Vatican has.

As he sees it, the Vatican is “in a very difficult situation where they are trying to make sure the church can survive against the authoritarian, dictatorial regime that wants to impose its own will,” Mr. Donnelly said. “So, I think they’re trying to figure out the exact best way for the church to survive at the same time they’re dealing with dictators.”

He confirmed that “it’s an issue I’ve already had discussions with them about, and it’s an issue I’ll continue to have discussions with them about.”

Commenting on the recent arrest of Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old Hong Kong prelate who was arrested for his involvement in a pro-democracy legal aid fund, the ambassador said that he was “very familiar with what has occurred.” Mr. Donnelly added that he is “hopeful” that the Chinese will not prosecute the cardinal, who was released on bail.

He said that there is no guarantee that the cardinal won’t end up in court, adding that China has “not given that up yet.” But, the ambassador said, “We’re going to be very vocal as a country—the United States—condemning what China has done and working hard to make sure that Cardinal Zen does not wind up in court. We will stay in solidarity with Cardinal Zen.

“That’s what I hope to bring to this relationship: that the Vatican knows, and they do know, that they’ve got a great friend in the United States, and we’re here to try to help.”

“Cardinal Zen is someone that is a beacon of freedom to our country, that has spoken truth to power and is being punished for that,” Mr. Donnelly added.

He said that the United States has been “much more vocal with the Chinese” than the Vatican has. “The United States has been much more vocal in condemning China about these things, and about Cardinal Zen. The Vatican has obviously condemned what has happened but is also looking out for Cardinal Zen as well,” the ambassador said.

U.S.-Vatican Relations

There are tensions as well as areas of agreement in relations between the Holy See and the United States, just as with other countries. I asked how he intended to navigate with the areas of tension. His reply: “Well, I’ll just put it this way: We are much closer together on so many [more] issues” than on those of tension. Mr. Donnelly said he is “trying to focus on those issues where we can come together.”

Referring to his meetings with Vatican officials since he took office, “The message I take is really encouraging,” the ambassador said. “Obviously, the Vatican loves all countries across the whole world, but there’s a deep affection between the Vatican and the United States. There’s also a strong respect and affection for President Biden and his efforts to try to reach out to all the people, not only in our country but around the world. There’s a spirit of, ‘We can get a lot of things done together.’”

“That’s what I hope to bring to this relationship: that the Vatican knows, and they do know, that they’ve got a great friend in the United States, and we’re here to try to help,” he concluded. “We agree on so many things, but we don’t agree on everything. In a relationship, nobody agrees on everything. But we’re here as a great and trusted partner.”

(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Archbishop Salvator Cordileone announced that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would be barred from receiving Communion in her home diocese of San Francisco.)

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