Friday, November 30, 2012

The Papacy and the Holy See, does it matter in the twenty-first century?

All aboard for a diverse ride tonight as I seek to cover much in salute of a dedicated Melbourne-based priest, Pallottine extraordinaire Walter Silvester, who did so much for so many.

At age 24 he commanded a U-boat in the Bay of Biscay and who knows may have been attacked by Captain Dudley Marrows of Mildura. 

History records that on 30 July 1943 Dudley Marrows as pilot of a RAF Squadron 461 Sunderland bomber sank U boat 461 in the Bay of Biscay. Both Father Silvester and Dudley Marrows got into trouble for turning back to help in the rescue of their enemy. 

I salute their gestures and tonight am privileged to give the 2012 Walter Silvester Lecture.

I thank you all for attending and let me begin with a brief report on what is happening in Rome, not from my three year posting as first Rome resident Australian Ambassador to the Holy See but from the couple of days my wife Judy and I spent there last week.

Firstly six new cardinals were announced by the Pope last week and not one of them was an Italian, this could be the start of a trend to balance the Conclave, to better reflect the need to be an actual Universal church and not, as some would have it, an Italian Universal Church.

Secondly six Italian scientists were sent to gaol for six years, having been found guilty last week of manslaughter for failing to issue high level warnings about the L'Aquila deadly earthquake and its likelihood. Over 300 were killed in this powerful earthquake. Let me say this ruling has worldwide ramifications.

Thirdly my successor John McCarthy QC has received his date for presentation of credentials to Pope Benedict XVI, namely in six days time on the 5th of November, he has hit the ground running in Rome and I wish him well.

Finally all six floors of Domus Australia near Termini (six if you count the basement and rooftop) are glistening, it is a great place to stay in Rome eg the shower cubicles are very large by Italian standards as Cardinal Pell insisted on them being able to cater for large Australians and the guest laundry actually works, likewise the six or more guest computer screens work well! I happily commend it as a breath of fresh air and very convenient place to stay.

Let me observe Rome is in many ways a great country town, I always get a buzz from visiting and while Judy and I walked along near the Farnese to the Pellegrini Church just over a week ago, we bumped into semi-perpetual Rome student and friend Simon Grainger from the mighty Beda College.

As I address the issue of does the Vatican matter in the 21st Century, a good stepping off point is the recent huge win by Australia in the United Nations ballot for a rotational seat on the UN Security Council. Australia topped the ballot with 140 votes out of a possible 193 votes, an incredible result. In the second ballot Luxembourg beat Finland 131 to 62.

Only two in the world predicted a fortnight or so before the ballot in New York that Australia would win easily, notwithstanding static on our Middle East voting track record at the UN. 

The first was Greg Sheridan in a bold article in the Australian and the second was the Holy See.

It was affirmed to me in a conversation in the Vatican Gardens on Friday 19 October, at a huge reception hosted by the USA ahead of the canonisation of two saints of North American background, by a European DHOM, that the Holy See Secretariat of State had clearly predicted an Australian win by a large margin. Luxembourg was the other winner, winning a seat on the UNSC for the first time ever, for ‘Western Europe and Others' zone.

Here is proof again that despite all the other troubles faced by the Holy See this year, Vatileaks and the case against the Pope's Butler, a tough visit to Lebanon by the Pope, financial turmoil with aspects of the Vatican finances including the sacking of the head of the IOR or Vatican Bank and the ongoing Clergy Sex Abuse saga worldwide, the Holy See had called accurately the result of the UNSC ballot.

In essence my message is do not right the Vatican off now or ever, as the oldest organisation in the world it has made its fair share of mistakes over the last 500 years in particular but it has also delivered much for the posterity of the world. In this regard let me give three solid examples involving three recent Popes.

Pope Paul VI

Firstly Pope Paul VI in a trail blazing decision ordered the Holy See to establish the first University on the West Bank in 1973, the Bethlehem University operated by the De La Salle Brothers and currently led by Anzac Brother Peter Bray. 

Each day some 1000 Christian students join some 2000 Muslim students for lectures at a great campus, about 500 metres down from the Great Wall that divides Jerusalem from Bethlehem and about 800 metres above the Square of the Manger.

