US envoy bids Pope farewell


Vatican, Jan. 13 ( - Pope John Paul II (bio - news) met on January 13 with Jim Nicholson, the US ambassador to the Vatican, who was making his farewell visit before leaving Rome.

Nicholson, who has served as American envoy for more than three years, is returning to Washington to take a new post as a cabinet secretary in the Bush Administration, heading the Department of Veterans Affairs. Until his successor is named, the US embassy to the Holy See will be headed by the deputy chief of mission, Brent Hardt, who has served there since July 2002.

A graduate of the US Military Academy and a decorated veteran of combat in Vietnam, Nicholson was the chairman of the Republican National Committee before his ambassadorial appointment. He took up his new duties in Rome at a critical time, presenting his diplomatic credentials to Pope John Paul II just two days after the terrorist attack on the US: on September 13, 2001.

During his term in the Vatican diplomatic corps, Nicholson gained respect as an effective representative of US interests, with keen political instincts. He worked actively with the Vatican on issues involving the defense of human rights and religious freedom, particularly in Russian and China. He promoted initiatives against AIDS in Africa, and programs to feed the world's needy. He worked, with some success, to gain Vatican approval for the use of genetically modified food production. And his influence was detected when the government of Israel, under pressure from the US, resumed negotiations with the Vatican toward a full diplomatic agreement on the rights of the Church in the Holy Land.

Nicholson's greatest challenge, however, was to ease tensions between the Holy See and the Bush Administration regarding the conflict in Iraq. The ambassador insisted that the Vatican stance regarding Iraq was not diametrically opposed to the US position. He observed that the Church recognizes a country's legitimate right to self-defense, including the defense against terrorism. And he added that President Bush shared the Pope's belief that warfare must always used only after the failure of all peaceful means to resolve conflict.

Nicholson argued that the "no to war" frequently invoked by Pope John Paul was conditional rather than absolute. While conceding that the Pope disagreed with the US on the question of whether all peaceful avenues had been fully explored before the beginning of military action against Iraq, he pointed out that the Church has always recognized the duty of civil authorities to make prudential decisions on such matters.

During Nicholson's stay at the Vatican, President Bush made three personal trips to speak with Pope John Paul: a record number of Vatican visits by an American president.