President Obama and Pope Francis Share a Message of Hope

President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis for a private audience at the Vatican, March 27, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis for a private audience at the Vatican, March 27, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

On the morning of March 27, the Pope’s palace in Vatican City was a slightly different scene. The American flag was waving in the courtyard. The Swiss Guard – the Pope’s bodyguards – stood at attention in ceremonial dress. Dozens of journalists were lined up eager to start clicking as soon as the 13-car motorcade pulled up. And Vatican officials and embassy staff were in place, ready to receive our embassy’s biggest visitor of the year – the President of the United States.

On that morning, President Obama arrived at Vatican City to meet Pope Francis for the first time – and I and Embassy Vatican staff were lucky to have a front row seat! I arrived in the President’s motorcade at the palace. The Prefect of the Papal Household greeted President Obama and escorted him to the Papal Library – the Pope’s office – passing through rooms with stunning frescoes and artworks dating back several centuries. The Apostolic Palace is the third largest palace in the world, housing pieces from great artists such as Raphael, the School of Caravaggio, and even Michelangelo’s last work. It was also the official papal residence from 1871 until Pope Francis chose to stay in the Vatican guest house, Casa Santa Marta, to eschew the traditional pomp and circumstance that goes along with the papacy.

President Barack Obama is escorted through the Vatican by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Prefect of the Pontifical Household, and the Swiss Guard for his meeting with Pope Francis, March 27, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama is escorted through the Vatican by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Prefect of the Pontifical Household, and the Swiss Guard for his meeting with Pope Francis, March 27, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

After a lengthy (almost one hour) meeting with Pope Francis focusing on issues of global inequality and the need to help those less fortunate, as well as issues of peace and conflicts around the world, President Obama met with the Vatican’s Secretary of State (prime minister-equivalent) Cardinal Pietro Parolin and discussed global issues in greater detail. The Vatican’s protocol team then escorted the President down the grand “Noble Staircase” of the Palace and back to his motorcade where he was off to meetings with Italian government leaders.

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President Obama and Pope Francis share a moment.

President Obama meets with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is easy to see why Pope Francis has become so popular. His welcoming smile, his generous engagement, humble and spontaneous approach, and his focus on the marginalized, poor, and excluded have given not only Catholics but people of all religious traditions around the world renewed hope and faith. And with President Obama’s powerful message of hope and the administration’s focus on alleviating poverty and inequality, it was no wonder that journalists around the world were eager to capture the moment and see what kind of chemistry the two leaders would have. And they were not disappointed.

It’s been an incredible time for me to be U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, with visits from both President Obama and Secretary Kerry, who met with Cardinal Parolin in January (as well as joining the President last week). And to have all of this happen during our 30th anniversary year of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See demonstrates further the importance of our relationship with the Vatican as we continue to partner on global issues to help promote peace and solve conflicts. KH.

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You can see more photos of the President’s visit to Vatican City on our Facebook page at: http://www.facebook.com/holysee.usembassy.

Happy 30th Anniversary!

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Happy New Year to everyone – I hope you all had a happy and healthy holiday season.  My wife and I welcomed our family to Rome over the holidays and we were able to attend the beautiful Christmas Eve midnight mass at St. Peter’s Basilica and the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi Christmas Day address together.

As the New Year begins, our embassy celebrates a very important moment in our relationship with the Holy See.  Thirty years ago today, President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II established formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See.  That same day – January 10, 1984 – President Reagan nominated William A. Wilson to be the first U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.  When Ambassador Wilson presented his credentials to Pope John Paul II on April 9, 1984, our embassy officially opened.

While we celebrate our 30th anniversary this year, our relationship with the Holy See began much earlier.  The United States has engaged with the Vatican at various levels since the very beginning of our republic, and from 1870 to 1984, several U.S. presidents designated personal envoys to visit the Holy See periodically for discussions on international humanitarian and political issues.

From President Wilson, who in 1919 was the first U.S. president to meet a pope, to Pope John Paul II, who in 1979 was the first pope to visit the White House, the United States and the Holy See have been partners in promoting human rights and social justice across the globe.  This shared goal is what has made our relationship strong, relevant, and enduring.

I am happy to be a part of this legacy and partnership and hope to strengthen and expand our engagement with the Holy See on a broad range of global issues during my time in Rome.

