For Archbishop Peter Wells, the Pope’s new ambassador to South Africa, being in the diplomatic service of the Holy See isn’t about politics or governing, but is above all a ministry centered on Jesus Christ.
“At the end of the day what is papal diplomacy? What does it mean to be a papal diplomat? It’s about one thing at the end of the day: Jesus Christ. That’s it,” Archbishop Wells told CNA March 23.
He said that apostolic nuncios, the Holy See's ambassadors, always have to look for effective means of showing that they are in a country “to bring the concerns, the hopes, the suffering of the local population back to the Vicar of Christ.”
Apostolic nuncios differ from secular diplomats because “we’re not really there to represent the political, economic, diplomatic views of our government,” but rather “to listen to what the people need,” he said.
As representatives of the Pope, “we’re dealing with the local Church, the local bishops, we’re there for them as the Pope’s representatives to be their voice when we come back to the Pope, but also to be the Pope’s voice when we go back to them.”
Archbishop Wells said he detests it “when people talk about priests who are working in the Vatican, people who are in my kind of job, as bureaucrats or CEOs. We’re not. We’re priests. We’re ministers first and foremost.”
One of the things the archbishop said he has always emphasized to his colleagues in the Secretariat of State is that “the minute you start feeling like a bureaucrat is the minute you need to get out. You need to get back to the parish.”
“We are doing ministry here,” he said, adding that while it may be a more indirect, behind-the-scenes form of ministry, “it is helping the Holy Father as the Vicar of Christ in his ministry.”
“If you lose touch with that you better get out of there quick because you need to get yourself grounded again.”
Archbishop Well's appointment as apostolic nuncio to South Africa, as well as Botswana, Lesotho, and Namibia, was made in February. He was consecrated a bishop March 19 by Pope Francis.
His episcopal consecration “was an extraordinary moment,” he said. “It was a moment filled with grace and thanksgiving, great humility, a sense of awe but also a real serenity.”
The archbishop, 52, was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Tulsa in 1991. He has been working in Rome in Vatican diplomacy since 2002, giving him a 14 year tenure in which he has served under three Roman Pontiffs: St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis.
Since July 2009 he has served as the Assessor for the General Affairs of the Secretariat of State, which handles the majority of Church affairs aside from relations with other states. His role as assessor made Archbishop Wells the fifth ranking official in the Secretariat of State.
Though he is happy to be back in active ministry, the archbishop said his time in the Vatican was “a real grace,” especially in serving under three Popes.
Having arrived toward the end of St. John Paul II’s pontificate, Archbishop Wells said he was amazed to see that the Polish Pope was “still so active, still so engaged with his limitations.”
Benedict XVI, with whom the Archbishop frequently traveled, including during his 2008 visit to the United States, “was such a humble, incredibly humble person,” he said.
While many thought the German pontiff was timid, Archbishop Wells said he didn’t see him that way.
“I never thought he was timid…he’s humble and incredibly respectful. And because of the respect, maybe as a professor…he always showed incredible respect for the other person, but he wanted to let them express their ideas, their views, and then he would say something.”
Francis, on the other hand, has been “a whirlwind since day one,” the archbishop said, chuckling.
He said that though the Argentine has only been in office for three years, “it’s been an extremely invigorating time and a very beautiful time, especially to see how Pope Francis has this ability to touch everyone’s heart immediately.”
Touching on the differences in the diplomatic tone of each of the Popes under whom he’s served, Archbishop Well said that St. John Paul II “was extraordinary” in terms of his diplomatic service.
“(John Paul) interacted on the entire world stage and was very much a part of the fall of the Eastern Bloc,” he said, crediting the saint’s input, diplomatic tact, and rapport with other heads of state in helping to eliminate communism in Europe.
The archbishop said that in his opinion, one of the most significant contributions of Benedict XVI in the diplomatic world was that he continuously talked about “the importance of the relationship between faith and reason,” as well as the importance of religious communities in having a voice in the public forum.
Francis has followed closely in his predecessors’ footsteps, and has already had a huge impact in just three years, Archbishop Wells said, pointing specifically to Francis’ role in helping to restore U.S.-Cuba relations and in drawing attention to the global migrant crisis.
“He has a keen sense of what is happening, but he never, ever loses the idea that it’s the human person who is at the center,” he said, adding that “we can never lose the concept of the integral and core nature of the human person.”
The archbishop said that one of the biggest challenges in his tenure has been not only his assistance in streamlining Vatican communications — he is one of the officials who pushed for the Pope’s Twitter account — but also knowing how to deal with Benedict XVI’s resignation.
“We didn’t have instruments, or really archives, of how to deal with the resignation of the Pope and how to move forward in the interim, so we had to come up with new models of dealing with things.”
A large part of the discussion centered on determining what would happen when Benedict actually resigned, he said.
In order to signify that he had actually stepped down, they finally agreed to close the doors to Castel Gandolfo and to remove the Swiss Guard (the personal protectors of the Holy Father), replacing them with the Gendarme, the Vatican's police service.
“Our communications office did a beautiful job following Pope Benedict in the helicopter, and the way that that was shown to the world was extraordinary,” he said. “Everyone could really participate in what was happening, because it was a historical moment.”
Despite his time serving in Rome, Archbishop Wells said he is eager to jump into his new position as nuncio. He hopes to make the move to South Africa in time for the April 30 consecration of an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Johannesburg.
One of the things the archbishop said he’s looking forward to as nuncio is that “now I get to be involved in direct ministry again.”
While the diplomatic work of someone inside the Secretariat of State is important, it’s indirect, he said, voicing his excitement at being able to say Mass in communities and help with sacramental preparations such as marriage and confirmations.
“I’ll also get to be present in a very direct way for the local bishops, for the priests and the laypeople. That’s definitely going to be a real joy: I’m really looking forward to that.”
Mary Shovlain contributed to this article.