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Ambassador: Pope spontaneity makes security a challenge

By Rosie Scammell/Religion News Service
On September 15, 2015

Pope Francis security agents are jitter about his safety when he visits the States.

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, said 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,” said Hackett. “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.

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,” said Hackett. “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.”

“I don’t know whether he would talk about police shooting unarmed civilians – Black civilians in particular – in Ferguson, Missouri, or wherever,” said Hackett.

“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.

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