In a recent interview with Mons. Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, some of the world's most pressing diplomatic challenges were discussed. From the ongoing war in Ukraine to the climate change crisis and conflicts in the Middle East, parts of Africa, and Latin America, Gallagher provided valuable insights into the current state of international affairs. Drawing from his personal experiences in Ukraine, he highlighted the need for diplomacy and back channels to find lasting peace in the region. Gallagher also touched on the Vatican's role in brokering peace talks in South Sudan and the importance of local church leaders taking up such initiatives in their respective countries. The interview also delved into some of the fruits of previous papal visits, such as Pope Francis's historic trip to Iraq, and the Vatican's provisional agreement with China, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and commitment to carrying it forward. Finally, Gallagher addressed the Catholic Church's doctrinal position on abortion, stating its opposition to the movement to label it as a human right. Overall, Mons. Gallagher's insights shed light on some of the most critical issues facing the world today and the Vatican's efforts to promote peace and justice globally. The interview was conducted by the journalist Colm Flynn.
Your Excellency, thank you for doing this interview.
How are you today?
I'm fine. Thank you.
When we look around the world, in your opinion, what would be the three biggest challenges diplomatically speaking?
Well, I'm not very good at numbers. So, I'll just give you what the challenge are. If I say three or if I say two, take it at its worth.
Well, obviously, the biggest diplomatic challenge at the moment, for the world and for the international community, is the war in Ukraine. After that, I think we have the climate change crisis: which you know, in last few days has been this good news about the oceans, which is to be applauded, and hopefully will be a big step forward. After that, I think a lot of the things are the general conflict duality that we have in the Middle East, parts of Africa, also, the destabilization of Latin America. These are the things that I think are facing the international community at this time.
When you went to Ukraine, what are your memories of that experience?
Well, my memories of the Ukraine... I was very lucky when I went because although they'd had a lot of shelling and bombing, when I went, it was relatively peaceful. We were able to see the effects of the Russian aggression on Bucha, Irpin, and also parts of Kyiv. I think the lasting impression I got was of a people who were being very courageous, very determined, in front of enormous challenges. And things have gotten much worse since I was there. But also a country that was bracing itself, for what I think they all perceived was going to be a very long and drawn out conflict. So there was suffering on the faces of the people, concern. And already, there were deaths of soldiers, and you saw images in some of the churches: there were images of the people who had been killed. And they were talking about the funerals and everything like that.
Also, to get there, it's not normal. You have to drive from the Polish border, or get on the train for the night. So it's an enormous effort. But you got the impression of the authorities and the people of great determination, great resolve, not to give in too easily. And in fact, of course they didn't give in, initially, as was expected. And that's why they are still continuing to fight for their country.
Now nations across the world are sending tanks and other military equipment. The Vatican, of course, has no military might around the world. Through diplomacy, what can the Vatican help with, or help to try and achieve there?
Well, we can try to keep what I call the dream of peace alive. We can talk about dialogue, and peace, which in many areas are words which are not appreciated at the moment. And we can understand that. We understand the suffering of the Ukrainian people. They're not thinking in terms of dialoguing with Russia at the moment. But what we also can do is maintain, to some degree, contacts with the Russian authorities, to the embassies, to the Nuncio in Moscow. Same thing with the Ukrainians, because obviously, that's much easier. And we can continue to repeat our willingness to participate and to share in any peace process, any negotiations of any kind, to offer our good offices. Now, at the moment, it doesn't appear that that's being taken up by anybody, but it remains there. And I think that that's the position of the Holy See and of the Holy Father, that if we can do anything to help - and we are trying to do something about prisoner exchanges. We're trying to help a little bit with some of these children who have been deported, and with some results.
You mentioned there beautifully the dream of peace: you try and keep that alive. And do you find – like when Pope Francis famously went down to the Russian ambassador here, and broke protocols - when you're dealing with Russia, are they open to dialogue, or is it falling on deaf ears?
