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Pope Francis welcomes new US envoy to the Vatican

Kenneth F Hackett, new US ambassador to the Holy See, presents his credentials to Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican (CNS)

Kenneth F Hackett has officially taken over as US ambassador to the Holy See, filling a role that had been vacant for nearly a year. He presented his letters of credentials to Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican on Monday.

“The United States and the Holy See have converging interests that span a broad range of issues” including “human rights and social justice,” Hackett wrote, in the first post on his official ambassador’s blog.

“We both work to make a difference on a range of important global issues such as trafficking in persons, inter-religious dialogue, conflict resolution, food access and security, HIV/AIDS and care for the environment,” wrote Hackett, a former president of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the US bishops’ overseas relief and development agency.

The United States has not had an ambassador at the Vatican since November 2012, when Miguel H Diaz resigned and left Rome to become a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton in Ohio.

During Diaz’s tenure, relations between Washington and the Vatican were marked by tension, particularly over the Obama administration’s plan to require that all heath insurance plans, including those offered by most Catholic institutions, cover sterilisations and contraceptives, which are forbidden by Catholic moral teaching. The plan prompted Pope Benedict XVI and the papal nuncio to the US to issue public warnings of a threat to Americans’ religious freedom.

“There will be times where the position of the (Obama) administration differs, obviously, from the Holy See,” Hackett told the Catholic Review, Baltimore’s archdiocesan newspaper, last August. “But I am going to look for, as many of my predecessors did, those opportunities where we can come together and find strength in collaboration, coincidence of interests.”

Hackett first joined the CRS in 1972 after a post-college stint with the Peace Corps in Ghana. He retired as president of CRS in December 2011.

The new ambassador is also a former North American president of Caritas Internationalis, the confederation of humanitarian agencies of the Catholic Church, and a former member of the board of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum.

He said that he was looking forward to reconnecting in Rome with the sort of people he had befriended during his years in relief work: “holy people who are trying their best.”

“I missed that in the last year I’ve been retired. You don’t see those kind of people anymore, that bishop from Congo who has so many stories to tell at supper, of so much hardship,” he added. “I want to re-establish those relationships and use them to, basically, improve US policies.”