Ambassador: Pope Francis’ spontaneity makes security a challenge

Pope Francis changes his cap during his general audience at the Vatican on Aug. 19, 2015. (Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)

Rome — Pope Francis likes to get close to Catholics, whether showing up unannounced at Mass or stepping out of his popemobile to greet pilgrims. But security agencies know they can’t “put him in a bubble” to keep him safe when he visits the U.S. next month, says the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Papal spontaneity poses a considerable challenge, but Ambassador Kenneth F. Hackett said organizers are prepared for the pontiff’s every move.

“The security people, who have been involved in the planning for a long time, recognize that it would be easier if we knew exactly what he’s going to do,” Hackett said. “But (the fact) that we know he may change the plan, at least gets us ready.”

Being well-prepared is all they can do, “unless you put him in a bubble, and he doesn’t want to be in a bubble.”

Hackett, nominated by President Obama and confirmed as ambassador in August 2013, says his day-to-day role involves interacting with people at the Vatican on U.S. foreign policy, in addition to working with the religious community in Rome. Being Catholic is not a requirement for a Holy See ambassador, but Hackett says his faith certainly helps him understand the way everything works.

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During his time in Rome, U.S. security officials have visited the Vatican to discuss the upcoming trip, which will see Francis travel to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

The ambassador highlights the unique situation in New York, where world leaders will hear the pope speak at the U.N. General Assembly.

“New York is going to be exceptionally interesting because you have so many heads of state in Manhattan, then the pope comes, so it kind of magnifies and amplifies the difficulties for the police, the security and the people who live in Manhattan,” Hackett said. “But at the same time it’s awfully interesting.”

Francis is widely expected to use his U.N. platform to push for action on climate change, following the release of his groundbreaking papal letter on the environment in June. But there are also a number of other issues some Americans are hoping the pope will address, such as the position of women in the Catholic Church.

Both the U.S. and the Vatican support a more prominent role for women, in Hackett’s view. Although noting that the Holy See still bans female priests, he said gender equality has improved to such an extent in the U.S. that there are now other priorities. “This is an interesting issue for Francis to understand; in the U.S. that’s generally not the first issue any longer,” he said, without specifying the dominant issue of the day.

Hackett said that although most Catholic universities still have men at the top, the three largest Catholic organizations in the U.S. are run by women, including Catholic Relief Services, the international humanitarian agency, of which he was president from 1993 to 2012. He first joined the organization in Sierra Leone in 1972 and went on to lead CRS’ humanitarian response to events including the Rwandan genocide and the Haiti earthquake.

Since joining the diplomatic corps — an experience he deemed “very different from what I used to do” — Hackett said he had not given thought specifically to the role of women within his own embassy. Reflecting on the issue, he pointed to a good gender balance, with his deputy, public diplomacy officer and other staff being women.

Hackett does not expect the pope to focus on differences of opinion between the Vatican and the U.S., such as gay marriage, but instead said the pontiff will “rush to where there’s agreement, when he feels strongly about an issue.”

Poverty, migration and the justice system may well be addressed, but the ambassador said he thinks it is unlikely that race and recent police shootings will come up.

“I don’t know whether he would talk about police shooting unarmed civilians — black civilians in particular — in Ferguson, Mo., or wherever,” Hackett said.  Unrest erupted in Ferguson and elsewhere after the fatal shooting of an 18-year-old black man last year.

“My recommendation would be don’t go there; it’s very complicated. Deal with the issue of violence, maybe the criminal justice system, but trying to get to who struck whom, that gets complicated,” said Hackett.

Although Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has caught the world’s attention with his human approach and efforts to reform the Vatican, his popularity has dipped in the U.S. recently, some polls suggest. The pope’s favorability rating has dropped from 76 percent early last year to 59 percent this summer, according to a Gallup poll released last month. Among conservatives the figure fell to 45 percent, down from 72 percent.

But Hackett said he doesn’t expect an approval rating to put the pontiff off from speaking his mind in the U.S. “Whether this group or that group agrees, I don’t think it matters to him,” Hackett said.

“I don’t think he’s studying opinion polls while he’s preparing for his trip to the United States. I think he’s practicing his English.”


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