Well, I haven't had very much to do with the ambassador myself. I tend to leave that to my Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations, who is a Pole, so they, they have a lot more in common. But certainly, there's openness there, and messages going backwards and forwards. Not very many messages, but some. But I don't think, at the moment, anyone is really open to sincere dialogue in good faith. Understandably, the Russians need to be sending different messages to Kyiv in terms of the aggression, if they really want to believe that people want to talk about peace. And also, the positions of President Zelenskiy are very clear about when and how he might be willing to think [about peace.] So, quite frankly, at the moment, there isn't much space to for dialogue and peace.
It's very challenging, isn't it, for diplomacy when diplomacy is all about compromise and give-and-take and dialogue, and that isn't even there in the first place.
Yes, well, of course, there are always back channels in diplomacy. And I imagine that there are contacts between many of the actors that we don't know about. But diplomacy... When you have situations like this, it is a time to reassert the need and the usefulness of diplomacy, not to throw up our hands in horror and say, well, we can't do anything. We can always do more. And we should try.
If you were to try and predict – as one of the Church's top diplomats with immense experience dealing with the heads of nations across the world, and often very tricky situations – how do you think this is going to play out?
Well, I don't have a crystal ball. I think that much of the commitment of arms by the West and by NATO, the United States, and others, inevitably is going to be perceived by Russia as an escalation of the conflict, to which they will presumably make an appropriate response. So I think we're in for a long war of attrition. We're seeing in these days, the fighting of Bakhmut and other towns. The result is not easy. The resistance can be strong. The aggression has to be very strong as well. So I think we've got to be prepared for the long haul. And we've got to try, in one sense, to keep working to prove that I'm wrong: that some solution can be brought about, a lasting peace and a just peace, as soon as possible.
Recently, with Pope Francis's 40th apostolic trip to the continent of Africa, when he went to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, we saw Vatican diplomacy on show there as well. And while the Pope was there, the president of South Sudan announced that he would resume peace talks with the country's rebel groups. Did the Vatican play a role in that announcement?
Well, I think most of the credit for that needs to go to the community of Sant'Egidio, who have been having this Rome initiative for a number of years, I think, with the non-signatories to the revitalized peace agreement. And obviously, President Salva Kiir believed that the visit of the Holy Father and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator the Church of Scotland required some response, some concrete gesture on his part, and therefore, seeing there was pressure he said Well, we'll come back to the negotiating table with the opposition. We've supported that process. Sant'Egidio and Dr. Paolo Impagliazzo have always kept us informed. We've had occasional meetings here with some of these leaders who haven't signed on to the agreement yet, encouraging them. And obviously I've been to South Sudan, to Juba, on two occasions in recent years. So, we've supported it, but the actual coming-back-onto-the-Rome-Initiative, that's something that was achieved by Sant'Egidio, I think.
Is this something that the Holy Father and the Holy See would like to try and use their diplomatic efforts towards more in the future, as we see the power shift in the Catholic church going from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, and many countries across Africa and Latin America that could use help in restoring peace and maintaining peace?
Well, it's not just initiatives from Rome or by the Holy Father. Obviously, the Holy See encourages the local churches, the local church leadership, to engage with the political authorities when there are conflicts. And this has happened in a number of places. Recently, in Latin America, some of the bishops have been part of brokering agreements between opposition or bringing protests to an end. Yes, the Holy See will continue to take its initiatives with the possibilities that we have, the resources which we have. The pope will continue to speak about these things at the general audience, and at the Angelus each Sunday. But obviously, it's going to be much more effective in terms of outreach globally, if these things are taken up by local church leaders. And there are indications that also government's appealing to bishops’ conferences and to individual bishops to say: Come to our aid; come and support us; and come and bring people together. And very often that's the big problem: who has the power to convoke both government authorities and opposition and protesters? And that quite often is the church, because the church remains a credible institution in many countries of the world.
