By Linda Bordoni
She’s smart, she’s with it, she’s the youngest ambassador the Vatican has ever welcomed to be part of its diplomatic corps… her name is Chiara Porro, and she is the new Australian Ambassador to the Holy See.
Speaking to Vatican Radio as she goes about “settling in” and learning the ropes in a new and challenging environment, 36-year-old Ambassador Porro told me she also happened to be one of the first to be received by Pope Francis in a person-to-person meeting after months of coronavirus lockdown.
“That’s possibly why he was so generous with his time,” she modestly said, recalling her audience with the Pope in August when she presented her credentials.
When I asked her what her priorities are as she begins her mandate to nurture and strengthen the bilateral relationship between the Holy See and Australia, the Ambassador said that right now, “It’s difficult to set out any priorities without thinking of the coronavirus context, as this pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives.”
Ambassador Porro, who is trained as a career diplomat and already has a good number of postings under her belt, is the only resident ambassador to the Holy See from the whole Pacific region. She is convinced that Australia has much to contribute to the global coronavirus response, and that, she said, is one of her top priorities as she begins to “think and work with the Holy See.”
She mentioned how early in the crisis, Australia very quickly pivoted its development assistance to the most urgent needs of the weakest, immediately setting up humanitarian corridors throughout the region with which to provide support.
“As you can imagine the small Pacific island countries are very dependent on supplies coming in from outside, and with travel shutdown, there was a real need for food, medicines,” she said, explaining that the Australian government also put a lot of resources into providing PPE and training for health workers, as well as working with all the countries of the region affected by travel restrictions.
Another area in which the ambassador is convinced her country has much experience to share concerns specific mobility programmes for people on the move, a humanitarian sector Pope Francis has close to his heart.
“They call it the Seasonal Work Programme and this has been going on for years, but it was particularly relevant during the pandemic because we were able to pivot and have some of these workers work in aged care and other health care sectors,” making it, she said, “a real mechanism to enable opportunities.”
Thanks to this system, she said workers can get visas to work with various sectors while directing those resources to where they are most needed thus allowing everyone to benefit. It also shows local populations that there is a need for migrants to come in and support the economy, she added.
Ambassador Porro said that amongst her meetings and contacts with various Vatican offices so far, she has met with the Covid-19 Commission established by the Pope and had interesting conversations, particularly with the Dicastery for Promoting Human Integral Development, where she engaged in conversations regarding the suffering of migrants and refugees.
The fight against human trafficking is another area in which she says the Holy See and Australia can productively work together, as “Australia has put a lot of effort into stopping people smuggling” she said, admitting its methods have sometimes been controversial. “But we were able to break the cycle and I think that’s a positive thing.”
Above all, the ambassador said, she is excited to be able to have the opportunity to work with the Holy See and its global diplomatic network that provides so much scope in working to promote values like the common good and human fraternity.
Especially in light of a post-pandemic world, she said, and at a time in which we see increasing tensions and nationalism, “it is absolutely fundamental” to uphold those basic principles and values.
The Holy See and Australia
On the other hand, the Holy See, she said, is very interested in watching how Australia manages its relationships and how it plays its role in the region.
Ambassador Porro noted the strategic and delicate position of Australia and its Pacific partners that are currently “right at the centre of the China-US dynamic” and she explained that her country has a complex role to play as it finds itself at the centre of global politics.
Another perspective that is of interest, in particular to the Pope, she said, is the fact that the Pacific is a “frontier” region and its populations are directly and powerfully affected by environmental issues.
“I think there’s a real space for a Pacific voice here, and that also links-in with the fifth anniversary of Laudato sì”, she said.
Ultimately, Ambassador Porro explained, she sees her job as providing a link to her area of concern, “facilitating connections, bringing expertise from our region, finding avenues for collaborations, for projects, translating some of the Holy See’s policies and agendas and seeing where they align.”
Particularly with Pope Francis, she said, there are lots of opportunities to do things together on the global stage, and while there may be sensitive issues and areas where the Australian government and the Holy See don’t agree, there are is much work to be done.
An important mission for Australia
And from the opposite perspective, the Ambassador is convinced her government cares deeply about this mission and finds it important. She revealed it is part of her role to demonstrate the value of having a presence here at the Holy See and to communicate the influence of Pope Francis and his message across the world and the Pacific region.
It’s only a half-joke, she noted, when she says “it’s the post with the largest diaspora” because of the number of Catholic communities back in Australia and across the Pacific region who, she said, “are very interested in what she is doing here.”
“So there’s definitely still a role for me to explain our purpose and the value we bring from being represented here, but there are lots of opportunities for work.” It’s a question, she concluded, “about prioritising and really focusing on where we can add value.”