Throughout the year our embassy will celebrate this anniversary through a number of activities.  Follow us on our Facebook and Twitter pages for news about these activities and interesting facts and pictures about the history of U.S.-Vatican relations.

I want to also take a moment to express how saddened all of us here at the embassy are by the news of the passing of former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Thomas Melady.  He was a distinguished diplomat and scholar who will be missed by us all.  Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family during this time.

KH.

Human Rights Day: The Struggle Continues

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”   – Nelson Mandela


“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
– Nelson Mandela

 

Today – Human Rights Day – offers an opportunity for reflection on a number of pressing global issues related to human rights.  My mind first turns to Nelson Mandela’s passing last Friday.  I, like many others around the world, was incredibly saddened when I heard the news that we had lost one of the greatest human rights defenders of our time.  Madiba dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of all South Africans, a fight that transcended those borders to influence the path toward social justice all over the globe.  In him, we are reminded of the power of each individual to change the world, to make a positive impact, and to further the rights of the marginalized and disadvantaged.

Human Rights Day commemorates the December 10, 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a document that affirms the inalienable rights of people everywhere and upholds basic freedoms such as speech, assembly, association, and worship.

I hosted a meeting last week to bring together Vatican officials and NGO representatives to discuss the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Central African Republic (CAR).  Those present talked about the massive slaughter of innocents and the internal state of civil war.  Everyone agreed that security is needed as a first step to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need.

The United States co-sponsored last week’s UN Security Council resolution that gives MISCA (the African Union-led stabilization mission in CAR), and French forces in support of MISCA, Chapter VII authority to restore security and bring peace to a people that have suffered for too long.  The United States also intends to provide $40 million in equipment, training, and/or logistical support to MISCA to strengthen its capacity to implement this mandate, and we stand ready to assist our African Union partners and French allies as the need arises.

We believe this resolution sends a forceful message to all parties that the violence must end.  I have heard reports that approximately 1.1 million people face moderate or severe food insecurity in CAR, and another 500,000 are in need of immediate food assistance.  These numbers remind us how access to food is increasingly important in promoting human rights for all.

I will participate this morning in a global “Wave of Prayer” service organized by Caritas Internationalis as part of a worldwide campaign to end hunger.  Caritas is launching their campaign – “One Human Family, Food for All” – on Human Rights Day to emphasize that adequate food is one of the most fundamental human needs.

The food in the world is enough to feed everyone and yet almost one billion people (842 million – to be exact) are hungry.  The Wave of Prayer is a moment to reflect on why and how we can start to tackle the issue of hunger and create a plan for action.

Great strides have been made worldwide to protect human rights for everyone, and continued dedication is needed to fight for those unable to fight for themselves.

KH.

World AIDS Day 2013: Working Toward an AIDS-Free Generation

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Click on this logo to learn more at UNAIDS.org.

Yesterday, people all over the globe commemorated World AIDS Day – a day when we remember the millions of lives lost and families affected by HIV/AIDS, and recognize the struggle of the over 35 million people worldwide living with HIV who carry the burden of this disease every day.  It is in their honor that the U.S. remains steadfast in its commitment to achieve an AIDS-free generation.

Ten years ago, AIDS was a death sentence in Africa.  It threatened the very foundation of societies – creating millions of orphans, stalling economic development, and leaving countries stuck in poverty.  Today, too many people are still dying, but the progress that we have made is truly remarkable.

Globally, new HIV infections have declined nearly 33% over the past decade, and AIDS-related mortality has decreased by 30% since its peak in 2005.

Landmark scientific advances coupled with success in implementing effective programs have put the world at the point where an AIDS-free generation is in sight.

Combatting this disease takes shared responsibility and partnership.  Both the United States and the Holy See have done much to help those living with HIV/AIDS and prevent future transmission.

The Vatican estimates that Catholic Church-related organizations provide about 25% of all HIV treatment, care, and support throughout the world.  In 2010, the Vatican reported that more than 5,000 hospitals, 18,000 dispensaries, and 9,000 orphanages, many involved in AIDS-related activities, were being supported by the Catholic Church.

This year, we also mark the 10th anniversary of PEPFAR (The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief).  PEPFAR is the largest effort by any nation to combat a single disease and directly supports nearly 5.1 million people on antiretroviral treatment.  This past June, Secretary of State Kerry announced that, to date, PEPFAR-supported programs have saved one million babies from being born with HIV, by preventing transmission from an HIV-positive mother.

