Tim Fischer's account of his Ambassadorship to the Holy See
HOLY SEE, UNHOLY ME
by Tim Fischer
(Harper Collins 2013, paperback, 320pp, $32.99, ISBN: 978-0-73332-835-0)
This is an amusing but quite informative book written by a seasoned politician who served for three years as Australia's Ambassador to the Holy See. This position had been filled since 1973 by non-resident ambassadors until Fischer was appointed in 2009. His successor is Sydney QC John McCarthy.
The then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, asked Tim Fischer to accept the appointment so that an announcement could be made during the Pope's visit to Sydney during World Youth Day 2008.
In accepting, he felt that as "religion is in pole position to help rebalance the world economically and socially", being in the hub of Rome was a great starting point.
The upgrade to resident Ambassador had three main aims: keeping in touch with G20 countries, all of which had resident Ambassadors supporting Australi's campaign to win a seat on the UN Security Council and working on food security issues given the centrality of Rome as the headquarters of FAO and several other agricultural-related bodies.
One personal habit which fitted well with DFAT was its clean-desk policy. Fischer had always operated on this basis.
His chapter on "Who's Who in the Vatican" is interesting, in that he speaks highly of Monsignor Pietro Parolin who in 2009 was Undersecretary for Relations with States, effectively second in line to the Secretary, Archbishop Mamberti, the Vatican's Foreign Minister. After a stint as nuncio in Venezuela, Parolin has returned to the Vatican to replace Cardinal Bertone as Secretary of State (equivalent to Prime Minister), and is now spoken of as a possible candidate for pope.
Fischer mentions with approval the appointment, by Pope Francis, in April 2013 of the Group of 8, including Cardinal Pell, to advise him on pressing issues. The network of 140 papal nuncios who constantly report back to their headquarters in Rome was seen by him as of great significance, and he sought to tap into these sources as much as possible.
Similarly, as convening Chair of the Greater Asian Ambassadors Group he was able tap into many sources - the group has up to 15 members.
Fischer concludes, "There is good sense in being plugged into the diplomacy of the Holy See, the oldest organisation of the world and one that had been doing diplomacy for well over 1,000 years."
Fisher was frequently involved in attending conferences but was most impressed by the ones held in the 500-year-old Gregorian University run by the Jesuits and located near Trevi Fountain.
The conference celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin was remembered because Professor Margulis stated that the world's best stromatolites - layered rock, often containing fossils - are found in Shark Bay in WA.
Another productive conference unveiled the original petition of Henry VIII for annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
Professor Eamon Duffy of Cambridge University has argued that if Pope Clement VII had moved more quickly to consider the petition he would probably have granted it.
This is, of course, complete speculation. If the Pope had consented to grant an annulment, what would he have done when Henry VIII later wanted to get rid of Anne Boleyn, then Jane Seymour, then Anne of Cleves, then Kathryn Howard?
A good friend of Australia who attended Vatican Conferences was Elettra Marconi the daughter of the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi. In 1929 he gave the Vatican one of the world's first radio stations and later his daughter turned on a beam on her father's yacht in Genoa which activated the Sydney Town Hall Christmas lights.
As Prime Minister's envoy to Bhutan, Eritrea and South Sudan, Tim Fischer was able to explain to these governments how serious Australia was about seeking a UN Security Council seat. They were offered Aus-Aid.
The papal encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) was released to coincide with the G8 meeting held in L'Aquila (8-10 July 2009). It focused on the causes of the Global Financial Crisis - due in large measure to unsustainable toxic financial instruments such as derivatives.
The Arab Spring, causing an accelerating exodus of Christians from the Middle East, is mentioned but not sheeted home to the interfering Obama Administration which would be better advised to focus on the 26 US cities which are bankrupt rather than engage in regime change in the Middle East.
One could ask how President Obama justifies his Nobel Peace Prize after the number of killings he has personally sanctioned. Previous recipients of the Peace Prize include Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
Tim Fischer was pleased with his efforts in the canonisation of St Mary MacKillop. He welcomed the bipartisan federal parliamentary delegation consisting of Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Labor Senator (and strong pro-life supporter) Ursula Stephens and the National Senator Barnaby Joyce.
Fischer is very clear-sighted on the injustice of attacking Pius XII as anti-Semitic.
One small flaw in the book is the misspellings of four Italian terms: Ponte Sesto (not Ponte Sixto); Governatorato (not Governatoro); Conciliazione (not Consolazione); and Consistorio (not Consistoria).
One of the remits given Tim Fischer was religious freedom, and he worked closely with the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue focusing on Islam. Conferences were held in Semarang in Indonesia, in Manila and in Madrid and on the margins of the World Parliament of Religious Freedom in Fiji when nine Methodist and one Catholic leader were arrested.
He also played a key role in "Project Baghdad" when the Vatican asked Australia to accept as migrants a handful of Christian Iraqi bomb victims who had been evacuated to Rome after an attack on a Christian Church in Baghdad which killed over 60 civilians.
In mid-2010, Tim Fischer convinced Veritas Internationalis to conduct a fund-raising special charter train from the papal railway station in Vatican City to Orvieto in Umbria and back. This was dear to his heart, as he is a train buff.
One half of the journey (to Orte) was propelled by steam and the rest by diesel electric. The return trip ended at Stazione Termini. They raised 15,000 euros (over $21,000) for Veritas.
Fischer had great pleasure in witnessing the opening of the Australian guest house, Domus Australia, where he also had his farewell function.
He commends Fr Anthony Denton and Danny Casey, Business Manager of the Sydney Archdiocese, who supervised the redevelopment of the site. Danny Casey in the late 1990s was NSW President of the Australian Family Association and attended the World Congress of Families in Geneva.
The book includes six useful appendices listing, among other things, the names of all Australian Ambassadors to the Holy See since 1973, including National AFA Patron Sir Peter Lawler (1983), former WA Premier Brian Burke (1988) and former ALP Government Minister Rev Fr the Hon Michael Tate (1994).
Other appendices include the Departments of the Roman Curia and the senior personnel in the Secretariat of State as of 2009.