In the troubled Middle East the Bethlehem University is a shining beacon of enlightenment, producing some very successful graduates over the years, notwithstanding shelling directly by Israeli Defence forces and even stoning of staff and student by Israeli settlers as they drove along a West Bank road. These hardline Jewish settlers from settlements that even the Israeli Courts regard as illegal think nothing of spraying offensive graffiti on the walls of Mosques and attacking innocent law abiding civilians as a tactical ploy.

Yes rockets are fired from the Gaza into Israel every day I was visiting last November, yes suicide bombings by radical Palestinians killing innocent Jewish citizens has resulted in the world's newest ugliest wall, equally there is a brutality about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank you rarely hear about. Israel has a dynamic economy and a working democracy but an underside that is camouflaged a great deal.

Part of the presentational problem is that brilliant Melbourne trained Mark Regev as an Israeli Governmental spokesman will always run rings around Palestinian spokesmen, if the PLA had five Mark Regevs then a more balanced picture might emerge. I respect Mark Regev, he makes Tony Blair's Alistair Campbell look a novice but adjustments must be made to see a more balanced story about the Middle East actually gets to air.

The vital overall point is that amongst all the agony of the Middle East there is an oasis of educational endeavour, an uplifting icon of practical inter religious co-operation and it is called Bethlehem University. It exists because it was created by the Holy See and receives financial and other support from the Holy See to this day.

It operates well enough on each day that the young Israeli soldiers allow, remember they manage Control Point No 300 near the University and students coming through that route from Ramallah or Hebron can pass in four minutes or four hours on an attitudinal whim of the occupying area controllers. May the good efforts of all involved with Bethlehem University gather momentum in the deeply troubled Middle East.

Pope John Paul II

Secondly, let me turn to Pope John Paul II, he cast such a huge footprint that you would be forgiven for thinking he had Army divisions aplenty. The shadow of the huge footprint of John Paul II continues to hang over Rome to this day.

The election of John Paul II had been foretold in that magnificent book by Morris West ‘The Shoes of the Fisherman'. He wrote that the next Pope would be a Slav Pope and apart from the too brief interlude with Pope John Paul I (a Papacy of just 33 days), the next Pope was indeed a Slav, one hell of a Slav!

From years behind the Iron Curtain and behind the Berlin Wall, Cardinal Wojtyla closely observed the workings of communism. He observed the balance of power not only east v west but also Poland v Russia. Further he had travelled prodigiously as a Cardinal, even to tiny far flung countries like Papua New Guinea.

Over the decades his sharp inquiring mind took in a great deal before he became Pope. He not only saw the Berlin Wall go up from the wrong side in a sense but he also met many wise Papal Nuncios in his travels. This Cardinal on the move also met a few political leaders at or around the margins of the various Conferences he attended.

In looking at the long public life of the citizen of Poland who became Pope, it is reasonable to state that he was no shrinking violet and he played the cards available to him with maximum leverage. After 1978 he accepted that part of his designated role relating to Supreme Sovereign and Pontiff, was not to step back from the international stage. He wanted to give real help to good causes.

The first big cause was the startling deterioration of relations between Argentina and Chile in the early 1980s, a dispute that had at its core the fixing of the international boundary between these two giant countries dominating a large part of Latin America.

In a nutshell the problem relates to the main spine of the Andes and the fact that in certain parts the water shed delivers water to the opposite side, in other words the highest point along the spine of the Andes is not the point dividing the flow of water to the lowlands of Argentina and Chile, dividing the flows to the Atlantic or Pacific.

Underlying the dispute was the desire to maximize the gains to be obtained from the huge potential of oil and gas deposits. So the Generals running Argentina at the time muscled up on Chile and prepared plans to bomb Chile's national capital, Santiago as a kind of opening salvo for one sided negotiations.

Both Argentina and Chile are largely Catholic countries, over the centuries this has never stopped European countries of Catholic composition from going to war. The prospect of conflict was ringing alarm bells all the way through to both Washington and Rome.

Cardinal Siri was especially active on the issue, the local Papal Nuncios were keeping him up to speed. Enter the Pope John Paul II, who had just a few years on the Papal Throne but deeply concerned about another unnecessary war killing thousands of civilians. The Pope had bounced back from the assassination attempt in St Peter's Square in 1981 and possibly had a sharpened attitude to life and death and seizing each and every moment of every day.