Can you talk a bit about the fruits of some of the previous papal visits, maybe when we look back at the past 10 years of Pope Francis's pontificate? I'm thinking primarily two years ago, I think, this month, the incredible trip, the historic trip to the nation of Iraq. I remember speaking to you on the plane on the return journey. And you were quite emotional when you were recounting that trip and thinking of the people that you met, and such hardship that they had been through?
Well, I think we're also emotional, because the trip to Iraq involved certain security considerations and certain security risks. And so when we were on the way back, we were all quite happy to be on our way home, safe and sound. And that was also true for for the Holy Father. The Iraq trip was - as have been quite a number of the trips of the Pope - was quite audacious, really. If you remember his visit to the Central African Republic, when they were very near to elections, and where there was concern whether elections would go ahead. And they did go ahead, largely because the Pope went there and sort of knocked a few heads together. And also [the Pope] was there to encourage the wonderful collaboration between the Imam and the Cardinal Archbishop of Bangui. In Iraq, as you recall, it was important, perhaps the most important visit of the pontificate so far, because the pope had already made significant gestures to the Sunni Muslim community, particularly his friendship and his relationship with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh el-Tayeb. And they had then signed the document on human fraternity during the Pope's visit to Abu Dhabi. But that was the Sunni world. The Shia world, understandably, may have felt, unintentionally, that it was being excluded. So the fact that the Pope said, we go to Iraq. I want to go to Najaf, and I want to meet Sheikh al-Sistani, the leader of the Shia Muslims in Iraq, and some would say, the most prominent Shia leader in the world. And this was a bold gesture, a bold step. And it really was reciprocated by al-Sistani, who showed multiple gestures of respect of affection of esteem for the for the Holy Father. So that was, I think, a remarkably important visit.
If I'm correct in remembering they now have the National Day of Peace and reconciliation as a result of the Pope's trip to Iraq.
Yes, I think so, and they've had quite a number of initiatives of one kind or another.
I know, Archbishop, it is a complicated issue. We need a lot of time to talk about it. But when we look at something like the Vatican's deal with China, the provisional agreement around the selection of bishops in China, and it's something that is divided many Catholics. It's quite controversial. When the Vatican and diplomats like yourself representing the Holy See are going to broker deal like this with China, what tips the balance in terms of whether you agree to or not agree to make a deal like this?
Well, in the case of China, you have to remember that the agreement that was signed five years ago was the fruit of working on negotiations over a period of about 30 years. So it was a long process under three pontificates. And most of the agreement was already agreed and accepted by the Holy See, and by the Chinese authorities already in the time of Pope Benedict. So it was only a bit of crossing the T's and dotting the I's. And I obviously was not not involved directly in those negotiations.
But yes, obviously, the objective is to get the best deal possible, which certainly this agreement is not the best deal possible, because of the other party: they were only prepared to go so far and to agree to certain things. But that was what was possible at the time. As Cardinal Parolin has said on numerous occasions, it wasn't really a great time to sign the deal, for various reasons. It was always going to be difficult; it was always going to be used by the Chinese party to bring greater pressure on the Catholic community, particularly on the so-called underground church. So, we just go forward. There have been some bishops appointed. There are negotiations underway for the appointment of other bishops. Obviously, the deal could work better. And in fact, we are negotiating improvements the deal, and that's a work in process. But we remain committed to carrying forward that dialogue.
And as has been said many times, over the years, there has grown up, I think, a greater understanding, a greater respect between the two parties. And we're trying obviously to maximize that. It's going to be difficult. Everything is done obviously in the context of Chinese domestic politics. And therefore, we can only achieve so much. And we can only achieve it quite slowly. But one of the things that the Chinese and the Catholic Church and the Holy See have in common is that we don't think in months, or even in years. We're thinking in terms of a much longer time. And we hope that, in time, the relations between the Catholic Church in China will be much more normal, much more fluid, much more fruitful. And as we set off from here, we remain committed, believing that good Catholics can also be good citizens of the People's Republic of China.
