Navigating Vatican a Tricky Job Ambassador says Diplomacy Key During Wartime

The Denver Post
January 19, 2003
Bill McAllister BELTWAY

WASHINGTON – As U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Denver’s Jim Nicholson may seem far from the front lines of the international crises confronting the Bush administration. After all, as Nicholson said in a recent Washington speech, “at our embassy, we don’t have to sell trucks or helicopters or deny visas.”

But the former Republican National Committee chairman said he is doing “classic diplomacy” at the Holy See, attempting to build support for the administration’s push against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

It’s not that Pope John Paul II has any troops to contribute to the war, Nicholson said in a recent interview. It’s the moral influence that the Holy Father can have on a number of democracies around the world that makes his views important.

The pope’s views can determine whether many of the so-called “Catholic nations” will join a coalition against Iraq, Nicholson said. That’s why the ambassador was back at the Vatican on Monday, listening to the pope outline his objections to a war.

The pope has been highly supportive of the president’s war against terrorism, describing the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an assault “on all mankind,” Nicholson noted. But the pontiff’s resistance to warfare against Iraq has put Nicholson in a key spot as the U.S. grids for a possible conflict.

“While the United States and the Holy See may sometimes disagree on the means to achieving our goals, we fundamentally agree on what we are seeking for the world,” Nicholson said in his Washington speech. “We are seeking together to elevate man – to give man a life of freedom, justice, well-being and peace.”

In Rome, Nicholson is charged with making sure that the Holy Father and his advisers are fully briefed on the latest U.S. policy. With 109 acres, the Vatican is one of the smallest nations in the world. But as a sovereign state, it has its own bureaucracy, diplomatic corps, bank, post office, newspaper, radio station, train station and security force.

In his year and a half on the job, Nicholson said, he has learned that the bureaucracy is filled with interesting people. At one gathering, he asked a cardinal what he did in the Vatican.

“Saints,” replied the cardinal, adding he was in charge of overseeing the research into claims of possible sainthood.

“Well,” said Nicholson, “what does one do to stay on your right side?”

“A miracle,” answered the cardinal.

When Nicholson told that story to some of his Colorado friends, he said, a Democrat recalled Nicholson’s fund-raising success at the RNC and told him: “You’ve already done that.” ###