Today, 14 African states have resident ambassadors to the Holy See, the sovereign institution described by the U.S. State Department as “the supreme body of government of the Catholic Church."
Antonio Manuel Ne Vunda was sent to Rome in 1604 by King Alvaro II of M’banza-Kongo, located in modern-day Angola, but after a gruelling three-year journey via Brazil and Spain he arrived gravely ill and died just three days after reaching his destination.
Ethiopia had been sending ambassadors to Rome since at least the 14th century, Morocco at least the 16th, but as the first envoy from the newly Christian kingdom of Kongo Ne Vunda was a special case. Pope Paul V stayed with him on his death bed, ordered him buried in Santa Maria di Maggiore – an honour normally reserved for Italian noblemen – and had a bust sculpted from his death mask.
Today, 14 African states have resident ambassadors to the Holy See, the sovereign institution described by the U.S. State Department as “the supreme body of government of the Catholic Church”, and the life expectancy of post-holders has dramatically improved. The current Angolan ambassador, His Excellency Armindo Fernandes do Espírito Santo Vieira, has held the title since 2002, making him the longest-serving foreign envoy to the Holy See and de facto dean of the diplomatic corps.
Vieira cuts a stately figure in his gold-leaf throne chair in his office at the Angolan embassy, a marble-floored, rococo-furnished set of apartments in Rome’s historic centre. He speaks slowly, with the practised caution of a career diplomat.
“I would say that it is quite a new relationship that is being built between African countries and the Holy See,” Vieira observes carefully. “The reason why I’m staying for such a long period is because it is a diplomacy, I would say, a little bit different from other bilateral diplomacies. It is necessary to learn how to work with the Holy See.”
Catholicism has exploded in Africa in recent decades. A 2015 study published by Georgetown University’s Catholic research institute, CARA, found that between 1980 and 2012 the continent’s Catholic population grew by 238 percent, outstripping Asia’s growth rate of 115 percent by more than two to one. But it’s not just countries with large Catholic populations that take an interest in the workings of the Holy See. Egypt, Morocco and Libya, and farther afield, Japan, Iran and Iraq, all have diplomatic representation at the Vatican.
Why do these governments care? Although the Church provides financial aid to a number of countries, Vieira is clear: “The relationship with the Holy See is not necessary because of aid or support. It is, as I see it, is the political weight that the Holy See has. They have political power. It doesn’t seem so, but they do.”
The Church’s power may be soft, but it has real world effects. As a permanent observer of the UN, The Holy See has exercised considerable influence in global affairs, perhaps most notably and controversially at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.
Before then, Pope John Paul II was credited with playing a significant role in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the last couple of years Pope Francis is thought to have been instrumental in thawing hostilities between Cuba and the US.
For centuries, the pope was a kingmaker, and this legacy is not forgotten. A visit confers legitimacy on a ruler, particularly in advance of an election. Even outside of an election context, “It’s seen as a sort of blessing on their rule,” says Padre Giulio Albanese, a missionary-journalist who founded Italy’s missionary news agency, MISNA, and accompanied Pope Francis on his 2015 visit to Africa.
So it came as no surprise to Benin’s Ambassador Theodore Loko when his first commission on his appointment in 2010 was to secure a visit from Pope Benedict XVI. It was the 150th anniversary of the Catholic Church in Benin and Benin’s Cardinal Gantin, a close friend of the former pope, had recently passed away.
President Boni Yayi wanted a papal visit to mark the occasions. The only problem was that the pope had recently visited Africa in 2009, and had no plans to return in the immediate future: he politely declined the invitation. The ambassador had a dilemma on his hands.
An elegant, spritely man with a trim goatee, bow tie and yellow pocket square, Ambassador Loko’s energy fills the room in his office at the Benin embassy. Benin’s embassy is more architecturally modest than Angola’s, but no less striking. The art deco book shelves in the waiting room are filled with pontifical tomes, among them Being Ambassador to the Holy See Today, Volumes 1 and 3.
The linoleum flooring in the ambassador’s office is carpeted with a green shag rug, on top of which sits a desk decorated with a miniature Beninese flag, a crucifix, and a statuette of the Virgin Mary. You don’t have to be Catholic to be an ambassador to the Holy See, but it helps.
