Holy See Embassy debate – what are the stances?

Holy See Embassy debate – what are the stances? The Villa Spada in Rome, home to the Irish Embassy to the Holy See.


Are there not more important issues than the Embassy to the Holy See, asks Margaret Hickey


I find it strange that the first public re-grouping of the Catholic faithful in the aftermath of the Dublin, Ferns and Cloyne Reports should be centered on a campaign to restore Ireland’s embassy to the Holy See.

While it feels somewhat counter-instinctive for a Catholic to question the appropriateness of such a campaign, it is nevertheless striking that our first ‘here we stand’ moment should centre on an embassy at a time when a well-orchestrated, well-advanced and well-funded campaign is afoot to legalise gay marriage and abortion in Ireland.

Perhaps, this movement of lay Catholics could serve the Church and what it stands for better if they took their ‘stand up’ call in the first instance to the diocesan gates rather than to the gates of Leinster House.


We know our pastors, both priests and bishops, have been pilloried and vilified for their sins of omission and commission by a secular, self-styled liberal media and a political consensus of similar hue.

We know they have apologised and made good to a degree not seen in any other body concerned with child welfare where even greater lapses and failures have occurred.

Catholics are loath to add any further criticism or recrimination to shattered morale. Nevertheless, as responsible members of the Body of Christ, we have an overriding call on our charity.

We need, as Catholic faithful, to ensure that the reforms now flagged are really and truly the reforms that will not only protect children, and there is little doubt on that score, but will promote a climate of openness, transparency and accountability that will drive out the control complex that bedevils the Church at every level of leadership and contributed in no small part to its recent troubles.

People felt that the Church’s fall from grace in 2011, the final chapter in its dis-establishment as a pillar of Irish society and culture, would result in what Enda Kenny called a return to ”the radicalism, the humility and the compassion” of its Founder.

Leaving aside what Enda Kenny might have understood by those terms, such a Church with its values truly defined would be authentic. Poorer and weaker but authentic.


Such a Church would, in time, re-assert its power and recover an authority based on its truth, not on its political clout and influence. Its recovery would of necessity be spearheaded by its rank-and-file lay members, sustained by their institution, bringing the light and values of the Gospel into the market place of secular life.

While it might be early days to form a judgment as to whether or not the Irish hierarchy is embracing such a vision, the signs do not point that way.

The Irish institutional Church appears to be as much locked inside its clericalism as it ever was. Incredibly, it is business as usual apart from an exaggerated focus on the protocols and practices involved in child safeguarding, allowing the media in large part to set its agenda.

One might well ask if a campaign by sincere and committed Catholics for the restoration of our embassy to the Holy See is not feeding into this implicit desire to regain at least as much of the old status as is possible?

A desire to regain some degree of respectability, if not reverence, as a pillar of Irish public life?


We need to ask critical questions about the ethos that supports such aims. Is it not part of that same ethos that permits bishops to act like politicians and retain public relations companies to temper their message so that it harmonises as much as possible with the current zeitgeist?

Is it not part of that same ethos that permits the appointment of celibate priests with no particular relevant background to posts charged with the oversight of child protection and then when this is no longer acceptable, to replace them with paid professionals answerable only to their episcopal or clerical bosses?

While this modus operandi may throw up an Ian Elliot, a voluntary committee of committed, suitably qualified lay people would on the whole be more dependable and would ensure that dwindling resources would be conserved for the more frontline services of re-building and re-energising a battered Church and for equipping it to measure up for the real battles to be fought for the soul of this country.

One sees, of course, how the strong institutional identity of the Church in the early and mid 20th Century, its ‘special position’ in the 1937 Constitution, ensured that Catholic teaching on issues like marriage and abortion were reflected in State laws.

One can see how the Church might still seek to regain at least some measure of that influence through forging alliances with benign political movements.

While diplomatic status is not at all the same as political influence, it appears at least to offer the Church a more comfortable forum for expressing its views than the hurly burly of the public square.

We need to ask ourselves as lay faithful if this is really the way back for the Church, or more properly speaking, the way forward? Is diplomacy the way to empower the Church’s mission in the new Ireland and the new Europe?

Trade relationship

Eamon Gilmore stated that Ireland does not need an embassy in the Holy See because there is no trade between the two jurisdictions. A statement does not have to be sincere to be true.

It is a fact that Ireland Inc. has nothing tangible to gain from hosting an embassy in the Vatican. Is there really a gain on the other side, for the Catholic Church?

In the ‘Information Age’, where historic barriers of language, custom and distance are a thing of the past, is it not enough that the Vatican has some 30 bishops, all of whom it appointed, as its listening posts and sounding boards? Does it not have all the representation it could possibly want?

Catholic laity need to consider well where they, as Church, need to direct their Church’s path in an Ireland and a Europe that has severed its links with the Christendom that shaped it and in turn shaped much of the rest of the globe.

One thing is certain — the cause is greater than an embassy. It might not even be served by an embassy.

Margaret Hickey is a reader of The Irish Catholic.


