"... in our faith we have met somebody who loves us and has given his life for us. And this encounter creates a new dynamism in our life which will change us and the world."
Archbishop Christophe Pierre has served the Church as a papal representative for nearly 50 years. As he tells Aleteia, the path that his priestly vocation took came to him by surprise. Ordained in 1970, he still sees himself as an “ordinary priest.” It was his bishop, in the Archdiocese of Rennes, in France, who suggested he enter the Vatican’s diplomatic service. “Let’s be honest, at the beginning, I did not want to do that. I was a bit afraid.” As it turned out, however, Fr. Pierre was very good at his job.
After preparation at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Vatican’s school of diplomacy, he entered the Diplomatic Corps of the Holy See on March 5, 1977, serving first as the Pontifical Representative to New Zealand and the Islands of the Pacific Ocean, then serving in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Brazil. From 1991 – 1995, he served at the Permanent Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed him Apostolic Nuncio to the country of Haiti, whereupon he was also elected the Titular Archbishop of Gunela. The same pope made Archbishop Pierre the Papal Representative to Uganda in 1999. He served there until 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI made him the nuncio to Mexico. Then in 2016, Pope Francis named him the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.
During his service in the US, where Catholics are often divided into progressive and conservative camps, the French-born nuncio has frequently invited the bishops to work for unity. Recently, he has encouraged bishops to implement the synodality promoted by Pope Francis. On July 9, it was announced that Archbishop Pierre will be created a cardinal at the Vatican consistory on September 30, 2023.
Archbishop Pierre met with us over Zoom from his office in Washington, DC. A warm and engaging man, he laughed frequently during our interview, but also communicated a sincere and deep affection for the Church and her people. We spoke to him about the lessons learned during his years of diplomatic service and how they might be applied to the Church’s current challenges.
Your Eminence, based on your many years of service and experience, how can we as Catholics best engage in dialogue with those who we may not personally agree with, or who may even be actively opposed to the positions of the Church?
Pierre: Well, this is quite a challenge! But I’ll tell you what I’ve learned — and particularly what I’m learning — here in this country and also in different circumstances, is that at times we should examine carefully why we don’t agree with the other person, at what level. I think that’s the point, especially from the point of view of the Church in opposition, the Church in society.
Look at what’s going on today, for example, in the field of politics in this country, but maybe also in the world. There is a difficulty not only to dialogue but also to work together in order to resolve the problems of society. If you enter into the field of politics, what is being a politician all about? A politician is supposed to help people have a better life and to look at the common good of society.
But if we enter this field and try resolve problems by occupying a position of power — power should be a service and not just an end — and if we impose ideas instead of examining the reality in order to resolve problems, we are going to fail. All polarization comes from the fact that we have transformed things into ideologies. So, we fall back into the danger of setting one ideology against the others.
It’s interesting to look at what an ideology is. An ideology is an abstraction of reality. But reality is complex. And the politicians – we are all in some way politicians — we know the complexity of reality, but it has to be tackled as such.
Now, this is what happens in the field of the world. But what about the Church? What if we repeat the same mistake in the Church, that is, if we think that in order to become active in the Church we need to fight only for ideas, even good ideas, then you will necessarily just have one idea against the other. So, what we really need is to be different.
The Church has a different role in society. Its role is to look at reality — and the reality is the people, the persons, the conditions — so that we can try to resolve problems. This is a good example: I’ve been observing what Pope Francis is trying to do with the war in Ukraine today. The Pope enters by trying to resolve some concrete problems — for example, the children who have been taken to Russia. He does not say, “I have the solution,” in a polarized world. But we are present. And our presence, if it is a true witness, the witness of people who want peace and want to resolve problems for the good of people, then I think we can contribute.
I see that as a good example of how the Church could exist in society. At times, our mistake is to reproduce exactly in our Church the contrary positions of society. So, in the end, we are also polarized and there is this, what we call the cultural war, which is killing us and killing everything.
I wanted to ask you about that actually, because culture is meant to be a place of engagement, but it has become a battleground. Do you think that this is reversible?
Yes, well, I think it is reversible. That’s where I see — of course, you will tell me I’m representing Pope Francis — but this is precisely where I see the contribution of Pope Francis, you know?
Pope Francis, if you read all these documents — the main document, Evangelii Gaudium, and all his preaching, even his actions — he wants to leave ideology and go back to reality. That was one of the four big principles, you remember, in Evangelii Gaudium: the reality is more important than the idea. But he said this is the kind of attitude that he is inviting the Church to have permanently in order to serve society with the Good News of the Gospel.
