ROME—Pope Francis’s diplomatic efforts are often hailed by the international community, giving him credit, among other accomplishments, for helping the United States’ and Cuba normalize their relations and blocking a Western invasion of Syria back in 2013.
Living up to the Latin appellation of pope, pontifex meaning “bridge builder,” Francis has also pulled off a long-desired encounter with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, helped tip the scale during the Paris summit on climate change, and staged a prayer for peace in the Vatican in 2015 that brought together Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and then-Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Monday in Rome brought a reminder, however, that he’s hardly the first pope to make a political difference. In fact, the Vatican has long played an activist diplomatic role as the world’s premier “soft power,” meaning a voice of conscience.
Though long forgotten by many, on December 22, 1978, Chile and the pope’s own Argentina were quite literally days away from war. Both countries were ruled by military dictators ready to engage in battle over the Beagle islands, which pivoted on navigation rights and sovereignty over several islands in the Fuegian Archipelago, as well as maritime boundaries and the delimitation of the Straits of Magellan.
Argentina’s military junta was ready to invade one of the islands when Pope John Paul II was called in as a mediator in the conflict. By Jan. 9, 1979, an agreement had been signed in which both nations promised not to use force against each other, pledged to reduce their military presence on the border, and to refrain from adopting measures that might impair harmony.
The man behind the agreement was an Italian cardinal by the name of Antonio Samoré. Once a rising star in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, he had served in Vatican embassies in Lithuania, Switzerland, Washington and had a term as top papal representative in Colombia from 1950-1953.
A strong conservative, Samoré also served in the Vatican’s Secretary of State and later as Secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (which no longer exists). A critic of Latin America’s Liberation Theology, he’s also considered one of the men who advised Pope Paul VI against granting approval to artificial birth control.
However, in the late 1970s he was once again in the center of world affairs, preventing a war and leading a mediation that would conclude peacefully, a year after his death. For his role, Time magazine dubbed him the “Vatican’s Kissinger.”
The conflict between Chile and Argentina formally ended with a peace treaty in 1984, and, like Moses, who died at the doors of the promised land, Samoré didn’t live long enough to see the results of his last five years of service to the Vatican.
To date, Samoré’s mediation remains as one of the key public victories of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps in modern times.
“The mediation between Argentina and Chile in the Beagle conflict is a model of how peace can be achieved if there is political will,” said Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See’s Secretariat of State.
He was speaking at a Mass in honor of the 34th anniversary of Samoré’s death. The celebration was organized by the Argentine and Chilean embassies to the Vatican, held this Monday in Rome’s Argentine church.
Even today, the “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” signed by the two countries, Gallagher said, can be considered a model to resolve controversies, as it represents “a significant example of firm and decisive will to make the light of reason prevail over the choice of violence and war as instruments to resolve conflicts.”
According to Gallagher, the Church and the Holy See have always been promoters of dialogue and mediation “at any cost” to achieve peace which, quoting Francis, he defined as “a gift of God, but entrusted to all the men and all the women, called to put it into practice.”
Being builders of bridges, he continued, is a responsibility of each person, mainly of those who are charged with leading a country.
Serving peace and the people, Gallagher said, means loving justice and truth, respecting the life and dignity of the human person. It means to fight against poverty and corruption, reinforcing the democratic institutions, supporting new models of integral development, promoting a sustainable and solid economic growth and guaranteeing a dignified job to all.
The success in this mediation helps illustrate some of the ongoing cases in which the Church is playing a key role to either avoid the escalation of conflicts or to help bring an end to ongoing wars, even if the situations seem to drag on indefinitely.
One such case is Venezuela, a country currently going through a humanitarian crisis, with an estimated three million people scavenging the garbage to find food. After the dialogue talks were frozen last December, and with several Catholic authorities, including the head of the local bishops’ conference, saying the Church is being besieged by the government of Nicolas Maduro, the Vatican still refuses to give up.
Archbishop Aldo Giordano, papal representative in Venezuela, reiterated last week that the Holy See is still open to helping as an observer in the dialogue, adding, that the initiative to bring the Vatican to the table has to come from both sides, the government and the opposition.
On Tuesday, he met with Maduro, in an attempt to revive the conversations, but it remains unclear what, if anything, will come out of the latest attempt.
However, given that the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, served as papal representative in Venezuela from 2009 to 2013, one thing is clear: The Holy See won’t give up.
Another case is South Sudan, where the Vatican’s hand is less visible, yet Catholic leaders play a key role in the attempts to end the bloodshed which began three years ago, mostly fueled by ethnic clashes. On Monday, two large regions in the country were declared in famine, with millions at risk of dying from starvation.
During his weekly general audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis reiterated his appeal to end this fratricidal war which began in 2013, two years after the country became independent.
Recently, the United Nations appealed for $1.6 billion to help save 5.8 million people in South Sudan, and aid workers have said that the current famine is similar to that of 1998, when over 70,000 people died.
According to Republican Rep. Chris Smith, who was in South Sudan last August, the Catholic Church “plays a key role, as always and everywhere, in the provision of humanitarian aid.” He also noted that “the bishops I met with are just absolutely committed to living out Matthew 25, the vulnerable people and helping people as if they were Christ.”
But the role of the bishops goes beyond aiding the vulnerable: they’re also playing a key role mediating in the conflict, working hand in hand with other Christian leaders. For this reason, three of them- a Catholic, an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian- visited Francis last October.