Ireland Stand Up is a response to opposition to the decision to close the Embassy to the Holy See, writes Mary Fitzgibbon


Eight months into office a Government decision was taken to close our Embassy to the Holy See. The Tánaiste said ”that while the Embassy to the Holy See was one of Ireland’s oldest missions, it yielded no economic return”.

For the vast majority of the faithful in Ireland, this was a historic turning point. The economic argument was vehemently rejected in favour of an ideological agenda.

Many decried use of the economic argument when issues such as human rights, the promotion of social justice and the elimination of poverty which characterise the work of the Holy See are not fiscally quantifiable.

A week later, many drew solace from sentiments expressed in the inaugural address of our President Michael D. Higgins: ”Now it is time to turn to an older wisdom that, while respecting material comfort and security as a basic right of all, also recognises that many of the most valuable things in life cannot be measured.”

After this announcement, a young Dublin mother found it incredulous that a Government would make this decision. She said Ireland was compelled to stand up and this became the inspiration for a new lay initiative.

On November 28, Ireland Stand Up launched a postcard campaign respectfully requesting that our Taoiseach reverse the decision and to extend an invitation to Pope Benedict XVI for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress.

Demand soars

The national demand for postcards soared into several thousands. The majority support was from Wexford ‘the Model county’ followed by Mayo, ‘God’s own county’ and Enda Kenny’s constituency.

Ireland’s historic links with the Holy See go back to 432 when Pope Celestine I sent St Patrick to Ireland. Over 1,000 years later in 1607, a sad chapter in our history witnessed Ireland’s noble elite leave Donegal to find refuge in Europe. They were given exile in Rome.

Three centuries later a memorandum from envoy Seán T. O’Kelly to Pope Benedict XV made the case for Vatican recognition of the Irish Republic. Following the 1929 Lateran Treaty between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See, the Irish Free State exchanged envoys for the first time.

In 1930, Ireland’s first papal nuncio Archbishop Paschal Robinson was appointed. In 1941, Dr Thomas J. Kiernan became Ireland’s Minister Plenipotentiary to the Holy See.

The Irish legation was the only English-speaking legation to remain open after the US entered the war. His wife Delia Murphy assisted the infamous Msgr Hugh O’Flaherty (the ‘Vatican pimpernel’), hiding Jews and escaped allied soldiers from the Nazis.

In 1943, when Italy became a puppet state of Nazi Germany, many escaped prisoners of war (POWs) were helped by the Irish legation to leave Italy.

By the time the Allies entered Rome on June 4 1944, some 6,500 lives had been saved by the effort.

After the war, Ireland, seeing the importance of our links with the Holy See, purchased the Villa Spada to house our resident ambassador for £146,000. Its location on the Janiculum Hill, near the Church of San Pietro in Montorio, where the Earls of Ulster, the O’Neill’s and the O’Donnell’s, are buried was an influential factor in its acquisition. It is Ireland’s most valuable foreign property.

One of the first people to support Ireland Stand Up was Eileen Aiken, daughter of former Minister for External Affairs Frank Aiken who, with Eamon de Valera, opened the embassy in 1946.

The Vatican has diplomatic relations with 179 countries and with Ireland downgraded to non-residential status it leaves 80 resident embassies, including the Russian Federation and Cuba. The embassy works closely with the Holy See on a range of international political, economic, developmental and human rights issues. It maintains contact with the many Irish religious living and working in Rome and has contact also with the representatives of other faith communities, Christian and non-Christian, that are in dialogue with the Holy See.

In 2004, on the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the Holy See, it was noted that Ireland ”plays a role greater than one would expect from a country of its size and population”.


In June, the 50th International Eucharistic Congress which is akin to the Catholic Olympics will take place in Dublin. 25,000 people across five continents will gather each day for eight days and will culminate with 80,000 people at the closing ceremony and Mass in Croke Park.

It will bring spiritual and economic benefits to Dublin. On St Patrick’s Day, the Eucharistic Congress Bell will be in St Peter’s Square. This occasion affords the Irish Government a unique opportunity to extend an invitation, as then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown did, to Pope Benedict XVI.

On January 18, Ireland Stand Up met 50 Dáil deputies, 25 senators and seven Government representatives including David Cooney, Ireland’s new non-resident ambassador-designate to the Holy See, and John Kennedy, representing the Taoiseach.

Supporters from every constituency respectfully conveyed their requests to members of the Dáil and Seanad. There was overwhelming support from all the political representatives.

Ireland Stand Up now enters another phase of the campaign in respect of these two vital issues.

It would be great to see other lay initiatives coming on board. For example Valuing Our Church (http:// valuingourchurch.blogspot. com/) is a great initiative. Perhaps other could encompass valuing our denominational schools, marriage, and our respect for life.

Mary Fitzgibbon is a member of Ireland Stand Up. If you want to receive postcards to lobby the Taoiseach you can do so by emailing a request to Ire landStandUp@gmail.com or by telephoning 087-7678040. Postcards are also available from the Benedictus bookshop in Cork and The Guadalupe HLI Centre in Knock Co Mayo. Ireland Stand Up is also encouraging supporters to lobby their local TDs and senators in respect of a reversal of the decision to close our Irish Embassy to the Holy See and to invite the Pope for IEC 2012.