The Pope offered to mediate, to set up a Papal Commission to examine the border in detail and commend alterations in order to provide a fair set of outcomes. In fact there were more than 900 alterations recommended and these were wrapped into a Treaty that delineates clear cut boundaries for almost all of the length from Ecuador in the north to Cape Horn in the south.

Both countries accepted the outcome and modern maps reflect the Papal intervention, especially near the critical Beagle Canal and Magellan Straits. It was a sensible outcome and one Pope John Paul II could be proud of, but he did not have much time to pause and dwell on it as other crises loomed into view.

In the Pontifical Academy of Science building in the Vatican Gardens, a plaque was unveiled on the 25th Anniversary of this Treaty, with the Presidents of both Argentina and Chile coming to Rome to see the Pope on the occasion. 

I assume the location of the plaque in this spectacular building was because of the fact that ultimately the business of cartology is after all a science and not because the Chancellor and Pope's Chief Scientist is the brilliant and wise Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo (throughout the entirety of my posting).

Either way, the ground-breaking and border-defining treaty was a huge achievement that made Latin America a more stable and by degrees peaceful place. The standing of Pope John Paul II helped bed down the border clarifications and alterations. This standing was further enhanced by the very success of this treaty.

In 1980 Ronald Reagan won the US Presidency and like most US Presidents post World War Two, he was keen to forge links with the Pope of the day and in particular the Slav Pope from behind the Iron Curtain. He arranged to meet with him during his first term. Papal and White House links were not strong in the early years of the USA but they gradually built up.

Reagan was of the view that the evil empire of the Soviet Union was right for challenge and close to the point of being unsustainable as a united power block. Furthermore he possessed the will to challenge the Soviet block and had the spine to follow through over his two term Presidency from inauguration in early 1981 to early 1989.

At the time, Europe was going through a basket case phase. There were huge industrial troubles, bouts of damaging inflation and too much unemployment. Drugs and booze were to the fore, especially with the young brigade.

In Reagan and to some extent Margaret Thatcher there were Head of Government leaders who had spine and meant business. This was soon to be demonstrated in spades with both the Falklands War and the saga of KAL 007, a civilian jumbo shot down by a Russian fighter, the evil empire at play.

On the first of September 1983 the Cold War reached a critical point. The day was to become a turning point in history and a day like no other in the world's history. A Korean Airlines civilian passenger jumbo jet was peacefully making its way across the Atlantic from the United States to South Korea. It refuelled in Anchorage, Alaska but shortly after leaving Anchorage the flight drifted north of its regular approved international route.

Initially the drift was almost imperceptible but further into the flight it resulted in KAL 007 being so far off course as to cross restricted Russian airspace, including the Sakhalin peninsula. This Far East part of the Soviet Union was crammed with sensitive military assets of a top secret kind, remembering that as late as 1983, the Kremlin was still in fierce competition and a degree of conflict with the west.

Suddenly the Jumbo was intercepted by Russian fighter aircraft, the lead pilot reported the sighting but not the fact that it was a Boeing 747 wide bodied aircraft. After some initial confusion between two senior Russian officers the order was given to shoot down KAL 007 and after initially overshooting the target two heat seeking missiles found their mark and KAL 007 crashed into the icy sea with no survivors.

Over two hundred passengers and crew were killed on impact including a United States congressmen and some extra crew repositioning back to base in Seoul. Within hours Reagan's Secretary of State George Schultz released intercept transcripts between the Russian fighter pilot and his base, yet the Kremlin denied for hours any shooting down whatsoever.

Within days President Reagan released further transcripts relating to the tragedy. The world soon came to accept that the Soviet Union had shot down a civilian airliner which had strayed off course but otherwise was continuing along the broad pathway to South Korea. 

The world was horrified with this action of the ‘evil empire' and from this point onwards it was all downhill for the Soviet Union.

The world also realized that the penetration capability y of the CIA and other intelligence units such as Mossad had greatly expanded with the massive use of computers and Pine Gap type satellite interception. Pine Gap is located near Alice Springs in central Australia, it is a joint intelligence gathering facility between Australia and the USA.

