On March 13, 2023, to mark the 10th anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, La Civiltà Cattolica organized a presentation of Fr. Antonio Spadaro’s volume “L’atlante di Francesco. Vaticano e politica internazionale” (The Atlas of Francis. Vatican and International Politics). The President of Italy’s Council of Ministers, the Hon. Giorgia Meloni, and the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, were guests of honor. Below we publish the text of His Eminence’s speech.
I would like to share with you some reflections on the subject of the volume L’atlante di Francesco. Vaticano e politica internazionale by Fr. Antonio Spadaro. It is an expression of his commitment as editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, as well as of his participation in the Holy Father’s apostolic journeys.
I take advantage of the occasion to greet and thank the College of Writers of the journal, which Pope Francis has called “one of a kind.” Always faithful to its original inspiration, for 173 years it has creatively carried out a service of cultural reflection regarding various aspects of human learning.
Ten years ago today, on this very evening, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pontiff and took the name Francis. Stepping out onto the Loggia of Blessings, in that memorable and emotional moment, he sent a clear message to the world, a message we understand better and better today: “Let us pray for the whole world, that there may be a great spirit of fraternity,” he said. Our being here today is a way of celebrating that event.
A spiritual and political vision
At the beginning of this reflection, I would like to mention an incident that occurred in Berlin toward the end of World War II. Immediately after Germany’s surrender, in the now destroyed German capital, a Russian general insisted on asking to whom Apostolic Nuncio Cesare Orsenigo was accredited. He was doing so much for the war victims, but there was no longer a government in Berlin. The French representative of the Allies replied, “He is at the service of His Majesty human misery.” It is an answer that I think shows well the meaning of the Holy See’s diplomatic mission.
Pontifical diplomacy, on the one hand, is anchored in ecclesial tasks, which place it at the service of the Church’s universal mission; on the other hand, it is engaged in the work of ensuring an orderly world of coexistence and peace desired by all, which is first and foremost a synonym and effect of justice.
Paul VI in his address to the United Nations in 1965 emphasized the Church’s role as an “expert in humanity,” and it is this role that makes the Holy See’s diplomacy a diplomacy of values. Francis, in his recent trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, referred to “a diplomacy of man for man, of peoples for peoples,” at the center of which “there is not control of areas and resources, aims of expansion and increased profits, but opportunities for people to grow.” In the diplomatic context, the Holy See stands super partes, with a more moral than political authority.
His first concern is the lives of peoples and persons, especially those who are suffering. Such people are found on all fronts and belong to all parties , especially when war breaks out. Recall, for example, that after the start of the war in Ukraine the pope said, “Those who wage war forget humanity. They do not start with the people; they do not look at the real lives of people.”
Today some analysts and commentators believe that diplomacy is in deep crisis. Yet they cannot and should not ignore the needs of this instrument – perhaps the only one – that facilitates a permanent relationship between those who concern themselves with the fate of peoples and nations.
If anything, at a time when the pieces of the “Third World War” are “welding together,” we need to be more aware that diplomatic activity can only be effective when it succeeds in being an instrument of service to the cause of humanity and not simply to national interests. This involves a demanding and arduous effort not only to know the situations, but also to interpret them, understand their proximate and remote roots, and provide the appropriate solutions, even when pessimism dominates and any intervention seems almost impossible.
The Atlas of Francis focuses on the Holy See’s diplomacy in our time and the challenges facing the current pontiff. “Francis confronts the new global role of Catholicism in today’s context. He deliberately offers a spiritual and evangelical vision of international relations,” Fr. Spadaro writes. The pope, in the face of difficulties, entrusts diplomacy with the task of developing prophetic visions, original ideas and innovative strategies “so that, with greater creative audacity, new and sustainable solutions may be sought.” His is an ideal of living diplomacy, which works not only to overcome crises and resolve conflicts , but also, by uniting divergent ideas, to reconcile opposing political positions and conflicting religious views.
