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Inside the Vatican: Former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon Reflects on Her Time With Three Popes

Father Dave welcomes former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon to discuss her new book, “In the Courts of Three Popes: An American Lawyer and Diplomat in the Last Absolute Monarchy of the West.

Mary Ann served in different capacities for the last three popes: Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, and St. Pope John Paul II. “I started out as a member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences under John Paul II. The following year, I was asked to head the Holy See Delegation to the UN’s World Conference on Women in Beijing of 1995,” she says. With that position, Mary Ann became the first woman ever to lead a Vatican delegation. 

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She served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under Pope Benedict XVI from 2008 to 2009, and explains why this unique role exists. “The two main reasons are that the interests of the Holy See and the interests of the United States are worldwide, and they have common interests on so many different subjects,” Mary Ann says. “The one I like to mention most is that it joins the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid to the entity that administers the largest private network of deliverers of humanitarian aid. I think neither the United States nor the Holy See gets enough credit for that.”

Mary Ann explains that she wrote the book to help encourage laypeople to serve the Church. “[With] this account of my experiences as, not an insider, but an outsider with many vantage points within the Holy See, my hope is that other lay people will be encouraged to donate some of their time and talents to the Church at all levels; local right up to the Holy See,” she says. “Right now, the Church is badly in need of lay assistance, and while it’s certainly not part of our labor vocation to help out the Church, I think it is something that we’re especially called to do if we can.”

Father Dave responds, “When you say that, we’re not talking about, ‘We don’t have enough priests to say Mass.’ We’re talking about all the other aspects of being a part of a community of faith that also happens to be an institution and a civil state…there’s a lot that needs to be done that shouldn’t just be done by clerics, even according to the Church.” Mary Ann says, “The more that lay people can help out with work that they are uniquely qualified to do, the more it enables priests to do what they were called to do.”

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Father Dave asks Mary Ann about the similarities and differences of the papacies she experienced. She says, “Let’s take John Paul II and Benedict XVI together…they will undoubtedly go down in history as two of the greatest popes ever, but they had one thing in common that has led to some of the present difficulties, and that is neither one was a hands-on administrator,” she says. “You had 30 years where various departments and dicasteries were pretty much left on their own. The method of governing of both of those popes was to really delegate to trusted people. That’s great, and sometimes it has worked out well, but when the cat’s away, the mice will play.”

In contrast, she describes how Pope Francis has challenged the administrative institutions of the Holy See, also known as the Roman Curia. However, she says, “Culture is prior to law. You can change the rules, but something more has to happen besides changing the rules…that culture is going to be hard to change. That’s why I do think that what needs to be done is for the Holy See to be realistic and focus on the main things that it was called to do.”