It is now a matter of public record that during the Gulf War One, Pine Gap could quickly detect the necessary weather balloon launched minutes before a scud missile launch by Saddam's forces. The balloon sent wind details back to the Scud missile launch pad and so Canberra, Washington but also Bahrain and Tel Aviv were warning of each Scud missile attack.

What stunned many, including the intelligence units of smaller countries, was the capacity of the USA to produce within hours, the exact intercept transcripts approving and ordering the destruction of KAL 007. The use of buzz word detectors driven by huge computer search engines was now out and about.

Through this period President Reagan found in Pope John Paul II a fellow traveller, who was deeply opposed to Communism and in the case of the Pope, a person who sensed that the first hints of fundamental change were beginning to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.

Already the Solidarity movement had sprung up in the northern parts of Poland, led by Lech Walesa from Gdansk. The Pope provided both spiritual comfort and financial support for the rapidly growing solidarity movement. It is accepted today that Pope John Paul II provided around $100 million through various channels, greatly helping solidarity through its darkest days of formation.

Gradually Solidarity, with the total support of the Polish Pope, gained sufficient momentum and real traction to manoeuvre Poland towards free elections in 1989 and upend the four and a half decades of communist rule. At the time the Kremlin in Moscow had its hands full, as the Soviet Union was also starting to go through change and starting to show signs of breaking into a series of separate countries which existed prior to Lenin and Stalin coming on the scene.

The unwavering support of the Pope and the Holy See was critical to insuring Poland broke out of the Soviet block and in turn this brought massive pressure to bear on East Germany.

As the northern Autumn or Fall of 1989 gathered momentum, the Berlin Wall itself came under direct pressure. The remnant East German Government blinked and gave the orders not to shoot at those seeking to jump over the Wall. Within hours the Wall started to come down as the ‘standstill and do not shoot' orders were absorbed and obeyed by the East German police.

At the same time the Kremlin blinked and did not or could not intervene. Within hours the famous scenes were beamed around the world seeing West Germans embrace East Germans as they climbed over the wall during the night, and as they came through holes, which quickly opened up in the wall, as they made history in a direct way.

At the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke and gave particular credit to the work of Pope John Paul II with regard to the fall of Communism in Poland. She highlighted that this vital work became a critical factor in bringing pressure to bear on the East German communist Government. In turn this created the conditions for the collapse of the wall and the overthrow of the communist regime.

Within weeks all communist regimes between Poland and Bulgaria had collapsed with the Romanian dictator and his wife being executed on Christmas day 1989.

There is no doubt as Hillary Clinton and many others have stated, Pope John Paul II gave the embryonic Solidarity movement critical support which made a huge difference. When in the 21st century you see communism survive in various guises, such as with China and Cuba, it engenders the reflection that the fall of communism was never going to be automatic or a lay down misère.

The Pope had been a white knight, a decisive white knight who played out a block busting role with regard to Europe and as mentioned earlier with regard to Latin America.

No wonder one million people turned up in Rome on the first of May 2011 for the Beatification of the first Slav Pope, the deep thinking anti-communist who came along at the right time to make a real difference in the history of the world. It was one of those very special days which was a great privilege to attend as accredited Ambassador to the Holy See and further it was attended by people of many faiths.

Over the centuries, the Holy See as the oldest organization in the world has seen national capital cities come and go (EG Almaty and Melbourne) and has seen countries and nation states come and go (EG Czechoslovakia and Prussia). It is unlikely to be the decisive and direct lead player, but it is often in part instrumental in these monumental events of the late twentieth century. 

With the collapse of communism in Europe and across the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, it can be said the Holy See and the capital, the Vatican City, did matter and continues to matter.

Pope Benedict XVI

The first few years of the Papacy of Pope Benedict XVI were more stable times, until the Global Financial Crisis unfolded in 2008 and the Arab spring around the Mediterranean in 2010.

Preceding this, in the summer of 2006, there was a particularly ugly war in the Middle East between Israel and Lebanon or elements within Lebanon. This saw Israeli aircraft precision bombing parts of Beirut International Airport, occupying many parts of southern Lebanon and engaging in fierce tank warfare with the Hezbollah.

Rapidly Israel bogged down and casualties were mounting on both sides, worst still the soldier that Israel was seeking to free at the start of the war was nowhere to be found or rescued. He was released in a prisoner exchange eventually, in 2011.

