Inside the Vatican

An office in service and support of the Pope

Vatican News continues with its inside look at the history, objectives and “mission budgets” of the various Vatican offices assisting the Pope in his pastoral ministry. We feature here the Vatican Secretariat of State with an interview with Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

By Alessandro De Carolis - Vatican City

Three Sections whose breadth of action spans the entire world. The Secretariat of State’s structure was conceived in order to help the Supreme Pontiff govern the Holy See and to help him in his ministry as universal Shepherd.

It is composed of a cosmopolitan group which works closely alongside the Pope coordinating services internally between the Dicasteries and the Curia and externally, in particular, by overseeing the Pontifical Representatives through the Third Section created four years ago.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin explains that the role of the Secretariat of State, especially in this period of the pandemic, is to “tirelessly remind the international community and single politicians, of the needs of the common good and respect for the human person.”

Q: The Secretariat of State is the entity that collaborates most closely with the Pope in the exercise of his mission. It is, in fact, the “motor” behind the Holy See’s political and diplomatic action. Concretely speaking, what is its specific role and what areas does it cover?

The Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus defines the Secretariat of State as the Dicastery that “provides close assistance to the Supreme Pontiff in the exercise of his supreme office”. The supreme office of the Pontiff, the Successor of the Apostle Peter, is that of being the principle and foundation – perpetual and visible – of the Church’s unity and communion. This office defines the Secretariat of State’s nature. It is the Pope’s secretariat, through which numerous daily, ordinary and immediate operations are carried out.

For example, the Secretariat manages the correspondence the Holy Father maintains in various languages with the Bishops throughout the world, with the representatives of other Churches or other religions, with political leaders of various countries, and with all the faithful the world over. It takes care of the editing of pontifical documents (Apostolic Constitutions, Encyclicals, Discourses, etc.), from translation to official publication. Then, there is the organization of the Holy Father’s Apostolic Journeys.

Within the Roman Curia, the Secretariat of State has the task of promoting relationships between the Dicasteries and of coordinating their work on matters that, at times, touches the competence of several Dicasteries. On the other hand, the Secretariat of State looks after all the affairs that may not fall under the ordinary and specific scope of the other Dicasteries.

These are only a few of the principal tasks proper to the Secretariat of State that are undertaken by the Section for General Affairs.

Then there is the Section for Relations with States, that has the specific task, instead, of “dealing with heads of government”, fostering diplomatic relations between nations and with other subjects of international law, for the good of the Church, but that of civil society as well, promoting harmony between nations, religious freedom and peace among peoples. This Section represents the Holy See even to international organizations, allowing the voice of the poorest and the least to be heard. In addition, on behalf of the Holy Father, it also deals with the needs of particular Churches in some specific contexts.

Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin in a room next to his office
Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin in a room next to his office

Q: Pope Francis decided to add a Third Section to the two Sections into which the Secretariat had been divided by John Paul II with Pastor Bonus. Currently, what does this section look like, and how is it organized?

The Holy Father wanted to demonstrate his attention and his closeness to the personnel carrying out diplomatic roles. He thus instituted a Third Section on 21 November 2017, the Section for Diplomatic Staff of the Holy See, reinforcing in this way the office of the Delegate for Pontifical Representations. This section deals specifically with matters pertaining to those working in the Holy See’s diplomatic service, in the 128 Pontifical Representations and in the Secretariat of State, with particular attention to the conditions of life and ongoing formation of diplomatic personnel. Furthermore, this Section, together with the President of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, handles the selection and initial formation of those who are being prepared to enter diplomatic service.

So, at present, the overall structure of the Secretariat of States contains three Sections: the Section for General Affairs, under the direct leadership of the Substitute with the assistance of the Assessor; the Section for Relations with States, under the direction of its own Secretary, assisted by two Under Secretaries (one for the bilateral section, the other for the multilateral section); and the Section for Diplomatic Staff of the Holy See, led by the Secretary for Pontifical Representations with the assistance of an Under Secretary. Presiding over the entire Secretariat of State, the Cardinal Secretary of State acts as the unifying center.

Q: For the first time, a Pope has entrusted a woman with a managerial position within the Secretariat of State, appointing Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni as an Under Secretary in the Section for Relations with States, giving her the task of following the Multilateral Section. On a whole, how many laypeople, and in particular, how many women work here? How can their contribution in the construction of a system of peaceful and fraternal relationships among peoples be enhanced?

Pope Francis’s decision to appoint Dr. Francesca Di Giovanni to the position of Under Secretary for the Multilateral Section is an undoubtable recognition of the role of women, not only within the Secretariate of State, but in the Church’s own mission as well. Pope Francis has stated that women are “givers and mediators of peace”. Multilateral diplomacy, unfortunately questioned by many these days, requires these specific qualities to resolve conflicts and find common solutions to problems that concern all of humanity. Moreover, with 27 years work experience, Dr. Di Giovanni has extensive experience in this field.

