ROME – In sports, people argue about who’s the GOAT, meaning “Greatest of All Time.” In basketball, is Lebron James the GOAT or is it Michael Jordan? In baseball, are we talking Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb? In college football, did Alabama Coach Nick Saban just become the GOAT by winning a seventh national title, surpassing the legendary Bear Bryant?
When it comes to the role of a US Ambassador to the Vatican, it may still be a little early for the GOAT conversation — after all, the US and the Vatican have had full diplomatic relations only since 1984. But no matter how long we wait, I doubt we’ll ever get a better candidate for what I’ll call the COAT, meaning the envoy who faced the most vexing “Challenge of All Time.”
It’s gotta be outgoing Ambassador Callista Gingrich, who made her farewell visit to Pope Francis yesterday and who’s set to depart Rome on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.
Before Gingrich, there were two contenders for the COAT title: Ray Flynn, who represented U.S. President Bill Clinton at a time when Washington and Rome were engaged in titanic battles over UN conferences on population and women and the idea of enshrining abortion as a universal human right; and Jim Nicholson, who had to represent the Bush administration when Pope John Paul II was emerging as the global champion of moral opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
No one, however, ever inherited quite the headache that awaited Gingrich, because no pope and no president arguably were ever as ill-suited for one another as President Donald Trump and Pope Francis.
The tension began even before Trump took office, with Francis defining then-candidate Trump as “not a Christian” in February 2016 for his vow to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants – and, as it turns out, that was actually something of a high-water mark in their relationship.
A little over a year later, two of the pope’s closest friends and allies published an article denouncing an “ecumenism of hate” in the U.S. between Protestant Evangelicals and conservative Catholics – which, of course, was precisely the electoral coalition that helped propel Trump to office.
Even though all that happened before Gingrich got here, she had to carry it around every time she met someone in the Vatican, every time she hosted an event, and every time she appeared in public. Everyone knew her boss and the pope didn’t see eye to eye, which meant that quite often, she had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that conversations would stop when she walked into a room, and that whatever she said or did would be seen through the filter of larger political narratives.
Moreover, unlike her rivals for the COAT title, Gingrich arrived in Rome as a relative nobody. Flynn was a successful two-term mayor of Boston, while Nicholson had been the chair of the Republican National Committee. Gingrich, however, was simply known as the wife of a former Speaker of the House.
Despite all of that, and, measured solely on her performance as ambassador – not on the president she represented, or the man to whom she’s married – Gingrich was a surprising success story.
For more than three years, she carried herself on the Rome scene with grace and aplomb. She was unrelentingly positive, refusing to allow herself or her embassy to be drawn into any of the larger drama surrounding the Vatican/U.S. relationship in the era of Trump and Francis. In effect, she acted as if mature people can do positive things together despite their differences, which is a welcome nod to maturity despite the madness that sometimes surrounded her.
Gingrich hosted dozens of events dedicated to issues upon which Washington and Rome are in lockstep, including not only religious freedom but, perhaps most consistently, the fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. On her watch the Vatican embassy nominated two “Trafficking in Persons Report Heroes,” both of whom were invited to Washington to hobnob with senior administration officials and later reported the attention bolstered their work.
Gingrich also cast a spotlight on the role of nuns around the world, including hosting annual “Women on the Frontlines” symposia to recognize the contributions of women religious on the frontlines of conflict zones and destabilized regions. She made two nominations for the U.S. International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award, both nuns involved in conflict resolution and social justice efforts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Behind the scenes, Gingrich encouraged the State Department and other government leaders to take women religious seriously as sources of insight on areas that are often difficult, if not impossible, for U.S. officials to access.
Gingrich also responded to needs as they presented themselves. At the early peak of the coronavirus in Italy, Gingrich worked with the Office of Vice President Mike Pence to help Samaritan’s Purse, a U.S. faith-based organization, fly in a 68-bed emergency field hospital in northern Italy that included 60 American doctors, nurses, and technicians to care for the critically ill. The Minister of Health for the hard-hit Italian region of Lombardy called it “the first bright light in our dark sky.”
In ways large and small, Gingrich sought to show respect for the institution to which she was accredited. For example, the embassy worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Vatican’s own police to return a stolen letter to the Vatican Library in 2018 written by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The esteem was mutual; Pope Francis bestowed the title of “Dame Grand Cross of the Order of Pope Pius IX,” the Vatican’s highest distinction conferred upon laypersons, upon Gingrich on June 18, 2020.
Moreover, Gingrich was also part of a cohort of strong female ambassadors to the Vatican during her term, including Sally Axworthy of the UK, Emma Madigan of Ireland, Caroline Weijers of the Netherlands, Tamara Grdzelidze of Georgia, Chiara Porro of Australia, and others. Though they didn’t always represent administrations with similar agenda, they did all show that women don’t necessarily need a Roman collar to matter in Catholicism.
Given the hyper-polarized atmosphere in the U.S., it may be impossible for anyone to look upon Gingrich without refracting perceptions through their opinions about the president she served, or the husband she supports. But seen from here in Rome, I suspect she’ll be remembered fairly fondly – and, given the circumstances, that alone can’t help but seem a fairly impressive résumé credit.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.