Archbishop, you have pushed back at the EU level against the movement to label abortion as a human right. Can you talk to me a bit about the challenge for the Holy See when it comes to this movement to label abortion as part of human rights?
Well, we are simply maintaining the position of the Catholic Church, doctrinally and morally, on the question of abortion. And we continue to repeat that and make it present to people, to governments that are sponsoring that. It's also a part of the church's desire to make human life the very center of what political society should be doing. We always say that the center of human rights is the human person, the dignity the human person. So we try to express it. Obviously there is there is a great deal of opposition. There's obviously people who have very strong convictions on this, and are wishing to push this forward. But we would like to hope that people can see that this is, indeed, not a fundamental human right, and that the right to life should prevail at all times from conception to natural death.
It must be incredibly challenging for you and for the Holy See when you're dealing with various heads of state who come here to the Vatican to visit or your counterparts in various governments and when their policies can sometimes be so at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church. How do you deal with that?
Well, obviously, you talk about some things and you don't talk about others.
Is that the answer just to kind ignore the elephant in the room?
No, we're not like that. We do try to raise issues, to show our concern, and to remind people of their responsibilities. We also, I think, try to challenge some of the assumptions about some of the policies. For example, somebody will say: Well, okay, we understand that is coming from a religious point of view. And many people in Europe, for example, would say: Well, you know, religion is a rather private, marginal question. We would argue that: No, religion in the world is something that is important to a little bit over 80% of the people on the on this planet, and that their religious beliefs have an enormous effect upon them.
So, we try to maybe change the context in which some of these decisions are being made. And also, that if people are wanting to put these laws in place, that there has to be respect for conscience, and this this there is, in many places, we see an erosion of conscience, which I think is a indication of a certain insecurity and they say: we've got to push it through now get it on the books. And you're right, we see things very differently. And we will continue to present the position of the church, to those who are willing to listen.
Finally, Archbishop, if we can talk about you for a moment. From Liverpool originally?
And you have been in this role now for how many years? Almost 10 years?
Well, it's eight and a half, I think.
Eight and a half years. What do you like most and least about the job?
Well, it's a lot of office work, which is not always terribly attractive. There's a lot of paper involved. I think the thing that I enjoy most is meeting people. And some of the trips that one is allowed to go on, either with the Pope or in other contexts, are very fascinating: to see places I never thought I would meet and cultures I would never encounter. I like that very much. But yeah, I think that's about it, really.
It's those opportunities and meeting people and witnessing many of the very... Also, because when I when I go and visit places, we try to have two dimensions: there's the contact with the authorities, with the political authorities or country, and then there's getting to know the local church. And you see so many wonderful things that are being done by the Church at the local level.
And you mentioned eight and a half years, when you look forward to the future - I know even this year, the Holy Father will be going to Hungary, Mongolia.
He's expressed the desire to go.
Yes, he’s expressed his desire to go to Mongolia. What are you looking forward to in the future ahead?
Well, we're continuing to work on one of our priorities, which is the Western Balkans. So, we've got a trip planned for to Albania. I've been to most of the countries. There's only Albania and Montenegro outstanding. So, we're hoping that the situation in Montenegro may improve in coming months, and we'll be able to go there. So that's very attractive. There should be a chance to go to Central America again, to Panama as well, which is also an interesting prospect, and then accompany the Holy Father, perhaps to Hungary, and, as you say, to Mongolia, and maybe even to Marseille, which is, I think, quite an exciting day trip.
A trip to Ukraine: Is that still on the cards, maybe?
There's not much talk about the Holy Father going at the moment. But I would be very surprised if during the rest of this year, somebody doesn't go both at the humanitarian and the political levels.
Archbishop Gallagher, it's been lovely talking to you and thank you for your time.
Thank you very much. God bless.
Originally from Ireland, Colm Flynn is a reporter for EWTN News based in Rome. He brings viewers all over the world as he reports on incredible human interest stories of how faith inspires people in their lives. At the Vatican he covers major papal events as well as other news from the Catholic Church.