A model envoy making a big impact

Britain’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker, speaks of his role

When Nigel Baker, Britain’s Ambassador to the Holy See, presented his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo on his 45th birthday in September 2011 he could not have imagined the papal drama he would observe and chronicle for his government within less than 18 months.

From a special vantage point, not available to a representative of the Irish Government which had  closed down its embassy, he has seen what is  believed to have been the first  ever genuinely voluntary resignation by a Pope in history and the election of the first ever Pope from the New  World and, of course, the first Jesuit Pope.

With his Latin American experience – he is the former ambassador to Bolivia, where his and his wife, Sasha’s five year old son, Benjamin was born – I wondered if he had seen Papa Bergoglio coming.

“Like many, I thought the cardinals would look for a younger man but it didn’t come as a dramatic surprise. If anyone looked at the needs of the Church the prospect of a Latin American Pope ought not to have been surprising.”

A career diplomat with an impressive CV including a first class degree in history from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, you are not in his company for long to see why a senior Irish Government source told me recently that Nigel Baker should be “the model” for Ireland’s new resident Vatican ambassador to emulate.

Ambassador Baker is passionate about and clearly on top of his job, bringing dynamism and imagination to the work of his country’s smallest yet oldest embassy.

In a short time he has not just consolidated the legacy of his pioneering predecessor, Francis Campbell, but made his own mark earning the respect of the Vatican and the representatives of other countries. 

In January the Irish Government reversed its ill-judged decision and earlier this month announced its intention to appoint Emma Madigan, an assistant chief of protocol as a resident ambassador in a small single diplomat mission.

In his modest, well-appointed rented apartment in central Rome, Mr Baker is pleased.

“I am delighted I am going to have a resident Irish colleague back again. It has been a little bit odd as a British ambassador to be here at the Holy See without having an Irish colleague to consult occasionally.”

Pressed on whether not having a resident Irish colleague “created an awkwardness” Nigel Baker is, well, diplomatic – “I wouldn’t say an awkwardness” pointing to an “a good and valued relationship” with non-resident Ambassador David Cooney.

“I think it has been difficult for the Irish community here and the circumstances under which the embassy was closed down were perhaps not the ideal ones.”

The re-opening is “a really positive gesture”.

“All embassies to the Holy See are small” (he has one other diplomat) and you don’t need a big embassy here to function very effectively.

“The new ambassador will arrive with a great deal of goodwill. Goodwill from the Holy See, from the Irish community and from fellow ambassadors with the United Kingdom at the top of the list.”

“The transformation in relations” between London and Dublin has made his job easier when engaging with Irish priests and bishops whose concerns relate to Northern Ireland.

The embassy “made its own little contribution” to the deepening of those relations with the recent  visit of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester to the Pontifical Irish College on the occasion of the canonisations.

It was the first ever visit there by members of the Royal Family and they were “extraordinarily well received”.

I wondered to what extent if any had the personal style of Pope Francis resulted in Mr Baker “tweaking” the way he represented Britain at the Holy See. “I think the broad sense hasn’t changed.”

Holy See network

His key role remains “to plug into the global Holy See network co-operating on issues as varied as disarmament, human rights and climate change, across the world from the Middle East and Africa to the Americas.”

Mention of the Middle East reminds one that Mr Baker, the first accredited Vatican diplomat to write a blog, blogged two days before the Pope arrived there that his pilgrimage had already “started to bear fruit”.

“Where we have tweaked it is I suppose in relation to the particular focus of Pope Francis. In a sense the level of interest has gone up because his sense of the mission of the Church means perhaps a more outward facing Church than before” notwithstanding the imperative of internal Church reform.

The increased interest in Francis is evidenced by a threefold jump in the number of requests he receives to talk about the work of his embassy. In Lent he delivered the Gonzaga Lecture at St Aloysius’ College, Glasgow.

He told students Francis is a Jesuit and therefore “brings to the papacy that Jesuit genius for facing outwards, confidently, towards the world”.  

Mr Baker feels Pope Francis “is very ready to hear someone say ‘Your Holiness, I don’t think that was right’. I don’t think he thinks he has a monopoly on the truth.”

He is struck by the Pope’s “instinct for matching words with actions”, citing in particular Francis’ decision to turn up himself at a Vatican meeting on human trafficking to hear at first-hand what police chiefs from all over the world, including Matt Baggott, had to say, rather than have the delegates visit him for an audience as would have been de rigueur in the past. And the Pope’s surprise decision to go to Confession himself before hearing the confessions of others during Lent.

He presents a compelling tour d’horizon of the four big issues Pope Francis has consistently raised in his homilies and speeches, viz. fighting poverty, building peace, promoting bridge-building through dialogue and protecting the environment citing key moments including the Pope’s visits to Lampedusa, Sardinia, Rio de Janeiro and the peace vigil for Syria.

“I think Pope Francis has a very strong sense of the importance of engaging with the world which I think flows from his sense of mission.

“He absolutely wants Catholics to take the initiative and be involved in their societies be it in politics, government, local government, volunteering, education or health.” 

Despite the extensive common ground and an undoubted respect, even admiration for Pope Francis, and all the nice things David Cameron said to Pope Benedict at the end of his 2010 state visit, London and the Vatican cannot and do not agree on everything.

I was curious about the really tricky issues that must test Mr Baker’s diplomatic skills to the utmost.

He accepted it was easy “to discuss things on which you agree 100%” and there were areas “where we have the same goal but perhaps different routes to it”.

Like? Pope Francis went to Sardinia and “quite rightly talked about the scandal of unemployment but we would also have liked to have seen a recognition that governments on their own cannot just provide jobs for people”.

A context was needed in which private business flourished and this meant “space for entrepreneurship which usually requires less regulation to generate more employment and so help poverty”.

However, “economic management is complex and quite rightly bishops and priests tend not to be economists, they have a different vocation”.

Nigel Baker, a practising Anglican says his job “has certainly made me think more deeply about my own faith”.

His work brings him frequently to the Vatican for papal Masses and as a Christian who finds it easy to pray in Catholic churches it is something of a bonus to be able to worship while carrying out some of his public duties.

Ambassador Baker describes the Vatican as a “global hub” where people of all faiths and none meet both physically and virtually since “the Pope is apparently the most ‘searched for’ personality on Google, and the most re-tweeted of world leaders”.

Into that hub in early April came Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, on only the fourth visit to a Pope by the Queen as head of state and a red letter day in the ambassador’s career.

“This was a visit Her Majesty felt ought to be less formal than previous visits. I think she picked up very well the way Pope Francis likes to work, that he is a person who does not like to be surrounded by protocol. This visit was to get to know him and to understand him and to be at ease with him.”


He is obviously thrilled that both Buckingham Palace and the Vatican regarded the visit as an unqualified success pointing out that the gifts were “both very personal and very symbolic”.

The Queen presented Francis with a food hamper of products from the royal estates personally chosen by herself, including a dozen eggs, responding to “the Pope’s own simplicity”.

The Pope’s gifts included “for the little boy” an orb with a silver cross of St Edward the Confessor inscribed in English with the words ‘Pope Francis to His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge’.

“It was a recognition of the common Christianity across the monarchy, the head of the Anglican Church, the papacy and the head of the Catholic Church.”

Ambassador Baker says that the British monarchy is “a point of reference for the Holy See, a great institution that has adapted to changing times over the centuries and stands in its modern manifestation for the upholding of important values of society, civilisation, culture, Christian values”.

He appears to be in his element and it’s difficult to imagine a job that would give him more pleasure or fulfilment.