The departing Australian ambassador to the Holy See says that countries without a resident diplomatic presence in Rome are losing out diplomatically.
“It is so much easier to do the job if you’re on the ground in Rome,” said Ambassador Tim Fischer, who is stepping down from his post this month. He was appointed in 2008 as the first resident ambassador to the Holy See for Australia since the two states established relations in 1973.
“The Vatican is not entirely a closed shop, but you have to know where to look, which conferences to attend, which contacts to pursue. And if you’re only flying in for four times a year from Dublin or from the Hague or from Geneva, then that becomes very difficult to do in a comprehensive and professional way,” he explained in an early January interview with CNA.
Ambassador Fischer’s comments come only two months after Ireland chose to close its embassy to the Holy See in Rome, citing budgetary pressures as the deciding factor. The new Irish ambassador to the Holy See will live in Dublin.
The Holy See currently has diplomatic relations with 179 states, with about half of them maintaining a permanent embassy in Rome.
Ambassador Fischer explained that being so close to the Vatican allows governments to tap into an unparalleled diplomatic network.
“It is the oldest organization in the world, and it does have a huge network,” he said. In fact, “as recently as the Balkans War some of the best information as to what was really happening on the ground was not held by the CIA or the KGB but, in fact, right here in Rome by the Holy See.”
While Ambassador Fischer respects each country’s decision about how to deploy its diplomatic resources, he says that the “general concurrence” within the diplomatic and political community in Rome was that the recent Irish embassy decision “was more political than anything budgetary.”
Since arriving in Rome in January 2009, Tim Fischer has become one of the best connected members of Rome’s diplomatic community. Standing at well over six feet tall and usually sporting a distinctive bush hat, the 65-year-old former Australian deputy Prime Minister has also become one of the best-known and most easily recognizable figures in Vatican circles. During his tenure at the Australian Embassy to the Vatican, he has prioritized the issues of religious freedom, inter-faith dialogue and food security.
As a Catholic, he says his time in Rome has been “uplifting personally as well as professionally,” and that it has been “an absolute delight” to meet “some very wonderful and very senior people, starting with the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.”
He was also keen to praise numerous Vatican officials he has dealt with and who are “beavering away behind the scenes and below the radar and who are the most dedicated, dynamic people.”
Ambassador Fischer was given a fond farewell on Jan. 11 at the recently opened center for Australian pilgrims to Rome, Domus Australia. Invited guests were treated to a concert in the center’s St. Peter Chanel chapel, followed by a farewell reception.
The Australian government will announce Ambassador Fischer’s replacement in the coming months.