It has to be one of the more unusual postings – a state the size of an Australian suburb with a global community equal to the population of China. But as Chiara Porro, Australia’s newly-installed Ambassador to the Holy See says it is every bit as important as a conventional state.
The 36-year-old mother of two officially presented her credentials to Pope Francis earlier this month, in this her first posting as an ambassador.
During her half-hour meeting with His Holiness – at which they spoke Italian – Ms Porro discussed the role of the Catholic church during the pandemic and how she can be an interlocutor between the Australian people and the Vatican.
“I’m here to represent the Australian government. I don’t represent the Catholic church. I represent all Australians. I’m here to be able to provide that bridge to the Holy See. There’s lots of erroneous reporting [about the Vatican], so where I can try to explain certain things I will.”
“What is often forgotten is the reach and influence of Pope Francis globally. He is probably if not the then one of the most recognised world leaders and he is very influential in global politics and foreign affairs.”
“I was thinking about this the other day, he has the same sort of population community as China. The reach of the church and its network on the ground is huge.”
It is worth remembering that it was the Holy See and Pope John XXIII in particular who brought the US and the USSR back from the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Its network of embassies and its diplomatic relations with the world date back to the late 15th Century.
Nevertheless, being the Ambassador to the Holy See is one of the more unique roles in the diplomatic corps – you are there to represent the interests of the Australian government – and by dint of that the Australian people – but there is also the recognition that she must consider the interests of the more than 5 million people in Australia who identify as Catholic.
“I am very conscious that we have this huge community back in Australia. So [my job] is also working very closely with the Catholic community to demonstrate what they are contributing to society.”
In her audience with Pope Francis she raised health – including the work that Catholic Health Australia is doing – and education as key areas where Catholic agencies and aligned bodies are making significant contributions to society.
“You know whenever people [in the Vatican] think of Australia they think immediately about Cardinal Pell and the Royal Commission. So my aim here is to change that narrative. I look and I see there is so much more to Australia than that. I don’t think it’s even that well known here the degree to which Catholic healthcare and aged care are so important to the sector.”
The church’s role is of course not confined to the temporal. She recognises that promoting Catholicism is not an easy task and yet the global pandemic has provided an opportunity of sorts, as faced with the threat of death from disease people are forced to examine their lives and very existence.
“People are looking for answers, they are looking for other avenues and I think the Church can really help guide them during this time.”
It was one of a number of areas she discussed with the Pope during her initial meeting. “I wanted to get his views on how to engage youth when there is a crisis of confidence in the Catholic Church, particularly in Australia….. How do you go about regaining trust and re-establishing those links,” she says.
She admits she was very nervous prior to her audience but that quickly evaporated as His Holiness quickly put her at ease and asked her the questions. And, despite him graciously telling her that his door is always open, she politely reminded him that she has to go through “quite a few other doors first”, no easy task for a woman in an overwhelmingly male environment.
Not that she is shy or reserved. She says meeting the Pope was one of the most nerve-wracking for this career diplomat who has experienced more than her fair share of interesting and challenging situations.
Her own career seems almost tailor-made for the role, given the truly international character of the Holy See itself. Ms Porro was born in Italy, brought up in suburban Sydney, lived in Indonesia as a child, studied in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom before entering the diplomatic corps.
She helped set up a hospital in the West African nation of Sierra Leone to deal with the Ebola virus; was in Delhi when the Australian mission there doubled in size, and was posted to New Caledonia for the referendum in 2018. In between she has been back and forth to Canberra, working in the heart of government advising the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on the Trump administration and the Middle East, and back at Foreign Affairs and Trade when the coronavirus epidemic struck, throwing the world of trade and travel into total chaos.
“It was fascinating to be working there when the coronavirus struck – to see the response by government, how we managed our network [of embassies] and managing all these returning Australians… it was a really intense period,” she recalls
She is the only ambassador from the Pacific region in the Holy See (she is also the youngest ambassador in the Vatican) and as such, she feels strongly that the wider Pacific region is given a voice. Other than the obvious areas such as trade and international relations she will also be talking to the Holy See about issues that are close to her heart and those of the wider Catholic community, such as modern slavery and human trafficking, conflict resolution and human rights. And, of course, the environment – an issue close to the heart of His Holiness (this year marks the fifth anniversary of the publication of Laudato Si, his encyclical on the environment, among other things).
This year marks the tenth anniversary of the canonization of Mary MacKillop. At her audience with His Holiness, she presented him with a relic given to her by Sister Maria Casey, the postulator for the cause of Mary MacKillop. Celebrations to mark the anniversary next month are planned by her embassy but, because of COVID, the celebrations are likely to be muted.