A diplomacy of mercy
The volume we present articulates in some detail the prophetic value of the activity of the Roman pontiff through doctrinal talks, in apostolic journeys, in relations with heads of state and government, with public authorities, and in visits to the headquarters of international organizations. The Holy See’s diplomacy expresses this vision in diplomatic relations with states – today there are 183 – with different religious traditions and ideological visions. It also does so among intergovernmental organizations.
In all these international forums, the Holy See’s diplomacy deploys the pontiff’s evangelical and prophetic vision. This volume has the merit of reflecting on this vision, choosing the definition of “diplomacy of mercy.” Recall that in January 2016 – a dramatic year in many respects – Francis, in his address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, went so far as to mention mercy eight times. In that speech, he makes clear the links he sees between his worldview, international politics, diplomacy and mercy.
Recall that already in his first extensive interview with La Civiltà Cattolica in 2013, Francis said that “God is manifested in time and is present in the processes of history. This means prioritizing actions that generate new dynamics. And it requires patience, waiting.” So mercy, for Francis, also stretches out in time, directing people toward processes of reconciliation. It has the power to change the meaning of historical processes.
What does mercy mean as a diplomatic category, then? Fr. Spadaro answers: “In a nutshell, we can say: never consider anything or anyone as definitively ‘lost’ in relations between nations, peoples and states.” This, the author states, is the core of his meaning. If German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had defined politics as the “art of the possible,” here we could define diplomacy as the “art of patience,” but also the craft of hope.
What does this mean in real terms? We are on the eve of the 60th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, and I would like to recall a well-known example related to Pope St. John XXIII’s mediation during the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 25, 1962, the then pontiff addressed a radio message to the peoples of the world and to their rulers with an appeal for world peace. In addition, St. John XXIII wrote a letter to President Khrushchev in which he urged him to demonstrate by deeds the Soviet Union’s interest in preserving peace. He addressed the Russian president in these words, “If you have the courage to recall the missile-carrying ships you will prove your love of neighbor not only for your own nation, but toward the entire human family. You will go down in history as one of the pioneers of a revolution of values based on love.”
This example – one among many, but certainly very relevant today – highlights the Holy See’s commitment to interpreting situations in the light of both Gospel principles and international rules. It does this by never neglecting the elements that can foster concord and the resolution of disputes even minimally. The Holy See with its diplomatic activity will, in fact, “always be available to collaborate with those who strive to put an end to ongoing conflicts and to give support and hope to suffering peoples.” Today, Francis repeats this, having in mind the various ongoing conflicts in the world, and he repeated it recently regarding the conflict in “tormented Ukraine.” Dialogue, even in the most difficult situations, is desired for the sake of peace, which seems to be the great absentee in the present circumstances, replaced by the solo voice – loud and thunderous – of armaments.
It is good to point out here that the idea of peace for which the Holy See stands does not stop at what nations express in contemporary international law. Indeed, it is convinced that no action having peace at its heart, including that exercised by diplomacy, can be reasonable and valid if, even tacitly, it still maintains references to war.
Dialogue with all
To engage with Francis’ international politics – as The Atlas of Francis does – “is to immerse oneself in a spiritual vision that is nourished by a deep sense of both possible catastrophe and the forces of evil in action, and at the same time a unique trust in the mystery of God that leads one to accept small steps, trials, worldly authority, talks, negotiations, lengthy time devoted to mediations.” To some these times and mediations may even seem pointless.
But this acceptance – this is the thesis of the volume we present – is based on the awareness that conflict resolution does not come by dividing and polarizing the world rigidly between those who are good and those who are bad, as if it took place in a movie whose happy ending is assumed. The choice is not the discernment of which party, political or military, with which to ally and to support in order for good to triumph. The acceptance of the need for diplomatic conversation is based on the certainty that no “empire of good” exists in this world. This is precisely why no one is the embodiment of the devil.
