Tue, 25 Jan 2000

The Vatican: An inside view by an Indonesian diplomat

By Irawan Abidin

VATICAN CITY: Judged on the basis of geographical size alone, the Vatican City is unimpressive, its total area being no more than half a square kilometer. But in terms of moral leadership, among all the states in the world today, it has no equal. Being the site of the Holy See, it is the center of gravity of Roman Catholicism, the mainstream of Christendom.

And among all the heads of state or governments in the world, the Pope has no equal in terms of influence on the personal lives of the hundreds upon hundreds of millions of Catholics who are his spiritual constituents.

"How many divisions does the Pope have?" Napoleon Bonaparte once asked. The question was irrelevant. The Vatican does not have a military force to speak of. It is a moral and spiritual force that has, in recent times, helped change the world for the better. A force for peace, dialogue and reconciliation -- that is what it is.

To many countries therefore, even those where the overwhelming majority of the population is non-Catholic, including Indonesia, an Embassy in the Vatican is an important international listening post. What the Pope says when he addresses the world during important feast days of the Church such as Christmas and Easter, carries a great deal of weight.

When the Pope gives an informal world of advice to the government of predominantly Catholic country, let us say Portugal, the advice must be taken seriously. Indeed, time and again, the Pope has spoken to various audiences on moderation, restraint, and the need for reconciliation, forgiveness and understanding. He has also steadfastly spoken against resort to violence, against war, prejudice and injustice. He has also condemned clinic cleansing and all forms of injustice between and among nations.

That is why I feel have been greatly privileged and honored to serve as Indonesia's Ambassador to the Holy See. The fact that I am a Muslim has not made it any more difficult for me to carry out my functions. On the contrary, it has made me more appreciative of the roots of my faith, roots that reach deep into the Judaism-Christian-Muslim monotheist tradition. It has also made me appreciate more deeply the immense cultural and artistic achievements of the human race with my exposure to the art troves that fill the Vatican to overflowing.

No less impressive is the efficiency with which the Vatican regulates the administrative, economic and moral concerns of its vast constituency. This is carried out through a bureaucracy that has for its center the Roman Curia, the centuries-old institution that directly assists the Pope in every facet of his work as ruler of the Catholic Church.

So important is the role of the Roman Curia that every new ambassador accredited to the Holy See, following the presentation of his credentials to the Pope, is required to immediately call on the leadership of the Roman Curia and to establish a working relationship with its functionaries. No ambassador can hope to succeed in his mission without establishing close personal and official rapport with the authorities of the Roman Curia.

The Curia is made up of the Secretariat of State, the Congregations in which executive power resides, the Tribunals that carry out judicial functions, and various Pontifical Councils, Committees and Offices.

The Secretariat of State has a General Affairs Section, which assists the Pope in his daily tasks, and a Section for Relations with States, which is actually the Vatican's department of foreign affairs.

The Vatican is also the seat of the Sacred College of Cardinals, which is a body ranking next to the Pope and whose members are the Pope's closet advisers. On the same level as the College of Cardinals is the Synod of Bishops. Together with the Pope, who is Bishop of Rome, all the bishops form a College and as vicars of Christ exercise a collegiate ministry.

The Congregations, each headed by a Cardinal, supervise important aspects of the life of the faithful. For example, the Congregation for Catholic Education sets guidelines and provides administrative support for Catholic schools and promotes the right of children to a Catholic education as well as the freedom of parents to choose schools.

The Tribunals consist of the Apostolic Penitentiary, which decides on matters of penance and dispensations; the Supreme Court of the Apostolic Segnatura which is a court of appeals for administrative matters, including pardons and annulments of marriages; and the Roman Rota, which is the supreme court for church and secular lawsuits and petitions.

The Pontifical Councils, Committees and Offices assist the Vatican authorities and the Conferences of Bishops all over the world on matters of state. For instance, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace promotes the Catholic principles on justice and peace all over the world.

But the vast organization structure would not be so impressive and effective if it were not for the fact that the Pope himself is a remarkable leader, if only for the fact that when he rules on matters of faith and morals, even those who do not believe in the doctrine of his infallibility must sit up and listen to the wisdom of the centuries.

Moreover, the present Pope is himself a remarkable individual who travels judiciously to carry the message of justice, reconciliation and hope to various nations and, in addressing the issues of the day, still fully uses mass media in order to project his pastoral voice to all humankind.

His is a voice that is friendly to Indonesia and full of solicitude not only for Catholic Indonesians but also for all Indonesians. He speaks with anxiety about the situations in East Timor, of course, and that is why he exhorts all concerned to establish a climate of trust that will enable the people of East Timor to realize their aspirations.

As late as Easter Sunday, April 4 1999, the Pope, in his Urbi et Orbi ("To the City and to the World") message, said "I hope that Indonesians will be blessed by God with understanding an feelings of love for each other, motivating all to cooperate in striving for their common welfare."

This message was repeated on Jan. 5, during the General Audience at the Pope Paul VI Hall when there were an escalation of violence, in the Maluku islands claiming hundreds of innocent lives.

The Pope in his call asked "Christians and Muslims to consider themselves as members of the human family and thus rebuild a harmonious relationship in the context of justice and mutual forgiveness" and the Pope "also recommended that all conflicting parties should abandon acts of violence which have claimed a lot of lives and immediately seek an agreement in peaceful, reconciliatory and forgiving ways." These appeals were made because the Pope feels very close to the Indonesian people.

I feel greatly privileged to be serving my country as its Ambassador to the Holy See at a time when Papacy is held by one of the most extraordinary leaders who ruled a state. Not only is he statesman, but also a mystic, a poet, a musician and a star of popular culture -- a spiritual leader who perfectly fits the time in which he lives. Under his style of leadership and ministry, the Vatican and, I think, the Christian world is optimally disposed to receive Indonesia's message.

For Indonesia, too, has a message to the Vatican, and it is that we are for the same things, the same lofty principles and ideals, and therefore we can should work together. Moreover to the rest of the world, Indonesia has a message that is essentially no different from that of the Pope and the Vatican: that a new international order of peace, stability, social justice within nations as well as between and among nations -- as well as equitably shared prosperity is possible if the developed and the developing world worked together to achieve it in the spirit of partnership and brotherhood. This is the message of Indonesian diplomacy as mandated by the 1945 Constitution.

The message gains considerable volume wherever it is affirmed that all human beings are children of the same Providence, and that is never more strongly affirmed anywhere than in the Vatican.

The writer is Indonesia's ambassador to the Holy See.