ROME — Let’s engage in a fanciful exercise and imagine a war room in the bowels of the Vatican where a team of spin-doctors crafts communications strategy. No such operation exists, but for the sake of the exercise, let’s say it does.

Looking ahead to Pope Francis’ trip to the United States next September, such a PR team probably would want to set up the outing by taking some potential controversies off the board, and also trying to give the pope a signature political breakthrough with resonance in America as a talking point.

Truth to be told, the Vatican isn’t nearly that crafty about messaging. If it were, however, it would still be tough to script a better week for Francis in terms of American PR than the one he just recorded.

On Tuesday, the Vatican released a long-waited report on American nuns, the product of a hugely controversial six-year investigation that was seen by many as crackdown by the Church’s male-dominated power structure.

In the end, the 5,000-word report was more largely a hymn of praise for the nuns, without any disciplinary measure or new controls. Among other things, the document paid tribute to American nuns for “selflessly tending to the spiritual, moral, educational, physical and social needs of countless individuals.”

There’s still a separate Vatican investigation of an umbrella group for the leaders of women’s orders in American hanging out there, but issuing this document amounted to a huge step in putting its relationship with Catholic women in the United States back on track.

One day later, news broke that Pope Francis had been instrumental in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

“I want to thank his Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is,” US President Barack Obama said in announcing the breakthrough.

Not since Ronald Reagan credited John Paul II for his role in the collapse of communism has an American president doled out that kind of acknowledgment of the diplomatic punch of a sitting pope.

If you’re an insider, you might be tempted to play down Francis’ role in both of these developments.

For the report on nuns, the truth of it is that the affirming, laudatory tone of Tuesday’s report bears the imprint of two other people more than the pope.

One is somebody who’s not even in the Vatican anymore and who had no formal role in presenting the document to the world, but whose fingerprints are all over it: Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis, who served as the No. 2 official in the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life from August 2010 to October 2012.

Tobin arrived shortly before Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé stepped down as the Vatican’s top official for religious orders, and the change in tone was dramatic. Under Rodé, the Vatican launched its probe into American nuns over concerns about a “secular mentality” and a “feminist spirit;” with Tobin and his boss, Brazilian Cardinal João Bráz de Aviz, the message instead was healing and dialogue.

As the top American in the process, Tobin was given lead responsibility for the nuns’ investigation. Even though he left Rome before the endgame, there’s no doubt Tuesday’s final product bears his stamp.

The other key player is Mother Clare Millea, a Connecticut native and superior of an order of nuns called the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who was appointed by Rodé in late 2008 to head up the investigation, a process technically known as an “Apostolic Visitation.”

Mother Millea was put in a basically impossible position, asked to lead an exercise that many nuns, including some of her own sisters, saw as punitive and unjustified. In somebody else’s hands, it was a disaster waiting to happen, but Mother Millea managed to turn a train wreck into a victory.

As for Cuba, the truth is that it was a breakthrough for the Vatican’s corporate line more than a personal accomplishment by Francis.

Since the John Paul II years, the Vatican has opposed the US embargo and other efforts to isolate Cuba diplomatically and economically, and favored its reinsertion into the community of nations. No matter who had been pope in 2014, an invitation to both Obama and Raul Castro to set aside their differences likely would have been forthcoming.

Moreover, much of the heavy lifting wasn’t performed by the pope but by his secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, a former papal ambassador to Venezuela who’s well versed in Latin American politics.

Kenneth Hackett, US ambassador to the Holy See, told Crux last week that “a senior Vatican official” played an important part in breaking the ice. He didn’t name Parolin, although he’s widely perceived to have been that official.

None of that, however, really matters in terms of American public opinion. Pope Francis already had a terrific image in the States, but after the second week of December in 2014, he’s now seen not only as nun-friendly, but also politically relevant in a whole new way.

There’s a lot of time between now and September 2015, when the pope will make his trip to the States, but if he were coming tomorrow, it’s difficult to envision a more compelling run-up than what we’ve just seen.

