The pontificate of Pope Francis has a diplomatic style of its own, and many of his diplomats share a common source: a college and a home for disadvantaged but talented young people on scholarship called the Istitutio Villa Nazareth.
The institute’s impact can be seen in the fact that Pope Francis will likely make a private visit there June 18. The news has not been officially confirmed yet, but it has been floated in semi-official Holy See channels. The visit has to be strictly private. It will mark the 60th anniversary of the institute’s foundation and there will be an informal chat with the institute’s students. Many of the prelates who have attended the institute have gone on an impact in diplomacy and the Church.
Villa Nazareth is under the supervision of the Vatican Secretariat of State. This makes the institute different from any other university college.
The institute was founded in 1946 by Father Domenico Tardini, a Roman priest who went on to become a formidable diplomat. Indeed, he served Pope John XXIII as Secretary of State.
Fr. Tardini founded the Institute on the assumption that people need “apostles.” They need to be “intelligent, cultivated, virtuous, with no selfish interests, rich in initiatives and spirit of sacrifice, with the wish of doing good for other people,” he wrote.
When Cardinal Tardini died in 1961, the institute began a time of difficulty. Following the student upheavals of 1968, Villa Nazareth suspended its activities. Future leading diplomat Father Achille Silvestrini, then a simple monsignor, re-started the activities and placed the students in several apartments rather than in one residence.
In 1983, the Villa Nazareth building re-opened. For the first time, women students were allowed. In the course of the years, vocations also flourished: five priests and two nuns came from Villa Nazareth. By visiting the Institute, Pope Francis will likely pay homage to its history benefitting its talented young people. He will likely pay tribute to the diplomatic skills developed by the institute’s alumni.
The leaders with a past or present involvement in Villa Nazareth are many. Its current president is Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, who had spent all of his career in the Holy See diplomatic ranks. Among other things, he was involved in the Helsinki negotiations that 50 years ago resulted in the establishment of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The institute’s vice-president is Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, who is currently president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. He served as a diplomat in South America and also has worked on the “China desk” in the Secretariat of State since the 1980s. He is one of the Vatican’s major experts on Chinese issues. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a past director of the institute, also handled the “China desk” when he was the Holy See’s deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs. He has scaled the ranks to become the current Vatican Secretary of State. What is the diplomatic approach fostered by these three main characters of Vatican diplomacy? In general, they work behind the scenes. They try to achieve the best outcomes possible through negotiations, in a step by step approach that can be considered a sort of “Ostpolitik” applied to all diplomatic fields. In Vatican parlance, “Ostpolitik” is a phrase used to describe the complex relations between the Holy See and the Eastern European countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War era from the 1960s forward. These relations were marked by a series of agreements, meetings and reciprocal concessions that the Church put in action to safeguard the Catholic Church and protect the Catholic faithful in Soviet Union-controlled countries. This spirit has been restored under the Pope Francis’ pontificate. One main examples is the dialogue with China. In that case, the Vatican is reportedly willing to accept new bishop candidates chosen out of a set of three with the approval of the Chinese government. China is not the only example.
Pope Francis has fostered a diplomacy of encounter, no matter the possible repercussions. Such instances include the approach to the Syrian crisis. Pope Francis proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting for peace in September 2013 and Vatican diplomats have engaged in talks with Russia.
Then there is the Pope’s June 2014 prayer for peace in the Vatican Garden with then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian president Abu Mazen; the Holy See’s effort in restoring Cuba-U.S. relations; and the Pope’s engagement with others from all over the Muslim world, from the Iranian Shia to the prominent Sunni Al-Azhar University. Given a choice between a hard discussion and a soft negotiation, current Vatican diplomacy will always chose the second. It considers this approach more useful to achieve some good outcome. This rationale is part of the classic diplomatic school, and Istituto Villa Nazareth was its cradle.