Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Ambassador to the Vatican

What effect does serving as a diplomat in the city of Rome, at the Holy See, have on a diplomat? Sometimes, a very spiritual one...

By Andrew Rabel

Editor's note: From time to time, Inside the Vatican publishes interviews with key figures in Rome, both in and out of the Roman Curia.

Some of these figures are in the large diplomatic community in Rome, for the "Eternal City" remains a great world "listening post," so much so that many countries have decided it makes sense to send an experienced and senior public figure to Rome to represent the views of the country's government to the Holy See, but also to the other members of the world's diplomatic community in the city.

This month, we publish a brief interview with a man who represents this reality quite well: Ambassador Tim Fischer, former deputy Prime Minister of Australia, now Australia's ambassador to the Holy See. The interview was conducted by Andrew Rabel, himself an Australian, who writes on Australian affairs, and other important matters, for Inside the Vatican.

Mr Tim Fischer (photo), former head of Australia's National Party and Deputy Prime Minister in the Howard Government from 1996 to 1999, is the first resident Australian Ambassador to the Holy See ever.

Australia has had diplomatic ties with the Vatican since 1973, and is now one of 177 sovereign states which has formal relations with the Holy See.
But, until Fischer's appointment last year, the Australian ambassador to the Holy See (not to be confused wth the Australian ambassador to Italy), was the ambassador to Ireland, who also cared for the Vatican post (career diplomat Anne Plunkett last carried out that double function).

Fischer was appointed by Prime Minister Mr Kevin Rudd to represent Australia in Rome on July 21, 2008 -- the last day of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Australia for World Youth Day.

Austrialia's Foreign minister, Stephen Smith, when Fischer's appointment was announced, said that it was "the right time" to appoint a resident ambassador to the Vatican.

"The Prime Minister and I came to the conclusion in the run-up to World Youth Day that having established diplomatic relations (with the Vatican) in 1973, that given there are another 69 countries that have another ambassador in residence ... that it was appropriate that we become the 70th," Smith told reporters.

"The Vatican do not accept the ambassador to Italy as an ambassador to the Vatican -- they are separate states.

"Our ambassador in Rome has plenty to do with our Italian relations. We came to the conclusion that it was appropriate at this point in the cycle to have a fully fledged ambassador in residence.

"(The Vatican) has significant interests and significant influence, and size is not often the best qualitative judge of the influence that a particular state... or interest might bring to bear.”

Fischer, 63, is married. He and his wife Judy have two sons, Harrison and Dominic.
Fischer is well known for his love of trains, and his love for the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, having been once chairman of the Australian-Bhutan association.

Now, in his first extensive interview since taking the post on February 13 in the presence of the Holy Father (on which occasion the Holy Father showed great compassion for Australians suffering from the terrible bushfires in those days), Mr Fischer talks about his mission — and the effect working in Rome has had on him spiritually.
Fischer spoke with Australian Inside the Vatican correspondent Andrew Rabel, who met with Fischer at the end of May in the Australian Embassy to the Holy See on Via Paola in Rome.


How have you found being the Australian Ambassador of the Holy See, since you assumed the post in February? One remembers in late April, the incident with The Chasers (an Australian comedy group) who sent a balloon over the Vatican violating its airspace, which led to your criticism of them...

Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Mr Tim Fischer: It's a tremendous privilege to be the first resident-in-Rome Australian ambasssdor to the Holy See. I find the Holy See, as a nation-city-state and as a member of the United Nations [it has observer status] a vibrant vehicle of "information power," or knowledge power — of "soft power." It is good for Australia to "plug into" this "soft power" on key issues, such as inter-faith dialogue, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and so forth, but also on issues like poverty, people-smuggling, piracy, and food security... As for the balloon over the Vatican, it's an incident which is still ticking slowly through various statges of the Italian legal process...
How does having a diplomatic post like this differ from when you were the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and leader of the National Party?

Fischer: Well, I'm in one spot. I'm here in Rome, in and out of the Vatican again this morning for meetings, so it's different because you're not traveling so much and you have one job, not several company boards or several aspects of a complex portfolio, as Federal Minister for Trade and Deputy Prime Minister.

So to that extent, it is busy, it is stimulating, and a fraction easier for being all on the one, broad canvas of activity, a great variety of activities, and a great privilege to be the Australian Ambassador to the Holy See.

Do you think the success of World Youth Day in Australia last year -- when on the last day of the Pope's visit Mr Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister announced your appointment as the first residential Australian Ambassador to the Vatican -- has deepened the relationship between Australia and the Holy See?

