Deborah Castellano Lubov/Vatican News

THE VATICAN — Ambassador Joseph Donnelly is the new US Ambassador to the Holy See and is ready to work to promote human rights. In an interview with Vatican News at his residence, the Ambassador shared about his recent encounter with Pope Francis, his appointment, and his mission ahead.

Pope Francis walks with Joe Donnelly, new U.S. ambassador
to the Holy See, during a meeting for the ambassador to
present his letters of credential, at the Vatican, April 11, 2022.
CNS photo/Vatican Media

          Ambassador Donnelly presented his credential letters to Pope Francis on April 11 in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.

          The Ambassador’s main task will be to liaise between the Holy See and the US Government. Diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United States of America were established between Pope St. John Paul II and US President Ronald Reagan on 10 January 1984.

          Ambassador Donnelly, married with two children – and a new grandchild, was appointed to serve as the 12th US Ambassador to the Holy See on 24 January and was confirmed by the US Senate in February 2022.

          “My family and I are proud to be members of the Catholic faith, and through my years of public service, the Church has been a core part of my life and my values.”

          Donnelly was born on September 29,1955, in Flushing, New York. Prior to this appointment as Ambassador, Donnelly served as a partner at Akin Gump in Washington. Donnelly received a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and a J.D. from the University of Notre Dame Law School.

          After having worked as an attorney in various legal studios and private entities from 1977 to 2007, Donnelly served as a Member of the US House of Representatives from 2007 to 2013, representing Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District. He served as a US senator from Indiana from 2013 to 2019. Donnelly was a member of the Afghanistan Study Group and has been a professor at the University of Notre Dame. In addition, he served as chairman of the board of the Soufan Center in New York, and as a senior advisor to Inovateus Solar in South Bend, Indiana.

Q: What is your emotion as you begin your tenure as the United States Ambassador to the Holy See? What mission do you see before you?

Ambassador Joseph Donnelly: I am incredibly honored and humbled by President Biden putting his trust in me. What I hope to do is to continue strengthening the incredibly strong bonds between the United States and Holy See, and to move our country and the Holy See forward together, to strengthen that even further in the days ahead.

Q: You recently presented your credential letters to Pope Francis. How was your time with the Holy Father?

It was an amazing event to be part of because you are looking at the person the whole world sees as the primary moral center for all of us and the other part that was so amazing and fun, was that our 11-month-old granddaughter was with us. And she was entirely taken by the Holy Father. And I think the Holy Father was entirely taken by her as well. And they seemed to get along famously well. But to be with the Pope, someone who in in my country is so revered and so loved, to have the time to talk to him about issues like Ukraine, world peace, human rights, and to know we're working closely together, was one of the most special moments of my life.

Q: In what areas do you most look forward to working together? What are the greatest areas where the Holy See in the United States can promote human rights? And in what areas could you work together better?

Well, I know that our country, the United States, my beloved home, our goal is, in many, many ways, similar to the Holy See. Our goal is to make sure we stand up for the human rights and the dignity of every person. And so, we work closely together on issues like human rights, to ensure every person has the opportunity to see their dreams come true, to be able to take care of their family, to know that at the end of the day, there's a meal for you to eat, there's a place for you to sleep and for you to take care of your family. We look forward to working together with the Holy Father and Vatican to promote religious freedom and ensure everyone practice their own faith. We are strong believers, as the Vatican is, in protecting our planet. We've read Laudato si. This small planet that we are part of, that we've been given stewardship of, we have an obligation to protect and defend. You see now in situations like Ukraine, where there are millions of refugees coming across or refugees elsewhere in the world where opportunities for people to take advantage of others, especially through human trafficking. We want to stand together with the Church, with the Holy See, to help prevent that. We've seen so many sisters who have done incredible work around the world that have been honored by the United States, for trying to protect children and families. That's very, very important to us. I'll also mention health care. A Catholic Church-affiliated health care is a critical part of our healthcare infrastructure in the United States and around the world. We want to work together to make sure everybody has access, and to make sure everybody has an opportunity to be in good health.

Joe Donnelly, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, visits with
Ukrainian refugees at the Community of Sant'Egidio's Refugee
Welcome Center in Rome, April 21, 2022.
CNS photo/courtesy U.S. Embassy to the Holy See

Q: Pope Francis has made numerous appeals for peace in Ukraine and throughout the world. What value and importance do you give these appeals of Pope Francis on the global scale?

When I was with Pope Francis, a large block of our time was about his heartbreak concerning Ukraine, about the people being killed, the bombings that were occurring, and expressing we want to do everything we can to help create peace. I know the Pope has called for a cease fire, and we support that in the United. States, but we also support that Ukraine is an independent nation. We stand with the Ukrainian nation. We stand with the Ukrainian people.

Q: You visited Ukrainian refugees who are receiving assistance by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome. How was that experience for you, Ambassador?

It was very emotional to be at Sant’Egidio and to meet almost immediately a family, a mom and dad with their baby who was less than two months old. That baby had been born in a bomb shelter underneath the hospital, and the parents took off after the child had been born to come here to Italy on a one-month bus ride. Think about bringing a newborn child first, bringing a newborn child into this world, in a bomb shelter underneath a hospital, then a one-month bus ride to a country where you have never been before. And you are at Sant'Egidio now, to try to have the opportunity to have a place to sleep, to be able to make sure that your child is safe, and that you can have something to eat. That's the situation that the Russians created by attacking Ukraine.

Q: Pope Francis has written the first encyclical on the environment, Laudato si, and has written the encyclical Fratelli tutti on human fraternity. What from Pope Francis teachings has resonated most with you, Ambassador?

Well, when the Pope says we need to smell like the sheep. We are the sheep. Obviously, the Pope says it much better than I do. But the Pope is suggesting that our job is to try to help all people. He is preaching Jesus’ message. Jesus so often was seen with those struggling the most, who are the most downtrodden. Jesus always said, whatever you do for the least of us, you do for me. And so, that's the message that Pope Francis preaches and is so powerful to the whole world. If you go anywhere on this planet, everywhere the Pope travels, he's beloved and he's beloved because people look and they say, “He cares about me. He's trying to help my family. He's trying to help me reach eternal salvation.” And you can see how much the Pope feels those burdens. You just have to look at Him and you can see the weight of the world literally on his shoulders. I feel very blessed to be here at this moment, not only because of the privilege of representing the nation that I am so blessed to live in, but also to be here at a time, with this Pope.