If one accepts this assumption, then it is possible to leave a door open (sometimes really barely ajar, but open nonetheless) even in politically problematic situations. Therefore, the principle of Pius XI applies to Francis: “When it comes to saving some souls, to prevent greater harm of souls, we would feel the courage to deal with the devil himself.”
The Holy See, moreover, works by fostering genuine dialogue, even when dialogue presupposes the presence and input of those who are difficult to deal with or those who, according to a traditional view, do not seem to have the legitimacy as participants in a negotiation. Indeed, one must always be clear about this: “the only realistic solution in the face of the threat of war still remains negotiation.”
That is why the Holy See interacts with everyone.
Francis knows that the “chosen people” who become “a party” enter into a web of religious, institutional and political dimensions that cause them to lose their sense of universal service, and pit them against those who are distant, those who do not belong to their side, those who are “enemies.” Being a “party” creates the enemy. This temptation is to be avoided.
“In this sense,” we read suggestively in the volume, “the image of St. Peter takes on the features of St. Francis. The halo of the saint of Assisi coincides with that of the vicar of Christ.”
Keep in mind that the pontiff is radically evangelical. He went so far as to call terrorists themselves, using an expression dense with both condemnation and compassion, “poor criminal people.” He used this expression in Bethany, during his apostolic journey to the Holy Land in 2014. In the background, we always see the sinner – in this case the terrorist – as the “prodigal son,” and never as some sort of diabolical incarnation. There is the assertion that stopping the unjust aggressor is, yes, a right of humanity, but it is also suggested there is also “a right of the aggressor,” that is, the right “to be stopped from doing harm.” Thus one sees reality from a dual perspective, one that includes and does not exclude the enemy and his greater good. It brings to mind Dante, who in De Monarchia links the pope’s spiritual auctoritas directly with paternitas.
The typical love of the Christian is actually not that for the “neighbor,” but that for the “enemy.” When one comes to look at the person committing the horror with some form of pietas, what triumphs in a humanly inexplicable way – and perhaps even ‘scandalous’ way – is the intimate power of Christ’s Gospel: love for the enemy. Here, then, is the triumph of mercy.
A fractured world
What about today? The Atlas of Francis rightly points out how in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti the pontiff, observing the world as an Ignatian spiritual exercise, succinctly describes it as fractured and fragmented: the distances between us are increasing and the hard and slow march toward a united and more just world today suffers a new and drastic setback. It is a world that has learned nothing from the tragedies of the 20th century, with no sense of history.
There seems to be a regression: conflicts are exacerbated, nationalisms resurface, globalization’s openness to the world conceals economic and financial interests and not a desire for fraternity. If we count the number of armed conflicts plaguing the world we find that it is the highest since 1945, with some two billion people living in conflict areas and many millions forcibly displaced. All this is taking place while our world continues to face the challenges of climate change, migration, food insecurity and water scarcity, problems that affect large portions of the world’s population. The great challenges of our time are all global. How can we overcome this sense of “uncertainty and instability” about which the pontiff himself has spoken? Where to start?
The human family and multilateralism
With Fratelli Tutti, the pope has answered clearly, a question which is amply explored in The Atlas of Francis. First and foremost, we must recover the sense of our common identity as one “human family.” The popes have loved the expression “family of nations.” There is, in fact, an international common good. This sense of our identity as one “human family” is rooted in the inalienable dignity we have in common.
The true quality of a country is measured: by assessing the ability to think not only as a country but also as a human family, especially in critical times. Instead, what Francis calls “closed nationalisms” manifest the mistaken conviction that they can develop on the sidelines of others’ failures and that by closing themselves off to others they will be better protected. Clearly, the Holy See’s diplomatic approach is at root not nationalistic and breathes to the rhythm of universality.