“When I was nominated ambassador, the president asked me, ‘Are you informed that I am inviting the pope?’” Loko recalls. “But he says he cannot come!” the envoy protested. “You are ambassador, you must do everything you can! You have to!” insisted the president. So the ambassador got to work.
He was given the phone number of the Vatican’s then-Head of Protocol, Nigeria’s Monsignor Fortunatus Nwachukwu, who warned him to hurry, as papal engagements are fixed by June. Loko arrived in Rome in April, and was advised by Monsignor Peter Wells, at the time the Holy See’s Assessor for General Affairs, to put in writing all his arguments for a papal visit to Benin.
The ambassador put all his energies into making his case. He knew that in a previous incarnation Pope Benedict had been Professor Ratzinger, so he pored over his academic writings for inspiration. “From his speeches as professor, I took some arguments to explain all my points, so he would find in my arguments his own ideas!” chuckles Loko.
The plan worked: “The Pope found the arguments in favour of his doctrine and the good of the universal church,” says the ambassador. “When I met him to present my credentials, I was amazed. He was so happy. He said, ‘Ambassador, I am happy to work with an ambassador like you! You are very intellectual! You have learned a lot about me! I hope to go, I would be happy to go, but I am not young. But if I have good health, I would like to go to Benin.’” A year later, Pope Benedict paid the country a visit.
“In my country, they say, ‘The pope came to Benin because of his friend Cardinal Gantin.’ They don’t know the work I have done!” exclaims Ambassador Loko. “But I am paid for this, this is my job! The job of a diplomat, we cannot say to people what we are doing. The most important thing is the result.”
While negotiating a papal visit may be within the bounds of possibility, most are decided by the Holy See well in advance with a particular aim in mind. According to Padre Albanese, the current pope’s 2015 visit to Africa was very much focused on Central African Republic. “That was the reason of the trip,” Albanese asserts. “I was with the pope, aboard the pope’s plane, and I can assure you everything was focused on Bangui.”
By breaking with centuries-old tradition and symbolically opening the Holy Door to the Jubilee Year of Mercy in Bangui rather than Rome, Pope Francis hoped to bring war-torn CAR back to the world’s attention, and bring some measure of peace to the country.
According to onlookers, the visit did help. Elections went ahead shortly after with a 65 percent turnout, and in Bangui, a fragile truce between the warring Muslim Séléka and Christian Anti-balaka militia has held.
But the success of this trip was not a given. Working for months behind the scenes to prepare the ground and prevent a potential papal assassination was Comunità di Sant'Egidio, a Rome-based Catholic lay association often described as the “soft diplomacy” arm of the Holy See, although the two are not formally affiliated. “We are a track to diplomacy,” explains the organisation’s head of international relations, Mauro Garofalo. “We meet with people a nuncio should not meet.”
In the months leading up to the pope’s visit, Garofalo travelled to CAR eight or nine times in an effort to mediate a truce between Séléka and Anti-balaka’s leaders. The visits culminated in an evening meeting on the outskirts of Bangui, where the militia finally handed over the signed truce. “They wanted to be recognised as people who could cause trouble, but they did not want to cause trouble,” says Garofalo. “They were really fed up of fighting. Both sides said, ‘We know that the visit of the pope is not a political one, and it’s a thing that we are waiting for because we want peace.’”
This was not Sant’Egidio’s first involvement in politics. In 1992, Mozambique’s historic General Peace Agreement was signed at the community’s headquarters in Rome by the leaders of the warring FRELIMO government and RENAMO rebels.
The community had been in contact with both parties since the late seventies, delivering aid from Italy as the country sank into a bloody civil war, and periodically meeting with either side. In the spring of 1990, in an unlikely coincidence, FRELIMO and RENAMO leadership separately contacted Sant’Egidio to ask the group to host negotiations.
At the community’s headquarters in the grounds of an old monastery, the deal was hashed out line by line over the course of 27 months, as the two sides went back and forth with their demands and concessions.
On October 4, 1992, Mozambicans glued to their radios released a collective sigh of relief as the agreement was finally signed live on air by President Joaquim Chissano and RENAMO chief Afonso Dhlakama, in a room now known as the Hall of Peace.
