“I probably look a little exhausted’ laughs the new Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, Chiara Porro when asked by Catholic Outlook what it feels like to have been in her first posting as ambassador for only a few weeks. In that time, she has met Pope Francis, celebrated the tenth anniversary of the canonisation Australia’s first saint, attended numerous meetings with fellow ambassadors, Vatican officials and the Australian religious in Rome. She has even had the fortune to fly by helicopter to the beautiful Po Delta with Cardinal Turkson. “But it’s been good to hit the ground running” she says.
Catholic Outlook had the fortune to speak to Ambassador Porro on a range of issue, revealing her intellect, empathy and enthusiasm for representing the Australian Government in the Holy See. Over a series of articles, Catholic Outlook will cover the new Ambassador’s perspectives on how Pope Francis views Australia, women in Catholicsm and the celebration of Australia’s first saint, St Mary MacKillop.
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Ambassador Porro, at 36, is the Vatican’s and Australia’s youngest ambassador. She is a Catholic, but as ambassador she represents the Australian Government rather than Australian Catholics. Her role is to connect the Holy See with what is happening in Australia, and the Pope’s messages to the Australian people. She takes over from the previous Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, Melissa Hitchman.
The Pope is ‘switched on’ to Australia and Australian Catholics
Ambassador Porro is in no doubt about the role that Catholics including Australian Catholics can play on the global stage. Having met him on August 27 to present her credentials, she says Pope Francis is very much aware of what is happening in the Australian Catholic Church.
“He’s switched on to what is happening in Australia” she told Catholic Outlook. “He’s definitely keeping a close eye on us.”
Pope Francis’s planned trip to Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Region this year was cancelled due to the pandemic. One of Ambassador Porro’s priorities is keeping Pope Francis interested in re-planning a trip to discover and meet the Catholic community in the region.
When asked why she thinks Pope Francis may have a particular interest in Australia and the Australian Catholic Church, she says there are a number of reasons. She explains that the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was of particular interest and he is now following how Australian Catholics are using these learnings.
“There is a real acknowledgment of how the Australian Catholic Church has responded very strongly to the Royal Commission recommendations in a very positive way. Essentially in Australia we are now dealing with this issue very openly. In a way we are fields ahead of other countries.”
At the same time, she acknowledges that the Catholic community in Australia came under intense media and community scrutiny. “Pope Francis is now watching things like the Plenary Council and how the Australian Bishops Conference manages this point in time. He is seeing how they refocus and highlight all the good work done by the Catholic community in Australia” says Ambassador Porro. She admits that often good news stories such as the work done by Australian Catholic agencies are often ignored by the media.
Pope Francis closely followed the 2020 bushfires in relation to climate change and the environment which are particularly important to him. “He knows how these issues are impacting on our country and he is interested in how Australia is advancing on this agenda” she says.
Other issues Pope Francis pays attention to in relation to Australia include migration, human trafficking and seasonal workers in our region.
When she talks about Australia’s relationship with China and the US in Vatican circles, she sees a realisation that Australia, with its relatively large Catholic population (compared to our pacific neighbours), and its proximity to China, is at the heart of some of the significant global issues currently playing out. “There is a sense that Australia has some expertise to offer on these issues” she says.
Already she has met with ambassadors from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia and Japan to discuss how they can coordinate on topics of relevance across our region.
“I think Pope Francis hit the nail on the head with his latest encyclical (Fratelli tutti)” she says when we talk about his latest encyclical released in October. “There is a real desire for moral leadership globally in the world. The question now is how to put this into action to bring the world together to create a global community that we need to fight all these crises that we’re facing.”
It’s a particular area she would like to work with the Australian Catholic community on, and appreciates the value and power of the grassroots nature of our parishes. “The Church has a traditional approach of using its parishes to spread its messages from the bottom up to change the mentality of the community.”
One of her goals is spreading the social messages from Catholic doctrine that are applicable to the whole Australian community. “Humanity and fraternity are the types of values that all Australians hold very dear” she says in particular relation to Fratelli tutti.
Passing on Catholic social messages to Australian policy makers is also an important function of her role.
“The Pope is a global leader” she says. “His messages resonate with a lot of non-Catholic people. Right now there is the opportunity to use his leadership for real reform on the global stage.”