Few people, even few Catholics, think very much about the Vatican’s role as an independent state, established by the Lateran Treaty in 1929, among the other countries of the world. But the Vatican has its own Secretary of State, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, and foreign minister (Secretary for Relations with States), Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran. In total, 174 countries recognize the Holy See and send ambassadors to the Vatican.
The reason for all the attention paid to this small plot of ground, just over 100 acres, is that the Vatican is one of the most important “listening posts” in the world. Vatican City is the place where the universal network of dioceses and parishes cross, a network of formal and informal reporting, that make up the Catholic Church. There is no other place where the cultural and political pulse of nearly every corner of the world can be felt.
Frank Shakespeare, the second U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, recently discussed the job with me for an interview we taped for EWTN. He related, in detail, the history of the U.S. diplomatic relations with the Vatican, including the failed effort of President Truman in 1951 to create an ambassadorial post in the Vatican. Truman’s seemingly inspired pick of a WWII hero General Mark W. Clark did not keep the then anti-Catholic prejudices of the Congress from defeating the appointment.
For 18 critical years between 1951 and 1968, the United States had no official representative in the Vatican. President Richard Nixon rectified the situation by appointing Henry Cabot Lodge as his personal representative to the Holy See. President Jimmy Carter followed suit with the appointment of the former mayor of New York City, Robert F. Wagner.
It took the presidency of Ronald Reagan to complete the effort begun by Truman nearly forty years earlier. In 1984, William A. Wilson was appointed the first ambassador, followed by Shakespeare (86-89), Thomas Melady (89-93), Raymond Flynn (93-97), Corinne (Lindy) Boggs (97-00), and, now, Jim Nicholson.
At a recent luncheon held in his honor, Nicholson spoke briefly about the issues facing him at his new post. At first he joked that his wife Suzanne had hesitated before agreeing to make the move from Colorado to Washington, D.C. in 1997 but she didn’t hesitate a moment when asked if she would mind living in Rome.
On the serious side, Nicholson emphasized that human rights would be at the center of his agenda. He also stressed how seriously his post was viewed by the Department of State and, especially, by Secretary of State Colin Powell, to whom he would be reporting.
Nicholson, in my opinion, is a near-ideal choice for this crucial listening post. He understands and practices the Catholic faith and is a seasoned veteran of the political arena.
As Vatican Ambassador, Nicholson will need all his skills to manage the information flow between Washington, D.C. and the Vatican because as his predecessor Frank Shakespeare said in the interview – the Vatican is the best place to listen to the rest of the world.
It will be Ambassador Nicholson’s job to make sure that this administration hears what Catholics, throughout the world, are saying.