By JIM YARDLEY
VATICAN CITY — From the earliest days of his papacy, when he walked slowly into a grand reception hall in the Apostolic Palace for his first meeting with a curious diplomatic corps, Pope Francis has promoted a fairly conventional foreign policy agenda: fight poverty, pursue peace, bridge ecumenical or interreligious divisions and protect the environment.
What has been unconventional is how Francis has elevated that agenda through adroitly timed gestures and initiatives — none more unexpected than the prayer summit meeting that he is holding on Sunday with the presidents of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He has placed himself in perhaps the world’s most complex diplomatic dispute — at a moment when American-led negotiations have collapsed — by arguing that dialogue and prayer can help.
If few analysts expect any major breakthroughs, Francis’s summit meeting shows how he is trying to pursue his goals by positioning the Vatican as an independent, global diplomatic player. Analysts also note that Francis’s status as the first Latin American pope has given him credibility in the non-Western world and is helping the Vatican have influence on a broader array of issues and disputes.
“He is planning his own global role,” said Alberto Melloni, a Vatican historian. “He is showing there is a space in international relations for a different diplomacy. That is the purpose of this diplomatic action — to show they are independent and reliable for the world.”
Centuries ago, popes dominated global affairs, starting wars or ending them, exercising enormous influence in Europe and adjudicating between European powers as they expanded their colonial empires into Africa and the Americas. Papal influence was much more limited during the last century, with popes trying and failing to end both world wars. The most notable exception was Pope John Paul II, who is credited for his role in the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.
When Francis became pope in March 2013, the historic nature of his papacy was framed largely in the context of the evolution of the Roman Catholic Church. Having an Argentine pope signaled that the Catholic center of gravity had shifted from Europe, where membership was stagnant, to Latin America and the global south, where it was expanding.
But Francis has since shown that his biography and popular personal style have also influenced how the Vatican engages on global political issues. He is hardly the first pope to speak out against poverty and inequality. Yet his work in the slums of Buenos Aires has lent him extra credibility, as has his status as a product of the developing world.
His first papal trip was to the Italian island of Lampedusa to draw attention to human trafficking and the global indifference to the thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe, with many dying in the Mediterranean. Global headlines also followed when he wrote a mildly scolding letter in January to the political and economic elites of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in which he decried global hunger as “intolerable.”
Francis has spoken often about his concerns over the fate of Christians in the Middle East, and he has used this issue, as well as his broader nonviolence agenda, to insert the Vatican into diplomacy in the region. Last September, he staged a huge prayer vigil at St. Peter’s Square as the United States and other Western powers were contemplating strikes against Syria.
The pope extended his invitation for Sunday’s prayer meeting during a visit last month to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank — and apparently it surprised almost everyone, underscoring the unpredictability that sometimes informs his approach. One of the most resonant moments of his trip came when he made an unscheduled stop to pray beside a security barrier that Israel had erected in Jerusalem.
To some, it is surprising that a Latin American pontiff who has traveled relatively little outside his home region would so assertively involve himself in the Middle East. But others note that the Vatican has played an active role in Latin American politics for decades, including mediating a dispute in the late 1970s between Argentina and Chile over rights to the Beagle Channel.
“In Latin America, the idea of papal intervention is a natural thing to think about,” said Philip Jenkins, a history professor with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.