Pope Francis met on Thursday with the new Australian ambassador to the Holy See, Melissa Hitchman, who presented her credentials.
The newest member of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps is an experienced
career officer with Australia’s department of foreign affairs and
She has previously served overseas as first secretary at the
Australian High Commission in London.
Diplomatic relations between Canberra and the Holy See were formally
established in 1973 but Hitchman is both the first career diplomat and
the first woman to hold the post of resident ambassador.
Ambassador Hitchman says she’s building on the strong foundations of
her predecessors but notes she’s the “first career diplomat and first
woman to hold this position as resident ambassador”, something she
describes as “a deliberate appointment” by her government and an
opportunity continue the task of putting “Australia on the map”
She outlines four goals on her agenda, beginning with building up the
partnerships between “a reformist pope in Francis” and “an innovative
Australian government under [Prime Minister] Malcom Turnbull and foreign
minister Julie Bishop and the rest of the cabinet”…
Secondly, the ambassador says she wants to elevate “in the public
consciousness” the broad agenda that Australia and the Holy See already
share on conflict resolution, on human trafficking, on peace building,
and on gender empowerment. She notes her country’s bid as a candidate
for the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2018 to 2020, saying “there’s a
convergence of views there” too.
Alongside the “government-to-government links”, Melissa Hitchman
highlights the “very strong and robust people-to-people set of links”
that exist through the network of Australian religious men and women
serving in the Curia or studying here in Rome, as well as the large
number of students attending Australian Catholic University. Her third
and fourth goals, she says, are to “tap into” those two links with
religious and lay people in Rome in order “to make the relationship
vibrant and current”.
Asked about the level of interest in the Holy See within Australia
today, the ambassador says both sides “might be surprised at how much
interest there actually is”. She describes Pope Francis as “probably the
most recognized global leader”, respected for his views and held in
affection by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. She says her country has
just held a recent census and the results have yet to be made public,
but the last survey in 2011 showed that over a quarter of the population
(25.1%) identified as Catholic.
She also reveals that her government
has had “the largest expansion of its diplomatic footprint in 25 years”
stressing that those in government and in wider society “see the value
of this post and want to continue with it”.
Speaking about Australia as a pluralist, multi-cultural society,
Ambassador Hitchman recalls the terrorist bombings of 2002 and 2005,
which she says “still resonates in the Australian consciousness”. She
says her government has “a very robust policy on counterterrorism
efforts”, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop currently on a tour of
Germany and the UK to talk about partnerships in areas including
countering violent extremism.
She believes the Church also has a role to
play in building interfaith and intercultural harmony: while it’s “not
for us to dictate what that role would be”, she says Pope Francis’
comments on inclusiveness and respect for different views, ethnicities
and faiths is one that resonates in Australia.
Asked about criticisms of her country’s treatment of refugees and
migrants, the new ambassador says there “seems to be a misconception
that Australia doesn’t have borders that welcome refugees”. She notes
that her country takes in “the globe’s highest per capita resettlement
of UNHCR recongised refugees”.
Australia currently accepts 13.000
refugees a year, but she says “we agree more needs to be done and that’s
why [….] we’ve also agreed to take in 12.000 from the Syrian-Iraq
conflict and our government has committed to increasing the refugee
humanitarian intake up to 18.000 in 2018-2019”.
Hitchman says the
refugees accepted into Australia are “amongst the most disadvantaged and
have waited the longest for resettlement”. She also notes her country
is a member of the Bali process on people smuggling and human
trafficking, adding that Australia’s ambassador on this issue was in
Rome for a conference last June but “there was a sense our region was
under-represented [..] and we look to improving that dialogue and
expanding on it”.
Talking about the role of women in Australian society, the new
ambassador says her country has “a very strong policy on gender
empowerment and looks to partner with others such as the Holy See” on
this issue. She mentions Australian lay woman Rosemary Goldie who was
for many years the most senior woman in the Roman Curia as
undersecretary of the Council for the laity and an auditor during the
Second Vatican Council.
The ambassador stresses that her government’s
policy on gender empowerment, particularly in the Indo-Pacific
“recognizes that where women are involved, it can lift outcomes right
across board, not only for them, but for their economies, and we look at
doing that in health, in education, in employment [and] politically.
She cites a new gender action strategy recently launched by a portfolio
minister “which is available on our website”.
Discussing the challenges of improving living standards for
indigenous Australians, Hitchman says that her country “has had a
struggle with its history and it’s one we’ve been very transparent and
open about it”. She speaks of progress made through the 2008 apology to
‘the stolen generations’, under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, as
well as the ‘Closing the Gap’ report on health, education, employment
and other issues for indigenous people. She says the Prime Minister has
committed to reporting to Parliament every year and is also looking at
recognition of indigenous people in the constitution which, she says,
will be an important step forward.
Finally, the new ambassador talks about the Vatican cricket team,
founded under her predecessor John McCarthy, saying that “we all bring
different strengths to the position [and] I wouldn't say sport or
cricket was one of mine!" However, she notes that her government has a
sports diplomacy agenda and Australia will be represented at the Faith
and Sport conference coming up in the Vatican in October “ so there’ll
be a continuation of sorts in that sphere, but not in exactly the same