The U.S. government’s theme for World AIDS Day 2013 is “Sharing Responsibility-Strengthening Results for an AIDS-free Generation” – a theme that reflects our belief that we can achieve more when we invest and work together to fight AIDS across the globe.  The global fight against AIDS is a shared responsibility; donor nations, country partners, multilateral organizations, the private sector, civil society – including faith-based organizations – all have a role to play in the HIV/AIDS response.

By fighting AIDS, we are supporting the foundation of healthy, productive, and stable societies in which countries can better care for their own people — not just today, but over the long term.

We now know what we must do to achieve an AIDS-free generation, and together we can make it a reality.

KH.

Remembering JFK

President John F. Kennedy sits with Pope Paul VI at an audience at the Vatican July 2, 1963.

President John F. Kennedy sits with Pope Paul VI at an audience at the Vatican July 2, 1963.

Fifty years ago today I learned of the shooting of President John F. Kennedy with the same stunned horror of so many others.  For us as high school students in Boston, he was “our” president – Catholic, “Bostonian,” Irish American.  His brief tenure as president gave us confidence, motivation, and a real sense of purpose in our young lives.

I felt that sense of purpose when I joined the Peace Corps, which President Kennedy founded in 1961.  Speaking to a group of University of Michigan students on the campaign trial in 1960, he asked them, “How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana?  Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”

I joined the Peace Corps in 1968, and as fate would have it, was assigned to Ghana.  And that inspired my future commitment to international development.

Now being here at the Vatican I have re-read the remarks of Pope Paul VI when he and President Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president, met on July 2, 1963 – just months before the assassination.  The Pope recognized what the United States was doing to “not forget the high ideals of its first beginnings, nor neglect the poorer nations, and especially those new emerging states which are striving to give their people the benefits of freedom under law.”

The Pope offered upon hearing of the assassination, “We pray to God that the sacrifice of John Kennedy may be made to favor the cause he promoted and to help defend the freedom of peoples and peace in the world.”  That prayer came true.

The five decade legacy of President Kennedy has its proud adherence as we witness our nation’s bold and abundant response to the tragedy in the Philippines and the support to struggling people across the globe.  So too that legacy of support for the emerging nations of the ‘60s continues on to the nations that strive to transform themselves today.

John Kennedy’s vision lives on and today we remember his presidency, his sacrifice, and his dreams.  KH.

In Good Company

One of the joys of this new assignment for me are the people I get to meet. Since my arrival, I’ve been able to reconnect with those I’ve met over the years in the religious, academic, and humanitarian world. And I’ve been able to begin laying the foundations of friendship with many new people who make up the Vatican community. Last week my wife and I hosted Vatican officials, other Ambassadors to the Holy See, men and women religious, and friends working in the academic and humanitarian sectors, for my first official reception after presenting my credentials to the Pope.

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Delivering remarks at last week’s reception

The diplomatic community here is actually quite large as the Holy See has diplomatic relations with 180 countries, the most of any country after the United States. A great many of these diplomatic representatives did me the honor of attending my reception. My wife and I also spoke with three Dominican sisters who joined us – a true pleasure as that is the order which taught our daughter in high school some years ago. We were pleased as well to receive Monsignors Peter Wells and José Bettencourt, from the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and Protocol office respectively, at our home.

And the other two U.S. ambassadors in Rome – yes, there are three of us in total! – joined us as well: U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips and U.S. Ambassador to the UN agencies in Rome David Lane.

While these larger representational events are quite stimulating, I equally enjoy opportunities for a deeper, more thoughtful personal exchange. Recently I hosted a dinner for Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox. Harvey was in Rome for lectures at various Pontifical and other universities. His 1965 book “Secular City” was a bestseller and he’s a legendary mind in American theology. I was happy to finally have the chance to dine with the master and other scholars who joined us.

The dinner conversation went from potential changes in the Vatican Curia, to opportunities for faith leaders to engage the critical peace and justice issues of our day to more complex matters of how to best interpret science and recent understanding of biblical history with contemporary understanding of scripture. (Possibly a new book for Professor Cox.)

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have called for new strategic energy to be placed on the engagement of religious leaders. I couldn’t agree more. Since I have had considerable experience in this regard — particularly with Catholic, Protestant, Moslem, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish faith leaders — I found this evening with Professor Cox and other scholars, who actually shape the agenda in which future faith leaders find their moorings, to be most exhilarating.

