Bringing Washington to Rome
Legatus magazine’s exclusive with U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett . . .
Ken Hackett is not a career diplomat, but he is a career humanitarian. The West Roxbury, Mass., native worked for Catholic Relief Services for 40 years — including 19 years as president — before being named U.S. ambassador to the Holy See in 2013.
Hackett attended Boston College, graduating in 1968. He then joined the Peace Corps and served in Ghana. Afterwards, he joined CRS, serving in Africa and Asia. He retired from CRS in 2011.
You really traveled the world with CRS. Talk about your experiences.
I lived a good chunk of my life in Africa and in Manhattan covering Africa. I was on the road a lot in sub-Saharan Africa. My wife also lived in Africa, in Ghana, Mauritania and Cameroon. After we were married, we moved to the Philippines where we spent five years and had our first child. Then we transferred back to Kenya where we had our second child. Before going back to the headquarters in Baltimore, we had covered a good chunk of the world.
I can go back to the latest traumatic episode, the Haitian earthquake, which was really all-consuming on people in Catholic Relief Services because we had such a large role to play. When we can bring, as we did, U.S. government resources and private resources — and put it through that powerful resource of Catholic hospitals and health care centers where nuns are doing heroic and saintly work to reach the poorest of the poor — that made a big difference.
Human trafficking is an important issue for the Embassy.
Yes. Combating trafficking in persons has been an important policy goal of our Embassy for years. As you know, human trafficking is an issue that Pope Francis has raised frequently as well. Our Embassy holds regular meetings with Vatican officials, NGOs, and men and women religious to discuss collaboration. We have also organized several events over the last year on the issue of trafficking.
Most recently, we supported the visit of [high-ranking U.S. officials] in Rome to participate in a Vatican interfaith conference on human trafficking. We support Church organizations doing the important work of combating trafficking on the ground. Secretary of State John Kerry has also announced the State Department’s plans to work with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in order to map and coordinate the church’s efforts on a global basis. Last July, we partnered with the Vatican’s newly launched interfaith anti-trafficking initiative, the Global Freedom Network, to host a video conference.
How does the U.S. work with the Catholic Church on the plight of Christians living in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq and Syria?
The safety and rights of members of religious minority groups and other vulnerable people in Iraq and Syria are issues of longstanding concern to the U.S. government. The United States and the Holy See share the goal of peace in the region, and we have shared information with the Vatican on our efforts to combat [ISIS]. These terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities.
We often meet with Vatican officials who are in touch with the Christian communities in the region and with Church leaders from Iraq or Syria when they visit Rome. The humanitarian emergency created from this violence is devastating. The U.S. is the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance, providing more than $3 billion in critical aid since the start of the crisis.
How can the U.S. work with the Church to stop religiously motivated violence — like what we’ve seen from militant Islamists?
The U.S. and the Holy See have been outspoken in condemning the use of religion by terrorist groups to justify their horrific actions. Pope Francis said most recently during his trip to Turkey, “Any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation.”
Credible religious leaders and interfaith organizations can do much to help discredit those groups. These leaders and groups can also work to prevent other young people from falling into the clutches of violent extremist organizations.
Of course it’s important for all states to help youth find peaceful and productive alternatives to express and achieve their aspirations.
How is the U.S. working with the Church in Ebola-affected areas?
The Catholic Church is on the ground and has a vast network of religious workers and lay people who are responding to the needs of those in Ebola-affected areas. We share with the Church the latest news we have from our efforts in the region to try to coordinate our approaches.
The Church has not only been a crucial element of the medical care on the ground in affected countries, but is also helping to address social and economic aspects of the crisis such as grieving, trust of health care workers, dignified and safe burial, and food aid.
Is there cooperation with the Vatican on aiding migrants reaching Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea?
Our government has been most generous to migrants, and the Catholic Church — as you well know — is often on the front lines when people arrive. You probably read that our Holy Father, in particular, has picked someone from his household to deal with this issue. His name is Archbishop Konrad Krajewski. He is the papal almoner. His office deals with papal blessings.
Archbishop Krajewski was told by Pope Francis not to stay behind his desk, but to “get out there.” The Holy Father gets letters from people all over the world. He will scribble a few words on the corner and ask Archbishop Krajewski: “Take care of this, will you?” or “Call this family who has a sick child.”
When this archbishop went to Lampedusa [Italy’s southern-most island which receives most of the migrants], he did two things: He brought $2,000 worth of phone cards and handed them out to recently arrived migrants. Secondly, he bought a whole bunch of pre-stamped envelopes for people who did not have phones at home to write a note to tell loved ones they had arrived safely. These are little things which get to the heart of things. It shows compassion.
What developing issues do you see down the road?
A number of human rights issues will continue to be at the forefront of our work. Combating human trafficking will remain a priority as will the search for peaceful solutions to conflict, countering violent extremism and the persecution of Christians and other minorities, promoting interreligious dialogue and understanding, and combating hunger and poverty.
And we are of course very excited that Pope Francis will be making his first trip to the United States this coming September for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
SABRINA ARENA FERRISI is Legatus magazine’s senior staff writer.