The world's oldest diplomatic service is that of the Holy See, and it origins can be traced to the very first centuries of the Catholic Church when papal legates, "legati a latere," were sent by the Popes to represent them at important councils or for other matters. In fact, a legate was present at the Council of Nicea in 325. Though the mission of the early papal representatives was primarily spiritual in nature, changes began to occur between the fifth and eighth centuries when Popes sent temporary emissaries to special civil ceremonies as well as to religious events.
In the mid-15th century, permanent papal representation began to appear and by the 16th century, history records the establishment of apostolic nunciatures in different countries, with an exchange of representatives between those countries and the Holy See. The very first apostolic nunciature was established in Venice in 1500. As affirmed in the Vienna Diplomatic Convention of April 18, 1961, the Holy See's ambassadors, or apostolic nuncios, are considered the deans of the diplomatic corps of the country to which they are accredited. Where such a precedence "de iure" does not exist, the Holy See nonetheless sets up a nunciature, which is headed by a nuncio with the rank of ambassador.
The Holy See exercises both the "active" right of sending emissaries to other nations and the "passive" right of receiving their emissaries. Today the Holy See exchanges representatives with 162 nations. On June 24, 1969, Pope Paul VI, who during Vatican Council II had expressed the wish that the functions of papal legates be more clearly defined, issued the Motu Proprio "Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum" (The Care of All the Churches), which dealt with precisely such issues.
This Motu Proprio categorized the papal representatives as follows: apostolic nuncio, an archbishop with the rank of ambassador who represents the Holy Father to the local Catholic Church and to the State or government; apostolic pro-nuncio, same functions and rank as a nuncio, though not dean of the diplomatic corps; apostolic delegate, an archbishop representing the Pope only to the local Church because the particular country and the Holy See do not have diplomatic relations; charge d'affaires, who heads the nunciature in the absence of a nuncio or apostolic delegate. A fifth category, inter-nuncio, disappeared with the new Code of Canon Law. Only the title "nuncio" is now used in nominations: the prefix "pro" has been dropped.
In addition to the above-named categories of legates, canon law states: "Those also represent the Apostolic See who are appointed to Pontifical Missions as Delegates or Observers at international councils or at conferences and meetings."
Canons 362 through 367 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law concern papal legates. The first reads: "The Roman Pontiff has the innate and independent right to nominate, send, transfer and recall his own legates to particular Churches in various countries and regions, to states and to public authorities; the norms of international law are to be observed concerning the sending and recalling of legates appointed to states."
Canon 364 defines the duties of a legate: "to send information to the Apostolic See on the conditions of the particular churches ...; to assist the bishops by action and counsel, while leaving intact the exercise of the bishops' legitimate power; to foster close relationships with the conference of bishops ... ; to transmit or propose the names of candidates to the Apostolic See in reference too the naming of bishops ..."
Also among those functions: "to strive for the promotion of matters which concern peace, progress and the cooperative efforts of peoples; to cooperate with the bishops to protect what pertains to the mission of the Church and the Apostolic See in relations with the leaders of the state; to exercise the faculties and fulfill the other mandates committed to him by the Apostolic See."
"The function of pontifical legate," affirms Canon 367, "does not cease when the Apostolic See becomes vacant unless the contrary is determined in the pontifical letters; it does cease, however, when his mandate has been filled, when he has been informed of his recall, or when his resignation has been accepted by the Roman Pontiff."
The Holy See is represented at international governmental organizations including the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York, U.S.A.; UN Offices and Specialized Institutions, Geneva, Switzerland; International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria; Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OCSE), Vienna; Council of Europe, Strasbourg, France; Organization of American States (OAS), Washington, D.C., U.S.A. It also has diplomatic relations with the European Community. A lay person represents the Holy See as delegate to the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law. It has permanent representation to 10 international NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations).
Future Holy See diplomats receive training at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, founded by Pope Clement XI in 1701. Pius XI, on September 8, 1937, established the cardinal secretary of state as the academy's protector "pro tempore." The current president is Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo of Colombia. Candidates to the academy must first have received an academic degree, as well as one in canon law. Their studies, which include languages, last between three and four years. On average there are 35 students from at least 20 countries at the academy.
VATICAN CITY, APR 11, 1997 (© Vatican Information Services).