Work of religious sisters leaves lasting impression on UK Ambassador to the Vatican

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Diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the Holy See are almost as old as diplomacy itself. Even though the British envoy to the Vatican was upgraded to Ambassador status only as recently as 1982. As Britain's 10th diplomatic representative to hold this post, Sally Axworthy has just concluded a 5-year term of service.

UK Ambassador to the Holy See
'The last 5 years have been very important for me, both personally and professionally. Professionally I've got to know the Catholic Church and the worldwide Catholic networks, including the religious orders. And we've worked on everything from climate change to modern slavery, to interreligious dialogue, dialogue with Islam in particular, the bilateral relationship'.

When it comes to global issues, climate change is high on the list of priorities. Later this year, the U.K., in partnership with Italy, will host the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. And Pope Francis has already said he wants to be there. One of Sally Axworthy's last tasks as Ambassador has been working with the Vatican to help bring together scientists and faith leaders for the event.

UK Ambassador to the Holy See
“So this will be faith leaders saying that actually we all have quite a similar approach to caring for the environment, it's something that's integral to all our religions and we believe we have to get into a more balanced relationship with Nature. It's faith leaders giving an ethical steer to the rest of us and showing the way.”

This is one of the reasons why so many governments, like that of the United Kingdom, choose to maintain diplomatic ties with the world's smallest state. It's what diplomats call “the Vatican's soft power”.

UK Ambassador to the Holy See
“It's not about votes in meetings, it's not about armies. It's about saying 'This is what we should be doing, and we need to get on with it'.'

This “soft power” is also expressed in the person of the Pope: by what he does, and what he says.

UK Ambassador to the Holy See
'I think Pope Francis has been very keen to say that religious belief is not just something private and personal, but it should affect the way you live your whole life.” (...) Many of the initiatives we've done as an Embassy have obviously been on issues that are of concern to us, like religiously-inspired violence, or modern slavery, or climate change. But tapping into that sense that religion should guide people, it should be something that guides our moral choices.'

Ambassadors to the Holy See are constantly meeting different groups or individuals. But one group in particular has left a profound effect on Sally Axworthy.

UK Ambassador to the Holy See
'I think I've been particularly inspired by the religious sisters. When I came here I don't think I knew any religious sisters, but for my first International Women's Day, I interviewed the leading British religious sisters, probably all the British religious sisters in Rome, and got them to tell me their stories. These stories were incredible. They were stories of service in difficult places, or in challenging conditions, and of selflessness. And they talked about their own motivation, why they'd become religious sisters, and what religious life was like for them. And I was really impressed by this.”

The Ambassador's five years in Rome have included several highlights in terms of people she's met or events she's attended. But she has no hesitation identifying her favorite.

UK Ambassador to the Holy See
The highlight of my time here was the canonzation of John Henry Newman. It was something I had no idea was going to happen...He was the first British saint to be canonized in a long time. The last one was in 1976, I think. So we're not a country that has a saint canonized every year.'

As Ambassador Axworthy returns to the UK to take up new responsibilities, she says she looks forward to when she can come back to Italy and go on long, slow, walks in the hills around Assisi. The same hills where St. Francis walked.

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