Overall, the staff working in the Secretariat of State come from various nationalities and backgrounds: lay people, priests and religious. They work with dedication and a spirit of sacrifice. In the Three Sections work a total of 103 lay persons who come from every continent and carry out a variety of tasks. Of these, 55 are women, among whom there are 25 women religious. This diverse composition of personnel, in which each is called to provide a specific contribution, certainly constitutes a great wealth of service to the Holy Father and the Church’s mission. The fact that all of them, with their own history, culture and diverse sensitivities, can work together provides an eloquent witness that it is possible to construct fraternal and peaceful relationships among all peoples.

Hall of Treaties
Hall of Treaties

Q: In the context of the international community and organizations, what are some of the results of the Holy See’s diplomatic efforts to promote a culture of peace and dialogue, drawing attention to the various ways this is done: solidarity, justice, disarmament, sustainable development, care of creation?

The Holy See is extremely active in the context of the international community, being in a way the “voice of conscience” that invites and encourages all those involved to face common challenges in a spirit of solidarity. Essentially, its approach is, therefore, of a moral nature, and is operative in the international forum to facilitate and cultivate friendly relationships between peoples and nations.

More than ever before, given the current situation, there needs to be a clear voice, inspiring nations not to forget the errors and horrors of past conflicts and also those that are unfortunately still taking place. Pope Francis’s teaching, rooted in the Church’s social doctrine, places particular emphasis on the unity of the human family and, consequently, on the necessity that the international community confront challenges in a concerted and multilateral manner.

The Holy See’s approach cannot ignore the vision of the human person created in the image and likeness of God, whose “value” consists in his or her transcendent dignity. It is precisely in light of respect for the human person, of each person’s integral development and their universal and fundamental rights, that the Holy See considers it to be a moral obligation to assist the international community in its quest for peace, promoting fraternal dialogue.

From these principles flows the concrete commitment of the Pope and the Holy See to those current issues the international community faces, beginning with its commitment toward migrants, refugees and internally displaced persons. Pope Francis’s voice is an indisputable point of reference and he is notably influential regarding many issues such as, for example, his contribution in the implementation of the Global Compacts for Migration and Refugees. Likewise, his Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ was heard throughout the international community, an Encyclical in which the Holy Father addresses problems regarding our common home, not limiting himself solely to technical and scientific aspects. Or more recently, his Encyclical Fratelli tutti, on fraternity and social friendship. The international community has also expressed appreciation for the foundation of the Vatican Covid-19 Commission, created with the aim of studying solutions to move beyond the health and social crises caused by the pandemic. Last but not least, I cite his commitment for peace and the resolution of conflicts, as well as his efforts to promote disarmament, especially nuclear disarmament. Furthermore, only if social and international order are based on law and justice will true peace be possible, rather than a state of non-belligerence guaranteed through fear and nuclear deterrence.

Religious sisters at work in the Third Loggia
Religious sisters at work in the Third Loggia

Q: What costs are associated with pontifical diplomacy and its international network? What tools exist to guarantee that its financial budget is a “mission budget” in line with the service to the Pope that it carries out? Can you give us a few figures?

The mission the pontifical diplomacy carries out is that of strengthening the bonds between the See of Peter and the local Churches and to foster the development of friendly relations between the Holy See and other States for the common good. This task is carried out today through a network of 128 Apostolic Nunciatures for the 174 countries with which the Holy See has diplomatic relations, 12 Apostolic Delegations to the local Churches, and 17 International Organizations.

Total ordinary and extraordinary expenses incurred in 2020 equaled about 20.1 million for ordinary expenses and 3.7 million extraordinary expenses (the highest costs were associated with the construction of new offices in East Timor. If the data relative to expenses incurred in 2020 were confirmed, it would show a reduction in costs of about 3.8 million Euro compared to 2019.

Q: The Covid-19 crisis that began in 2020 with its tragic human, social and economic implications calls for “a new imagination of the possible”, as Pope Francis defines it, to construct a different world. What are some of today’s more urgent challenges that need to be addressed and what role can the Secretariat of State play in this sense?

The health crisis we are living further underlines the common frailty of the human condition and what the limits are regarding the modern person’s alleged self-sufficiency. The crisis is then the occasion for a new approach, “to help build a more fraternal and compassionate society” (Video message to the General Assembly of the United Nations, 25 September 2020) that requires united action, because as the Pope reminds us: “no one is saved alone” (Urbi et Orbi, 27 March 2020).

This requires responses on the international level in many areas: from the urgency to promote public health and to recognize the right of each person to basic medical care, even through universal access to vaccines, as well as the necessity to find new types of work that are truly capable of satisfying the human person’s potential and which at the same time affirm the dignity of every person.

In that sense, the Secretariat of State’s role is that of continuing to tirelessly remind the international community and single politicians, of the needs of the common good and respect for the human person.


A look inside the Secretariat of State's offices
12 April 2021, 15:00