The investigating nun speaks

Crux sat down with Mother Millea last week at the Rome headquarters of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart, which happens to be located at a school run by the order for local children. We spoke 48 hours after a Vatican press conference to present her final report; here are excerpts from the conversation.

Crux: You’ve reached the end of a six-year process. How are you feeling?
Mother Millea: I feel a great sense of peace and joy, much greater than I would have expected, and not just because it’s over. I gave practically three years of my life [to the Apostolic Visitation] full-time, while running a congregation, and that was very challenging in every way. To see this come to conclusion, it’s not like ‘Thank God it’s over,’ but ‘Thank God for how beautifully everything pulled together.’

What’s your sense of reaction among American nuns?
It’s been very positive. I don’t think any of us are simplistic enough to think that everything has been resolved, but the great joy of the sisters who were present at the press conference … Not too many people have access to my e-mail, but those who have it have written to say thank you. There’s a realism now that if we have things to work on, we know with whom we will be working and there’s a relationship of trust.

You met the pope before the presentation. What was that like?
It was an awesome experience. I’d heard from people who have been to his private Mass, but you really have to experience the presence of a man of God who’s at the Mass to pray. He’s not concerned about who’s there, but about the Eucharist, and he drew us into prayer. Afterwards we met with him briefly. He said, ‘That was an arduous task you had!’ He was very interested in the religious in the United States.

When I said, ‘I have brought the voices of the 50,000 sisters in the United States to the Holy See, and today we hear their response to us. Do you have a word for us?’ He looked at me with a little smile and said, ‘Tell them all I give them my blessing.’

The process you were asked to lead was seen initially as a crackdown. How did you deal with that?
I think of the 50,000 American sisters … I heard during the visitation that elderly sisters felt so hurt that everything we had done had not been approved by the Holy See. Now all those 50,000 sisters should feel very happy.

During the visitation, we tried to lessen those apprehensions, especially of the elderly sisters, with our on-site visits. We only received positive feedback about our gentle, compassionate, sister-to-sister approach. They saw we were not out to get them. We wanted to hear their lived experience, their charism, their love for their congregation. We weren’t looking for problems, and that helped.

Some of the commentary at the beginning was tough, but it created such an outpouring of support for the sisters. Now we see the complete picture. The laypeople supported us, the clergy, our bishops … there was so much dialogue between bishops and major superiors during the time these two initiatives were taking place. Now we’ve received an affirmation from the Holy See itself.

Critics will say that this report puts a happy face on some real problems, including disagreement from many American nuns with official Church teaching on matters such as abortion, birth control, and women priests. How do you respond to that?
I don’t think the report of the congregation backed off from theological orthodoxy. It says look at who you are and what you transmit: Is Christ at the center of your teaching and your way of life? The issue is there, but in a very pastoral way, which leaves an openness for dialogue. Everything I see in every day of the pontificate of Pope Francis is that Christ came for sinners; Christ came to bring us closer into union with God and the Church. This pastoral approach invites this kind of dialogue.

My experience with the women religious in the United States corresponds to it … this is what our sisters deserved. We deserved that, because that’s what I saw.

Do you feel personally vindicated?
I’ll limit my response to my own sisters in the United States. We have a wonderful province, about 120 sisters, and many of them felt very badly that I was doing this. They have a wonderful rapport with sisters from all different kinds of congregations, and they felt bad that their leader was after the sisters. I had to be faithful to my mandate and just go on, but when it’s in your own home, it’s hard. They didn’t want me to be the agent of something that would be hurtful. The many, many e-mails I got from my own sisters after Tuesday morning made me happy that they now understand what I was really about. They felt bad for all the other sisters in the United States they know and love, and didn’t want them to be subjected to something negative.

Has anyone initially suspicious of you come up to say, ‘Sorry, I was wrong?’
Not long ago, a book came out called “Power of Sisterhood” by Mary Ann Zollmann and Margaret Cain McCarthy, [which was] put together with several other women who have been in leadership, offering their impressions of the Apostolic Visitation. Both [Zollman and McCarthy] signed a letter to me, saying that we hope that you will sit down with a cup of cappuccino in Rome and read this lovingly, because it would have been a whole different experience if it were not for you.

