ROME — On the heels of a major diplomatic coup in paving the way for restoring US/Cuba relations, Pope Francis’ top diplomat said Tuesday the Vatican is entering a “more proactive” phase of political engagement.
“With all the conflicts in the world today, we can’t just wait,” said Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state. Instead, he said, the Vatican has to take the initiative, making proposals to break logjams.
Parolin spoke in brief remarks to reporters during a dedication ceremony for a new addition to the Pontifical North American College, the prestigious residence for American seminarians in Rome.
Parolin also said that during the pope’s visit to the United States in September for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, he expects Francis to visit New York for an address to the United Nations, as well as Washington, D.C., but that “nothing is official yet.”
A former papal ambassador to Venezuela with strong ties across Latin America, Parolin’s inroads into Cuba helped set the stage for Pope Francis to write to US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro, suggesting the time might be ripe to restore relations between the two nations severed during the Cold War.
Both Obama and Castro thanked Pope Francis for his role in opening the door for the deal.
Asked if the breakthrough signaled a new “Golden Age” for the Vatican as a political actor, Parolin said that “Vatican diplomacy is always there to help build bridges,” but that “in the present world, we have to take a more proactive role.”
On a different front, Parolin insisted that the fact Pope Francis now has bypassed the United States twice in naming new cardinals is not a sign of “less interest” by the pontiff in the American Church.
“It doesn’t mean he has anything against anyone, that’s for sure,” Parolin said.
Instead, Parolin argued that the line-up announced by Francis, including just one Vatican official among the 15 voting-age cardinals and only five from Europe, was intended to express “the broader sense of the universal Church.”
“He was especially looking to places that don’t normally have cardinals,” Parolin said.
In the nominations announced Sunday, Francis tapped new cardinals for three countries that have never had one before — Myanmar, Cape Verde, and Tonga.
“This is his way of looking to the peripheries, privileging those places that don’t always get the Church’s attention,” Parolin said.
“We have to change the way we think about these things a little bit,” he said. “The Holy Father’s criteria are a heart and mind open to every place, but especially those places that don’t always stand out.”
Parolin also noted that it wasn’t just Americans who might be able to make a case for being overlooked, saying that Catholics from France or other European nations might be equally miffed.
Parolin was at the North American College at the same time that Francis was celebrating a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the feast of the Epiphany. The Italian prelate came at the invitation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Monsignor James Checchio, the seminary rector.
In addition to Parolin and Wuerl, four other cardinals took part in the dedication ceremony, which involved blessing every room in the new structure: Americans James Harvey and Edwin O’Brien, both based in Rome; George Pell of Australia, the pope’s finance czar, and Agostino Cacciavillan of Italy, a former papal ambassador in the United States.
Encompassing more than 36,000 square feet on 10 floors, the addition to the North American College is a sign of rebounding enrollment at the seminary. Now in its fourth year at full capacity, the facility has more than 250 seminarians and an additional 62 priests doing graduate studies and living in older quarters in downtown Rome.
“What struck me is the number of seminarians studying here,” Parolin said. “It means that at least in some cases, the number of vocations [to the priesthood] is going up. Looking around at the world, that’s very encouraging.”
Parolin said he hopes the college will especially focus on encouraging “missionary vocations … especially for the poor and most vulnerable of the world.”
In his homily, Parolin said he carried the “greetings and apostolic blessing” of Pope Francis, who, he said, “is conscious of the bonds between this house and the successor of Peter.”
The new structure contains offices and classrooms, meeting spaces, a chapel for private prayer, soundproof rooms for practicing homilies and the celebration of Mass, and a reading room offering a 360-degree view of Rome from atop the Gianiculum hill.
Its chapel features stained glass windows of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary as well as Pope St. John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa, both of whom once visited the college. It also has windows dedicated to the Rev. Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen, both American clerics for whom sainthood causes have been launched.
In addition, the chapel contains a relic of St. John Paul’s cassock from the day he was shot in St. Peter’s Square in 1981. The new structure also features a brick from the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica, which was blessed on Dec. 18 by Pope Francis during a 45-minute audience with Checchio.
The Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica is opened only during Jubilee years, which are generally celebrated every 25 or 50 years, and is otherwise bricked up.
Parolin said Americans have many distinct contributions to make to the Catholic Church — including, he said with a smile, “the way they organize things.”
(As a footnote, work on the new addition was completed in 16 months, which, in a country plagued by chronic delays in construction, has been seen as a minor miracle.)
Yet Parolin insisted that the significance of an American seminary in Rome isn’t so much about what Americans bring, but what they take away.
“It’s important to be in Rome, to have the spirit of the universality of the Church,” he said. He said Roman experience also imparts a sense of a “special relationship” with the pope, which “doesn’t take anything away from the local church, but give it most strength and energy.”
During a lunch that followed a Mass celebrated by Parolin, Mr. and Mrs. James Mulva of Austin, Texas, were honored for being major benefactors to the building project.