HOLY SEE, UNHOLY ME:
1,000 Days in Rome:
Tales from My Time as Australian Ambassador to the Vatican
by Tim Fischer
(Sydney: ABC Books),
Paperback: 320 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer was relaxing on holiday in 2008, when he received an unexpected phone call from the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, asking him if he would be prepared to be Australia’s first resident ambassador to the Holy See.
Fischer had previously served as a member of federal parliament from 1984 to 2001, leader of the National Party from 1990 to 1999 and deputy prime minister in the Howard Coalition government from 1996 to 1999.
His acceptance of the Rudd Labor government’s offer to be an ambassador began a new phase in Fischer’s life. In January 2009, he relocated to an apartment in Rome within walking distance of the Vatican.
Holy See, Unholy Me recounts some of the more memorable episodes he experienced during his three-year term there. It provides not only a fascinating insight into the workings of the Catholic Church, in its role as both a religious organisation and a sovereign entity, but also the life and work of a diplomat.
On taking up his post, Fischer immediately struck up a good rapport with key Vatican personnel and members of the diplomatic corps. As a diplomat, Fischer received ambassadorial instructions, mainly from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). He had to avoid acting contrary to specific instructions from Australian authorities, or doing anything that could undermine or compromise Australia’s diplomatic position.
On more than one occasion, DFAT instructed him in copious detail on how he was to discharge his duties. For example, at the behest of Australian authorities, he attended a parade in honour of Libya’s late dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. However, he was warned neither to shake Gaddafi’s hand nor be photographed with him. Fortunately, on this occasion, Gaddafi being distracted at a key moment worked to Fischer’s advantage.
Another key function of an ambassador is to keep the Australian government briefed on any noteworthy political developments. Fischer maintains that the Australian ambassador to the Holy See plays an important role in this respect, as Rome is a vital diplomatic hub.
The socialising involved in attending embassy functions, concerts and other cultural events is also an integral aspect of the networking required of a diplomat. Fisher’s working day was a long one, involving office work, liaising with various Vatican authorities and staff from other embassies, and then frequently having to attend a lengthy dinner or reception in the evening.
His day would often end close to midnight when, before retiring, he would open up his computer and listen to the live streaming of ABC news as it was broadcast at 7:45am Australian Eastern Standard Time.
During his time in Rome, Fischer played an important role in advancing the canonisation of the now Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop, the first and only Australian to be canonised to date.
Fischer was also present for the opening of Domus Australia, a guesthouse for Australian pilgrims visiting Rome.
As a veteran politician and keen observer of events, Fischer accurately predicted the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. However, he admits that he thought Benedict would retire 12 months later than he subsequently did.
Fischer’s memoir also explores some of his personal interests, particularly his lifelong passion for trains. One of his previous works includes a book on railways. While in Rome, he helped organise a vintage steam train journey, departing from the Vatican railway station, which was a fundraising exercise for the Catholic international aid organisation, Caritas International.
The Vatican station was constructed in the mid-19th-century to facilitate the pope’s travels. Fischer had noted references to Pius IX’s papal carriages and, after extensive searching, discovered them in a dilapidated condition. He hopes that one day soon they will be restored by railway enthusiasts.
A particularly interesting chapter in Fischer’s book — and one that has already attracted media attention — is where he defends Pius XII’s role in World War II. Against the oft-repeated accusations that Pius did little if anything to save Jews, Fischer states the facts, namely that many thousands of Jewish lives were saved in World War II because, thanks to the direct orders of Pius XII, church facilities were opened up to provide them with refuge.
He acknowledges that Pius was unable to prevent one particular train-load of a thousand of Rome’s Jews from being deported, but argues that there was little the Pope could do to stop it, as an attempt to do so could have ended the privileged neutral status of the Vatican, a status which enabled Pius to protect thousands of Jews and others whom the Nazis were hunting down.
Holy See, Unholy Me is a fascinating memoir of a one-time ambassador whose posting was quite different from that of almost every other ambassador. Fischer also reflects on the Catholic Church’s role in the world and his personal opinions on the direction it should take.
He provides an excellent introduction to the life and role of an ambassador. Many political and diplomatic memoirs can be dry and tedious; but Fischer, with his keen sense of the Australian character and ethos, provides a lively and interesting memoir capable of engaging any Australian reader.
The book is structured in such a way that it doesn’t need to be read from cover to cover, but can be enjoyed by dipping into its various sections.