The White House and others stepped up to negotiate a cease fire and it was agreed this would come into effect on the 14th August 2006. Against the odds the cease fire did apply and held so bringing an end to immediate hostilities, with the Israeli forces withdrawing from north of the well fenced and recognized Israel Lebanon border.

However in the last 48 hours before the ‘cut in' of the ceasefire but after it had been agreed, a very nasty saga took place, conducted by elements of the USA and Israel military machines, notably the Israeli Air Force. 

Thousands of cluster bomb munitions were flown from arsenals in the USA to Israel and quickly transhipped and sprayed out across Southern Lebanon in bombing raids. Many of these small cluster bombs looked like smart mobile phones, leading to Lebanese children picking them up and losing an arm or eye in the explosion that followed. 

It was bastardry in a place full of bastardry, namely the Middle East. Israel will always try to rescue its own soldiers and defend villages from attack, including rocket attacks launched without warning by the Hezbollah and Hamas.

Israel has a right to defend itself but at times in the 21st Century has decided to add to the bastardry of the Middle East in crazy ways that weakens both its international standing and for that matter, its core fabric. Likewise just as Fatah Prime Minister Fayyad makes some progress with education on the West Bank, other Palestinian elements ramp up random rocket attacks.

Pope Benedict XVI has often spoken of his deep-seated concern for the Christian populace in the Middle East and especially the Holy Lands. In the aftermath of the summer war of 2006 across most of southern Lebanon, the Pope supported initiatives flowing from three key posts of the Holy See. They were the Papal Nunciatures located in Vienna, New York and the hub of Geneva.

In May 2008 in Dublin there was a gathering of nations to consider the adoption of the convention with a large Holy See delegation present, led by Archbishop S.M.Tomasi. He is now based in Geneva after stints in New York and places like Eritrea and Ethiopia. 

Paolo Conversi a senior Curia lay person was also part of the delegation. He is a shrewd policy officer working in the Secretary of State office in this policy area, he supplied strategic research.

In the end 107 States or nations supported the adoption in principle of the Cluster Bombs Convention at Dublin with each State in turn to consider its own support and ratification. Further plenary meetings took place in the relevant locations of Vientiane Laos in 2010 and in Beirut Lebanon in 2011. 

Over recent years, the convention has gained a great deal of momentum with over 70 countries signing and ratifying, all of this driven by many including the three key Nunciatures mentioned earlier. Today many countries continue to sign up, including Australia but not yet the USA or Russia

Success always has a thousand or more claiming credit for the iniative. Failure has few accepting responsibility so it is difficult to lay down exactly who was the catalyst for what emerged after the dirty war of 2006 and the use of Cluster bombs, supplied by the USA and delivered by Israel. 

Most in the know allow that the Holy See played a critical and decisive role in securing the Cluster Bombs Convention, in other words the Pope and his servants did matter.


There are many more examples I could give but I just want to lighten up and tell you that it was a great privilege to be in Rome for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop. 

St Peter's Square was packed, the sun was shining and for the official functions, the Coonawarra wines of excellence were flowing. Remember Mary MacKillop opened her first school at Penola in 1866, alongside the rich soils of the Coonawarra. 

I invited the Coonawarra Wineries to donate towards the Canonisation functions in one of my better moves and they donated much to the cause. Their wines were very popular in and around Rome and of course in Australia.

I conclude by saying do not write off the soft power of Popes anytime soon, there are two Treaties of significance they helped create (Argentina Chile Border Treaty and the Anti Cluster Munitions Convention and Treaty) and much more. 

Do not write off the Holy See, yes it could do with six Mark Regev types to assist Father Lombardi SJ to boost media coverage, extra language speakers fluent in German, French, Spanish, Portuguese as well as Italian and English, yes the Holy See makes mistakes but it is not going to vanish anytime soon.

Tim Fischer AC, Former Australian Ambassador to the Holy See and ex Deputy PM of Australia, gave the above address, the sixth annual Walter Silvester Memorial Lecture, jointly sponsored by the Union of Catholic Apostolate (Pallottine Family) and Australian Catholic University, on 30 October 2012 at ACU's St Patrick's Campus in Melbourne.

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