By Gudrun Sailer
It all started with a Whatsapp group. During the strict lockdown imposed by the Italian government to curb the Covid-19 pandemic in Spring 2020, British Ambassador to the Holy See, Sally Axworthy, and her Canadian colleague, Isabelle Savard, felt the need to informally exchange ideas with other, some 20, women ambassadors credited to the Holy See.
They soon came up with the idea to invite experts to participate in online debates and discussions competent guests to background focussing on a range of issues relevant to the Church. Amongst the chosen topics, the ambassadors were interested in the Holy See's response to Covid-19, the role of lay people in the Church and the responsibilities and perspectives of women in the Vatican.
No political aims
The network of women ambassadors is explicitly informal, it has no statutes, no enrolment lists and no political orientation. Making political agreements is not one of its aims. But the female diplomats find the exchange with their peers enriching. "A lot of things come about because you see that they are good, and they develop further," is how one ambassador put it. It was an open group, she said, for an open form of exchange of ideas. Those who had time joined the Zoom meetings and discussions with the experts on the various topics. The diplomats themselves suggested possible speakers to the events - often choosing female experts for the panels. Thus, it happened that at a farewell reception for some of the female ambassadors in Rome a few days ago, only three of the thirty or so diplomats present were men: a remarkable reversal of the gender relations that usually occur at Holy See receptions!
A short history of women ambassadors in the Vatican
Yet women have long been represented in the diplomatic corps that comes and goes at the Vatican. The first female ambassador to the Holy See was an African woman, as the protocol department of the Secretariat of State confirmed to Vatican News: On 23 January 1975, the Holy See accredited Mrs Bernadette Olowo from Uganda as ambassador. Subsequently, first a few, then more and more countries sent female diplomats to the Vatican, with African women representing a constant presence.
In 1980, according to the Papal Yearbook, only Zambia had a female ambassador accredited to the Holy See; in 1990, there were five (Costa Rica, Ghana, Jamaica, New Zealand and Uganda); in the Jubilee Year 2000, the number of women ambassadors in the Vatican rose to eight (Philippines, Lesotho, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, USA, South Africa, Ukraine). In 2010, there were sixteen (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burundi, Philippines, Gambia, Georgia, Jordan, India, Iceland, Netherlands, Pakistan, Panama, Poland, Suriname, Sweden, Tunisia, Ukraine). Finally, in 2021, twentysix women ambassadors were accredited to the Holy See; sixteen of them resident, and two more female diplomats were appointed delegates of international institutions. According to the Secretariat of State, a total of one hundred and thirtyfive ambassadors are currantly accredited to the Holy See.
The changing faces of the corps
European states have caught up in terms of sending female ambassadors to the Holy See: Austria, France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia and also the European Union currently have female diplomats representing them position at the Holy See.
With Chiara Porro, Australia has already sent its second female resident ambassador to the Vatican and it is not an isolated case; the same applies for the Philippines with Grace R. Princesa, and Argentina, Pope Francis' home country, sent a woman ambassador for the first time during the current pontificate: María Fernanda Silva has represented her nation\ at the Holy See since 2020. Like her counterparts, the US ambassador, Callista Gingrich, also belonged to the network until she was recalled at the beginning of 2021.
Three of the female diplomats stationed in Rome will be leaving their current posts this summer: Isabelle Savard from Canada, Sally Axworthy from the United Kingdom and María Elvira Velásquez Rivas-Plata from Peru. However, the informal network of ambassadors will continue to work and to thrive, and - if the post-pandemic circumstances post allow - it will be further strengthened in the Autumn with person-to person meetings and events rather than virtual ones.