Remember also what Pope Benedict said — our faith is not an ideology, but an encounter with a person. The person is somebody. The encounter is not an idea, it’s somebody. You know, it’s not even principles of morality. The idea comes from the encounter, and the Church is there as a presence in society. For me this is a deep conviction, and it animates my personal life and my actions as nuncio.
Some months ago, you stressed that, as the Apostolic Nuncio, you represent a person, the Holy Father, and not a state.
A lot of people think of the Church as just a religious organization. Why did you want to stress that so much?
Well, there is a tendency today that you have seen in the United States but also in other countries, including in my country of origin. Many people today judge the Pope in the name of their own ideas.
Once somebody reproached me. “You shouldn’t speak about the Magisterium of Pope Francis,” he said. “There is no Magisterium of Pope Francis, there is only the Magisterium of the Church.” I have found many people expressing the same opinion. However, we should not forget that the Church is not an idea, but that the Magisterium of the Church is always expressed through the voice of Her pastors.
When Jesus chose Peter, he said, “Simon, now you are called Cephas.” It means stone — Mr. Stone! “On this stone I will build my Church.” Peter has been chosen, and the new Peter today is Francis. There is no other.
People say, “Well, but you know…” No, no, no, no, no! [He laughs.]
But the situation is not just about Peter, Pope Francis, but it’s every priest, every bishop, every lay person. The Church is us, ourselves. Once we have made this encounter with Christ and we have been sent, we become disciples, and we are sent to announce the Good News in reality — in the family, in the school, in politics, in hospitals, everywhere — in order to offer to people the possibility to live a different kind of life based on love, on justice, on peace. Not as values — the world speaks very strongly about values — but as personal engagement. Love does not exist as such. I’ve never met love. I’ve met loving people. And that’s very important.
The Church is not preaching love as an ideal. The Church is preaching love as a presence of someone. I am loved and I am called to love. It’s a relationship. I cannot discover love if I don’t meet a person who loves me. And precisely in our faith we have met somebody who loves us and has given his life for us. And this encounter creates a new dynamism in our life, which will change us and the world.
I think it’s very important not to forget that, otherwise we idealogize everything and, again, we create enemies, because if the person doesn’t share my idea, he becomes my enemy. And this is war! This is what happens in the war between Russia and Ukraine and so forth. Because we declare that the other is not good, so the other has to be eliminated. But we actually live that way even in our politics today in this country.
It seems that young people, particularly, are very sensitive to this. I have spoken to many young people who say they feel like the older generation just wants to coopt them into a particular position, but without really want to engage with them. I’m curious how you think the Church needs to engage with the young.
Well, I think the Church is really there to create relationships with people as they are. We are not a business, you know. At times we act too much like a business — even at times in our parishes. They do a lot of work, but at times we fall into the trap of being obsessed with organization. This is okay, but what about the people?
And by the way, even if I have a good number of people attending my church, what about the others who are not there? This is the reason why Pope Francis tells us all the time to go out, not to remain a self-enclosed Church, a small group of people. No! We have to go out all the time. It’s not easy, but this is our job. Go and announce the Good News! The Good News that God loves us, and you are called to respond to that love. And young people need to hear that Good News. I’m convinced of that.
I don’t know if you have kept track of how many miles you’ve traveled in service of the Church over all these decades. Do you have any idea?
No, I’ve no idea. I’ve not counted. I think it would be useless! [He laughs.]
But in all your travels, among all the people you’ve encountered, what have you seen that gives you the most hope? And what are the things that give you the most concern?
Well, you know, I’m an ordinary priest. My vocation began in my own diocese. Then at some stage I was called by my bishop. He sent me to this kind of life. I was not too aware of it. So, as you said, it has led to me traveling all the time, discovering new cultures, new countries.
Let’s be honest, at the beginning I did not want to do that. I was a bit afraid. I said, “What should I do?” But I discovered that the big world is a very small one. And what I’ve seen … you know, I spent 20 years of my life in Africa, 20 years of my life in South America … and I’ve been in so many circumstances, but what I’ve seen is the beauty of people giving their lives, up to martyrdom very often, once they have had this personal encounter with Christ. I’ve seen this a lot all over the place.
Representing the Pope in a country like the United States also gives you the opportunity to encounter so many people who have this concern for evangelizing. They don’t make noise, but they are there and that’s my joy. And this is also one of the reasons why I never hesitate to go out and to be there. For example, when I go around, I have time with bishops in particular. And I see their concern for their people. This is something which is wonderful. They are totally committed to that. At times, they have a difficult task because they have a lot of problems to resolve, but what is beautiful is precisely that concern. And this is what gives meaning to our life, at least to mine.