This is why the Holy See firmly believes in multilateralism. Instead “we are witnessing an erosion of multilateralism, even more serious in the face of the development of new weapons technologies. This approach seems rather incoherent in the current context marked by interconnectedness and constitutes a situation that requires urgent attention and even dedication on the part of all leaders,” as Pope Francis stressed in Japan, seeing at first hand the consequences of a nuclear blast.
Therefore, according to Francis, there is a need for us to reflect on international institutions. In the 21st century, the power of individual nation-states has weakened, especially because the economic-financial dimension, with transnational characteristics, tends to dominate politics. This is why the role of world organizations, endowed with authority to ensure the common good at the global level, the eradication of hunger and misery and the resolute defense of fundamental human rights, is indispensable.
Peace: not goal but condition
The scenario of international relations is generally described as a place of encounter and dialogue between different political, economic, cultural and religious visions. St. John Paul II strongly rejected the idea of the “clash of civilizations” after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Let us not forget his gesture of gathering the leaders of world religions in Assisi to promote peace and remove any justification for the abuse of God’s name for purposes of violence and terrorism.
Francis continued along this line and offered us in this regard a shining example on February 4, 2019, when in Abu Dhabi, together with Aḥmad al-Tayyib, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, he signed a historic document on human fraternity. As Fr. Spadaro recalls, in the face of a world situation “dominated by uncertainty, disappointment and fear of the future and controlled by short-sighted economic interests,” the two leaders spoke not only on behalf of the God in whom they believe, but also on behalf of the poor, orphans, widows, that is, those whose situation appears damaged or hopeless.
That is why “peace initiatives,” in a world experiencing a dramatic “Third World War in Pieces” – as the author of The Atlas of Francis points out at length – must always be linked to the two major social issues of greatest concern to the pope: social peace and the inclusion of the poor. Armed conflicts have their roots in these issues.
Indeed, for example, Francis’ address to the diplomatic corps in 2016 focused on the issue of migration, which produces situations of “waste” and “weakness.” The pope called for “mid-term and long-term planning which is not limited to emergency responses. Such planning should include effective assistance for integrating migrants in the countries they have reached, while also promoting the development of their countries of origin through policies inspired by solidarity, yet not linking assistance to ideological strategies and practices alien or contrary to the cultures of the peoples being assisted.”
Peace is not a goal to be achieved, but only the first step, the condition for development and the overcoming of injustices. For Francis, it is not based on a simple desire for social order or the easy cover-up of injustices perpetrated and suffered. This would be pseudo-justice. On the contrary, as he said in Colombia, peace arises from the “desire to resolve the structural causes of poverty that generate exclusion and violence.”
Let us also recall that Fratelli Tutti includes a harsh judgment on politics as it is sometimes practiced today: no longer “healthy debates about long-term plans to improve people’s lives and to advance the common good, but only slick marketing techniques.” Several times the pontiff has lamented that politics is subservient to the economy, and the latter to the efficiency paradigm of technocracy. On the contrary, politics must have a broad vision so that the economy is integrated into a political, social, cultural and popular enterprise that tends to the common good.
The pontiff’s voice is prophetic: if the actors in the conflict do not listen to his words, he remains “a voice crying out in the wilderness.” This happened in 1917, with Benedict XV’s famous Peace Note during the “useless slaughter” of World War I, an intervention ignored by the belligerent powers of the time. Examples can be multiplied up to the heartfelt plea of St. John Paul II, who in 2003 pleaded against the attack on Iraq. The volume we present can help us better understand Francis’ voice and his call to acknowledge the fraternity of the human family, which remain testimony to the highest values.
The reader will be able to travel through the “maps” offered in the second part of the volume that delve into some of the regions of the pontiff’s commitment: Europe, Ukraine, China, Amazonia, the Middle East, the “mosaic” and “crossroads” countries that he loves to visit in his apostolic journeys. In the end, it will be understood that today more than ever “we need leaders who, at the international level, enable peoples to understand each other, dialogue and generate a new ‘spirit of Helsinki,’ the will to strengthen multilateralism, to build a more stable and peaceful world with the new generations in mind.”