My predecessor Ambassador Miguel Díaz, a theological scholar in his own right, set the tone for this kind of dialogue in his invitation to Professor Cox some years back. I was able to ride on the history of wonderful Embassy contacts and connections.

KH.

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You can continue to follow my experiences here on this blog and also through our Embassy’s social media sites where you can see daily updates and photos of our activities:  Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/holysee.usembassy) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/USinHolySee).

Together Against Trafficking in Persons

One of the first events my wife and I hosted at our residence was a conversation and lunch for guests from the Vatican, religious orders, and NGOs who work to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings.  Trafficking in human beings is a terrible scourge that enslaves millions of people every year.  The U.S. government is committed to preventing and combatting human slavery and my embassy has made fighting it a priority for more than a decade now.  President Obama has called on his cabinet to strengthen federal efforts to combat human trafficking and to expand partnerships with civil society and the private sector.  Faith and community-based groups are crucial to this.

Pope Francis was a strong supporter of initiatives to support victims and fight human trafficking when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  And I’m very happy Pope Francis has made the fight against trafficking in human beings one of the priorities of his pontificate.  Last weekend the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences hosted an international workshop that brought together groups outside and within the Church who are leading the charge in combatting this heinous crime – sociologists, legal experts, institutional leaders, and forensic scientists, as well as representatives of religious orders and NGOs working in the field.  I was glad Nan Kennelly, Principal Deputy Director from the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, also attended.  She and I had a very substantive conversation following the conference regarding what more the Holy See and U.S. government could do to combat human trafficking.

Trafficking in persons can be a hidden crime.  Often we don’t see the victims, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.  They are people deceived by false promises of prosperity or forced by physical violence to cross borders and seas to be exploited as slaves in menial work or prostitution.  They are trapped in a no-man’s land without documents, legal status, or the social support structures that we take for granted.  This is where faith-based groups and churches step in – at the working level, getting out to the streets to befriend the prostitutes, or visiting the buildings where exploited workers sleep.  I appreciate the work Catholic sisters and the Church have done at the grassroots with networks like Talitha Kum, led by Sr. Estrella Castalone, who are on the front lines assisting victims of trafficking every day.  It’s these people of faith President Obama wants the federal government to partner with – taking small steps together to tackle a huge problem.

When I presented my credentials to the Pope, I told him I wanted to work with him to promote human dignity and I specifically mentioned the great collaboration we have with the Holy See to combat human trafficking.  Of course, much more remains to be done.

For information on U.S. initiatives to combat trafficking, visit http://www.state.gov/j/tip/.  And you can read the State Department’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons report at http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2013/index.htm.

KH.

 

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You can continue to follow my experiences here on this blog and also through our Embassy’s social media sites where you can see daily updates and photos of our activities:  Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/holysee.usembassy) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/USinHolySee).

My first blog as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See – Welcome!

My name is Ken Hackett and this is my first blog entry as the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.  I had the honor of presenting my credentials today to His Holiness Pope Francis inside the apostolic palace, and I am excited and honored to begin this new journey.  I have decided to blog about my initial days as ambassador and talk about what our embassy does in its engagement with the Holy See, and about the importance of this relationship.

The United States and the Holy See have converging global interests that span a broad range of issues.  A desire to promote human rights and social justice is the foundation of a relationship that is strong, relevant, and enduring.

The focus of Pope Francis on the issues of poverty, simplicity, and human dignity offers inspiration to leaders around the world and offers great promise for continued partnership between our two countries.  We both work to make a difference on a range of important global issues such as trafficking in persons, interreligious dialogue, conflict resolution, food access and security, HIV/AIDS, and care for the environment.  And I look forward to deepening, and expanding where possible, that collaboration during my time in Rome.

While new to diplomacy and embassy life, I have been working in the area of international human development for the last four decades.  My wife and I have lived and worked in many areas of the world.  Our first child was born in the Philippines and our second was born in Kenya.  I spent 18 years as President/CEO of Catholic Relief Services and a total of 40 years with the organization.

I met many inspirational faith leaders who spent their lives promoting peace and human dignity – in Sierra Leone, Haiti, the Philippines, Kenya, and all over the world.  I have seen, and know first-hand, the importance of religion in people’s lives and the power faith leaders have to make positive change in their communities.

I look forward to sharing my experiences and engaging with you on this platform.  More to come.  KH.