The first Briton to serve as Vatican ‘foreign minister’ is a remarkable personality

Cardinal Raymond Burke’s removal from his position as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, which had been widely expected several months before it was finally made official on November 8, has had an unexpected consequence which will be of interest to English Catholics. Cardinal Burke was replaced by French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, 64, an expert in both canon and civil law. The surprise which accompanied Mamberti’s promotion was the choice of his replacement in the post of Secretary for Relations with States. Liverpudlian Archbishop Paul Gallagher becomes, effectively, the Vatican’s foreign minister.

At a moment when internecine strife and factional tensions seem to be rife in the Church, and commentators – even Catholic ones – are using phrases redolent of warfare, it is a relief to able to state categorically that Archbishop Gallagher’s appointment does not seem to be motivated by any ideological agenda. He has always been admired by those who have come into contact with him as a dedicated priest who has never been associated with factions anywhere on the ecclesiastical spectrum. It is no doubt this even-handedness and lack of parti-pris, coupled with his affable and gregarious personality, and his capacity for hard work and attention to detail, which make him ideally suited to work as a papal diplomat.

He now takes the helm of the Second Section of the Secretariat of State, responsible for the overall direction of the network of diplomatic missions which the Holy See maintains with states and with international organisations. Basically, the service advises the Pope in his dealings with governments and entities like the UN, and also directs the activities of the nunciatures in capitals throughout the world. Archbishop Gallagher will meet with the Pope on a weekly basis, briefing him on the issues which are faced by the Church throughout the world, and preparing him for the meetings with world leaders and the apostolic journeys which are nowadays a regular feature of the papal ministry.

I first met the future archbishop in 1979, when I was about to go the English College, and he was a young priest just returning to Liverpool after finishing his theological studies with a Licenciate in spirituality. I found his personality warm and unpretentious, and in the College he was highly spoken of by all who had studied alongside him. He seemed to have had no enemies and that, in itself, was noteworthy in an ambiance where factionalism was not unknown. He worked for a number of years in Fazakerley, a working-class area of north Liverpool dominated by the large hospital where he shared chaplaincy duties. But Archbishop Worlock had spotted his talents and by 1982 he was back in Rome, studying Canon Law and being formed at Rome’s Accademia, the elite training college for priests destined to serve as papal diplomats.

The Ecclesiatical Academy, to give it its full title, used to be a special seminary for “Noble Ecclesiastics” destined for high office by their privileged social status. These days, recruitment is by merit and not by birth. But its students – mostly recently ordained priests – learn the social skills that will make them at home among those who wield influence in the world. Archbishop Gallagher may be at ease in these exalted circles, but he has never forgotten his roots and maintains contacts among the clergy and people of Liverpool archdiocese. I spotted him among the concelebrants at the installation of Archbishop Malcolm McMahon last May.

It can safely be assumed that Archbishop Gallagher’s diplomatic skills were noticed by the new Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who has had numerous opportunities to observe them over the years. The two overlapped at the Accademia, and also more significantly served together in the late nineties in the Secretariat of State’s Second Section, which Archbishop Gallagher will now lead. Under Benedict XVI, the diplomats seemed to be relegated to a secondary position, as instanced by the promotion of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a theologian and no diplomat, to the headship of the dicastery. With Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher now in post, the diplomats seem to be back in charge, at least in their own domain. What is less clear is whether the Secretariat of State will retain its historical dominance, since Pope Francis seems not only to be poised to overhaul the whole Curial system, but also to have his own networks working in parallel with the traditional structures and his own – often unconventional – ways of operating.

Archbishop Gallagher takes up his post at a time of great turbulence in world affairs, and so it is noteworthy that his first posting as a nuncio, after serving successively in Tanzania, Uruguay, the Philippines and Strasbourg, was in Burundi in 2004. His predecessor there, Archbishop Michael Courtney, had met a violent death in late 2003, in a shooting reportedly connected with the chronic political instability in that country. The Vatican might seem a safer place to work, but the Secretariat of State is acutely aware of the danger facing Christians in the various hot spots of international conflict today. A particular cause for concern is the plight of Christians in the Middle East, where the diplomatic efforts to find solutions to the dramatic situation which threatens to depopulate the region of its ancient Christian communities are probably the dicastery’s number one priority. The grave situation in eastern Ukraine, and its implications for Catholics there, are another. There are those who reproach the Vatican with a failure to denounce with sufficient virulence the violence and injustices happening on the ground, but in reality the Holy See has always considered quiet diplomacy as more productive than strident denunciations. Archbishop Gallagher will have his skills tested to the utmost as he takes on the job at a time of historically high global instability.

His ascent to heights almost unprecedented for an Englishman in the Roman Curia reminds us also of the near hegemony of English as a global language. Archbishop Gallagher’s two predecessors were from France – speakers of the erstwhile language of diplomacy. But the use of English in international bodies like the UN means that native English speakers at the service of the universal Church can make a contribution whose importance was not yet apparent a generation ago, when Paul VI made it a matter of policy to internationalise the Curia and to end Italian dominance. The collaboration of Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher juxtaposes the long experience of Italy and the new-found importance of the Anglophone churches, not only of Britain and North America, but also of Africa and Asia. (There are conflicting accounts of the warmth, or otherwise, of Archbishop Gallagher’s relations with Cardinal Pell, probably the most influential Anglophone prelate in Rome at the moment, with whom Archbishop Gallagher dealt as Archbishop of Sydney in his most recent post as nuncio in Australia).

Many of Archbishop Gallagher’s predecessors in his new post have become cardinals. There is every prospect of him following this precedent, although with Pope Francis it should probably no longer be seen as an automatic step for high-ranking curialists. What is certain is that Paul Gallagher, who in a recent interview stressed the importance which contacts on the ground still have for him (a colleague who knows him well says that “his anchor in pastoral life is incredibly strong”), will be no faceless bureaucrat. I am confident he will remain what he always has been: an English priest from Liverpool whose rise to the centre of Church governance is a testimony to the faith of the down-to-earth, ordinary Catholics who made him who he is.

Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique in Paris, and has also studied in Germany and Rome. He currently serves at St Wilfrid’s, York

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (14/11/14)

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