Although the security situation in Mozambique has recently deteriorated, the truce held for a couple of decades and was considered a model for international peace-making at the time. “There is a magic of the place,” enthuses Garofalo. “You are not in a foreign colonial power; you are not in Paris or in Lisbon or London. There is less pressure in Rome… you are thrown in a friendly environment.”
As important a role as Rome has historically played in the political histories of several African countries, as its Catholic population expands, Africa is set to gain increasing prominence in Rome. For the time being, however, the continent’s representation at the Vatican does not reflect the growth of its Catholic community: of 112 cardinals currently eligible to vote in a papal election, only 13 are African, compared to Europe’s 53. Given this statistical disadvantage, there was widespread excitement when, for a brief period during the 2013 conclave, it looked as though one of those men might beat the odds to become the first African pope in modern history.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson’s office is based in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, of which he is the current president. Housed in a spacious second floor set of apartments with high ceilings and large windows, the Council is plainly decorated with white linen curtains and block-painted maroon walls.
Dressed in a simple work suit and coming from a series of back to back meetings, Cardinal Turkson is visibly tired, and wary of journalists. In the fervour whipped up at the last papal conclave, bookies placed 11/4 bets on his being elected pope, and an unidentified activist stuck “Vote Turkson” posters on billboards around Rome.
At the height of the frenzy, the cardinal was attacked as a self-publicist for saying in an interview that the Vatican was ready for a non-European pope. “In the past whenever I’ve tried to explain anything it’s always come out on the wrong side,” he sighs.
These days the Ghanaian cardinal is more interested in discussing his current work, much of which is future-oriented. In an era when travellers cross continents in hours and news proliferates in seconds, long-term planning frequently takes a back seat to quick fixes as governments and global organisations scramble to keep up. The Church, never known to act in haste, is one of the few institutions which still has the time and space to take a longer-sighted view.
For Turkson, climate change is at the top of the agenda. “The Earth is a fragile element on account of human activity and abuses,” he states matter-of-factly. “Increasing desertification, increasing aridity, food production, access to water: these compile to create a big problem for several developing countries."
"Some have claimed that the war in Syria began with drought and shortages – that may have been so. But the increasing migrational movement of people from other areas is also part of it. Sub-Saharan Africa, Mexico, arid areas in the Middle East… climatic conditions contribute heavily to forms of existence which cause us a lot of concern.”
Another key issue is the question of artificial intelligence, and how this will impact global employment. “A crucial thing is how can we secure labour, in the light of emerging automation, industrial robotics, artificial intelligence,” presses Turkson. “Are we going to be seeing more of redundancies, as machines take over working spaces? That’s an increasing concern. If one does not have a job, one’s dignity is not fully realised.”
The cardinal has recently used his influence to speak out on both issues. In April last year, he urged countries to commit to a drastic reduction in carbon emissions when speaking on a climate change panel organised by the U.S. embassy, and in a lecture at the Catholic University of America in March he sharply criticised “the limited interests of businesses” and their “obsession to gain maximum profit” by replacing humans with machines.
While he is uninterested in discussing his priorities were he to be elected pope in a hypothetical future conclave, Turkson does acknowledge in general terms that a pontiff’s background is bound to influence his papacy. It is widely agreed that Pope John Paul II’s drive to bring an end to the Soviet Union was largely motivated by his youth in Soviet-occupied Poland, and that Pope Francis’ Latin American roots were key to the success of his mediation in Cuba.
“You never find the papacy the same way throughout history; it also reflects the personal characteristics and gifts of the person that has occupied it,” reflects Turkson. “God has always provided a leader that the Church at a different point in history requires… in the event of a conclave or election of a pope my thing would be an invitation to prayer so that God who knows more than we all know, who can see into the future, would provide us with a leadership that can lead the Church in this historical period.”
From Ne Vunda’s long 17th century pilgrimage, cut abruptly short, to the modern world of air travel and global mass-migration, the Church and its followers have always faced their journey into an unknown future with the benefit of faith. And while those close to the Vatican insist on the folly of trying to predict the outcome of a future conclave, they all agree on one thing: when the time is right, the Church will have an African leader, and that will be the next step in its journey.
“The Church, like the rest of the world, is moving, is moving – in its own time, but it’s moving,” muses Vieira. “And when the time will arrive, we will have an African pope.”