NEW YORK — When Pope Francis speaks to the United Nations on Friday, the event will be a diplomatic high point for the pontiff, who has helped restore the Vatican’s role as an important player in global diplomacy.
He will speak at the opening of a United Nations summit at which leaders are set to adopt a series of development goals. At least 154 heads of state or government and 30 ministers are expected to be in attendance — among the largest gatherings of national leaders in history.
Vatican representatives say his speech will focus on poverty, climate change, social justice and the perils of a “globalized indifference,” according to Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations. “These are also the priorities of the Catholic Church, and these are also the core values of the summit,” he said.
Francis’ visit to the U.N. caps a series of recent diplomatic interventions, including serving as a mediator and guarantor during 18 months of secret negotiations between the United States and Cuba. The two countries resumed diplomatic relations in July, restoring official ties that were cut in 1961.
On Wednesday the Vatican credited Francis for a breakthrough in peace talks in Colombia — which could set the stage for ending Latin America’s longest civil conflict. On Sunday during Mass in Havana, he said of the talks, “We do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure.”
In his speech to Congress on Thursday, he stressed the need for dialogue in ending global conflict. “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same,” he said. “When countries which have been at odds resume the path of dialogue — a dialogue which may have been interrupted for the most legitimate of reasons — new opportunities open up for all.”
He praised recent efforts toward “dialogue to overcome historic differences” — a nod to the thaw in relations between the U.S. and Cuba and to negotiations with Iran.
The Holy See, which established its Secretariat of State in 1487, is the world’s oldest diplomatic entity, but it is something of an anomaly. The Vatican has little territory, minimal natural resources and nothing to trade, yet it maintains an active diplomatic corps and relations with approximately 180 states. Along with Palestine, it is one of two nonvoting members of the United Nations General Assembly. In May the Vatican officially recognized the state of Palestine, sparking the ire of Israel and the United States and demonstrating a foreign policy that can remain independent of major powers.
As the seat of the Catholic Church, it brings together an estimated 1.2 billion people, making up the largest civil society organization in the world, with outsize influence across international borders.
Experts say these elements give the Holy See a unique ability to exert soft power on global affairs.
“The Vatican may be tiny, but it has more political connections and ability to exert influence that goes far beyond that of some medium-sized states,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the U.N. at the European Council for Foreign Relations.
Francis’ charisma explains some of the Vatican’s newfound clout. According to one recent study of Francis’ appeal in the United States, he remains popular even among those with no religious affiliation.
At the United Nations, his presence presents an opportunity for diplomats to advance policy items that are high on the U.N.’s development agenda, including sustainable growth and combating climate change.
The French Ambassador to the United Nations, François Delattre, welcomed the papal visit. “The pope’s moral authority and his support in the fight against climate change is an important contribution in the ongoing efforts to attain a success at the Paris Conference on Climate in December 2015,” said Delattre.
Gowan said, “No member state is going to a position on climate change solely because Francis advocates for it. What Francis can do is help leaders explain to a wider public what they are trying to achieve through the U.N. and provide a little bit of extra political moment for the positions that are developing.”
Francis is not the first bishop of Rome to influence international affairs. In 1979 and 1983, Pope John Paul II, who was Polish, visited Poland and signaled support for the democracy movement there at critical times in its struggle against the communist regime. He also played a key role in defusing a dispute between Chile and Argentina over the Beagle Islands, which threatened to bring the two countries to war.
Francis Rooney, an ambassador to the Holy See under George W. Bush, said this tradition of quiet diplomacy, exemplified by the Vatican’s involvement in the U.S.-Cuba deal, highlights the trust many leaders have in Francis and the unique role he can play in mediating other international disputes.
“Those kind of things happen all the time with the Holy See, and nobody knows about them,” Rooney said. “The fact that they don’t have to take credit for it makes them all the more influential.”
Before his speech to world delegates, which is expected to last about 30 minutes, Francis is set to meet Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and hold a town-hall-style meeting with about 400 U.N. staff members.
He will then go to a meeting with the president of the Security Council — a seat currently held by Russia.
Asked whether Francis will discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria with Russia, the strongest ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, a Vatican diplomat called it a private meeting.
“If one of the parties wishes to release what they’ve discussed afterward, they will,” he said.