That meant the world to me.

If the Leadership Conference of Woman Religious invited you to their next meeting, would you go?
These were the women I represented, whose voices I brought, and I would be very happy. Honestly I have thought about that, and I would be comfortable and so happy to meet the women that I represented to the Church.

If you were offered a Vatican job, would you accept?
I don’t think the red hat would look good on the top of my veil!

In all honesty, I vowed my life to service of the Church, so I’ll serve the Church where it asks me to. To see the great grace God worked out of something so painfully difficult [as the visitation], how could I ever say no to anything else?

Pope Francis has received a lot of credit for the positive ending to this process. Does he deserve it?
I don’t see a major shift in the Church’s approach. Pope Benedict is my hero … I studied him constantly, I studied his approach to people, and I always asked myself, ‘How would Pope Benedict want me to approach this?’ But I see the effect that Pope Francis has, how people have warmed to the Church, not just to his personality. Benedict brought it all to perfection, but Francis is bringing it to the people. With this message that’s getting across … making people feel very valued. I saw the result would be even more positive and warm than what I could have expected before.

LCWR head on the nuns’ report

The other shoe waiting to drop on the nuns vs. Vatican front is a totally separate investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the primary umbrella group in the United States for the leaders of orders of women religious, sponsored by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and run by a three-member commission of bishops headed by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle.

As it happens, the president of the LCWR, Sister Sharon Holland, was in Rome last week for the press conference presenting the report on American nuns. She’s a remarkable figure, one of the first American Catholic women ever to earn a doctorate in Church law from the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome and also a former Vatican official who served in the Congregation for Religious from 1998 to 2009.

Sister Holland spoke to Inés San Martín of Crux last week; here are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: Can you give a status report on the CDF investigation of LCWR?
Sister Holland: The CDF isn’t finished, but we’re working well with the delegates who have been appointed. Mainly we’re working with Archbishop Sartain, who’s been very helpful, very available. We’ve developed a good working relationship. We’re hoping not to need the whole five years to bring that process to a good conclusion.

My experience has been very good. I came on a year and a half ago, when I became president-elect of LCWR, so that was the beginning of my participation. The first thing I was involved in was the work on the statutes. I’m a canonist, so they said, do the statutes, [and] it was very positive. I remember meeting with Bishop [Thomas J.] Paprocki [of Springfield, Ill., also a member of the LCWR commission] on the statutes and it was a very positive collaboration, also with a woman canonist from the bishops’ conference … Archbishop Sartain has been very available, he listens, he reflects, says what he needs to say. We can work together.

When do you think it will be over?
Hopefully before the five years are up, that’s the closest I can come. I can say we’re in regular contact with Archbishop Sartain. It was already known that the work on the revision of our statutes has gone forward and is being completed, and that’s a positive step. Now we’re moving on with the rest of things.

Does Tuesday’s report have any implications for the LCWR process?
I think it can’t hurt to have a positive, challenging, but affirming report. It can be encouraging for us as we say, “Okay now, let’s look at the rest of the challenges and see how we can move forward with the doctrinal assessment.” A challenge is always difficult, but when you start taking things in hand and working in collaboration, things move.

The report presented Tuesday was seen as an olive branch. How did you receive it?
I define it as hours of listening, an assessment of data received, and synthesis into a comprehensive report that really balances affirmations and challenges, that doesn’t blame, [and] doesn’t give simplistic solutions. But I read it and said, “Yes, this is us. We’ve been heard, in our diversity, too.” I found it realistic and reaffirming. I found it positive in the sense that we’ve been heard, and they talked to a lot of us, which is a lot more comprehensive than talking to one or two.

You said at the presser that you’d have to listen to sisters still hurting over this process. What would you say to them?
We need to try to heal. That doesn’t mean pretending there was no hurt, but trying to understand it and move towards forgiveness and reconciliation, instead of pretending that it didn’t happen. There will always be tensions in the Church, and in the world, but we can’t let it fester into constant anger.

The report is, in a way, a first step towards a healing process between the Vatican and the US women religious.