Fischer: Yes. And that Youth Day visit certainly set up a platform for a great and warm welcome for everyone from the Holy Father on down, a better understanding and a higher profile for Australia and for Sydney here in Rome, and in many other parts of the world. It was a great success, and the Cross was handed over on Palm Sunday during the Mass to the Madrid cardinal, and so the event established by John Paul II goes on. I think it did a lot of good within Australia, and it continues to help me in my work.

The event has been significant in that it seems a lot of pilgrims have met each other at different World Youth Days, and have actually married.

What similarities do you see in regard to the vision Australia and the Holy See have or share in regard to international affairs?

Fischer: I have just completed a course with some Asian diplomats on the international policy of the Holy See. I helped get Dr Sayakane Sisouvong to come to that course -- he's the Director General of the ASEAN group of nations, and of course our links with Asia remain in focus as well.
I think there is agreement with the Vatican historically on a range of issues. Take one: cluster bombs. The effort to ban cluster bombs was an initiative of the Vatican ambassador to Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, which led to some countries going to Norway, including Australia, represented by Foreign Minister Mr Stephen Smith, and signing off on the cluster bombs initiative. Australia has worked closely with the Holy See on issues like cluster bombs, like nuclear disarmament, like food security, and will continue to do so.

However, Pope Benedict said when you had your audience with him to take up your post, "How ironic it is, however when some groups, through aid programs, promote abortion as a form of maternal health care, taking a life, purportedly to improve the quality of life". Recently my state of Victoria passed legislation decriminalizing abortion, to the point of not even allowing the right of conscientious objection in regard to health professionals. Does this somehow sour the relationship between the two countries?

Fischer: Events in national legislatures like those of the USA and Australia are watched closely by the papal nuncios in those countries, and they report back to Rome. I have as my starting off point of instruction, the broad policies of the Australian government. I am not a conduit between the Catholic Church of Australia, and its headquarters. I am a conduit between the Australian government and its policies, and the nation and city state of the Holy See.
There is an obvious difference.

So I don't feel myself in any way a prosecutor or an activist, because I'm an ambassador.
Nevertheless, I report on and respond to those matters I'm instructed to by Minister Stephen Smith, to work for the good husbandry of the relationship, and obviously we have a wide-ranging set of discussions, with a wide-range of interlocutors on difficult subjects, as well as easy subjects. I lam no longer a member of the Australian parliament, I am an ambassador, so I don't feel it is appropriate for me to prosecute domestic issues from here. We'll agree to disagree from time to time with the Holy See on some areas, but on the vast majority of issues the positions of the Australian government are in harmony with those of the Holy See.

Could you tell me a little bit about Domus Australia, and what the purpose behind its construction is?

Fischer: It is located within five minutes of Stazione Termini. It is going to end up with about 70 bedrooms and quite large shower cubicles because there is not so many decent sized ones in Rome. It is complete with a chapel which is a magnificent chapel and we hope we'll have Anzac Day Masses at that chapel, amongst other things, because it is easy to get into and from. Now it was a purchase made by the Sydney Archdiocese and Cardinal Pell. It is being managed by Dr Danny Casey. Art work has been commissioned and a two-year refit of the building.

You are a Catholic yourself. How important is this fact in regard to how you do your job?

Fischer: Many of the ambassadors here are not Catholic. For example, the German ambassador is a Lutheran, and this is in no way a barrier to his professional work as an ambassador. It happens, yes, I'm a Catholic, less than perfect practicing Catholic. I try, but that is not really a must, it's not really a requirement of the job, over the years the Vatican and the Curia have made that quite clear.

In respect of the nomination of my name, the Curia turned it around in two days, which was an incredible effort, because normally it takes a couple of weeks for the nomination to be granted approval by the Vatican, and that allowed the Prime Minister to make the announcement in the presence of the Pope at Mascot [Sydney airport] and that was pretty exciting.

I heard that you participated in the Easter ceremonies at the Vatican, and may have experienced a deeper conversion. Is there any truth to this?

Fischer: I attended the Easter Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday services. It was certainly a great honor to be present at those, and they were very motivating. The Easter Saturday night one, from 9 pm to 1 am, was an interesting service, the Vigil Mass. Let me just say the progress with my faith is a matter between my Maker and myself, and I'm happy to be quoted as saying that, and clearly it was a great joy to be close to the action, for the first time ever to attend Easter in Rome, and the standouts were definitely the magnificent Easter Thursday Mass at St John Lateran. It was truly uplifting, and I'm very happy to say that.
On a lighter note, I am very happy to welcome various school groups and other groups to Rome from Australia, as part of their test of knowledge. I say I will rendezvous with them at the fountain in St Peter's Square, nearest to Australia.