Following the spirit of that Declaration means going in the opposite direction to Yalta, which was explicitly criticized several times by the pontiff. And it means strongly affirming the will not to surrender to the dead-end mentality of military escalation of “war patterns,” and the rejection of a policy based on spheres of influence. Another mentality is needed, another pattern. Francis proposes that of fraternity, which, understood in its deepest sense, “is a way of making history.”
. A. Spadaro, L’atlante di Francesco. Vaticano e politica internazionale, Venice, Marsilio-Feltrinelli, 2023.
. Cf. M. M. Biffi, Mons. Cesare Orsenigo: Nunzio apostolico in Germania (1930-1946), Milan, Ned, 1997, 294.
. Paul VI, Address of the Holy Father to the United Nations (Monday, October 4, 1965).
. Francis, Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps. Address at the Garden of the Palais de la Nation (Kinshasa) Tuesday, January 31, 2023.
. Id., Words after the Angelus of February 27, 2022.
. Id., Contro la guerra. Il coraggio di costruire la pace, Introduction, Milan, Solferino, 2022, 7.
 . Id., Address to Members of the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See, January 11, 2016.
 . Cf. Id., Meeting with Representatives of Charities. Address at the Apostolic Nunciature (Kinshasa), Wednesday, February 1, 2023.
 . Cf. Id., Address on the occasion of the greetings of the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Sala Regia, Monday, January 11, 2016.
. A. Spadaro, “Intervista a papa Francesco”, in Civ. Catt. 2013 III 449-477, 468.
. Id., L’atlante di Francesco…, op. cit., 48.
. Commemorative address delivered by H.E. Most Rev. Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, Substitute of the Secretariat of State, on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy.
. Francis, Address on the occasion of greeting the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See. Sala Regia Monday, January 9, 2017.
. A. Spadaro, L’atlante di Francesco…, op. cit., 24.
. Pius XI, Address to the professors and students of the Mondragone College “Ecco una” May 14, 1929.
. John Paul II, Message to the Second Special Session of the United Nations for Disarmament, June 7, 1982.
. Francis, Meeting with refugees and youth with disabilities. Address, Latin Church, Bethany beyond the Jordan, Saturday, May 24, 2014.
. Cf. Id., Fratelli Tutti, No. 16.
. Ibid., No. 13.
. Ibid., No. 25.
. Ibid., No. 11.
. Cf. John Paul II, Message to the General Assembly of the United Nations for the Celebration of the 50th Foundation. United Nations Building in New York, Thursday, October 5, 1995. Cf. Francis, Message to participants at the International Conference “Human Rights in the Contemporary World: Achievements, Omissions, Denials”, Rome, December 10-11, 2018.
. Cf. Id., Fratelli Tutti, No. 141.
. Francis, Address on nuclear weapons, Atomic Bomb Hypocenter Park (Nagasaki) Sunday, November 24, 2019.
. Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Life Together, No. 29.
. A. Spadaro, L’atlante di Francesco…, op. cit., 229.
. Francis, Address on the occasion of greeting the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Sala Regia, Monday, January 11, 2016.
. Id., Fratelli Tutti, No. 132.
. Cf. Id., Evangelii Gaudium, No. 202.
. Id., Meeting with Authorities, Diplomatic Corps and Civil Society Representatives, Speech, Plaza de Armas of Casa de Nariño (Bogotá) Thursday, September 7, 2017.
. Id., Fratelli Tutti, No. 15.
. Ibid., Nos. 177 and 17.
. Id., Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps, Address at Qazaq Concert Hall (Nur-Sultan) Tuesday, September 13, 2022.
. For example cf. F. Sisci, Intervista del Santo Padre Francesco al quotidiano online Asia Times, February 2, 2016.
. Francis, Fratelli Tutti, No. 116.