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Pope Francis has made nations sit up and pay attention

Pope Francis greets an ambassador to the Holy See in January (AP)

Monday February 11 2013: a quiet day was expected at the office. It was a Vatican holiday commemorating the 84th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Pacts in 1929 that established the Vatican City State. Pope Benedict was holding a consistory that morning to announce a decision on certain canonisations. The diplomatic corps would join him on Ash Wednesday, in two days time, for the start of Lent.

We were using the opportunity to run a training session in the embassy, teaching all staff about Twitter (for those who want to know we are @UKinHolySee). Studying the live Twitter feed, one of my colleagues suddenly exclaimed: “Oh, the Pope has resigned!”

“That can’t be right,” I said, from the next room. “Popes don’t resign.”

Then there was another tweet, followed by a third, followed by an avalanche of news around the world.

We have not touched the ground since. The British Embassy to the Holy See is one of the smaller embassies in our global network. We pride ourselves on giving the taxpayer real bang for the buck, managing the British relationship with one of the world’s great global networks on a tiny budget and with a small but dedicated staff. Even I have to admit, however, that we have been stretched over the last year. Yes, we were particularly busy during the six weeks between Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement and the inauguration of Pope Francis. Six thousand journalists descended on Rome and every announcement issuing from the papal spokesman Fr Lombardi was followed intently by half the world. What is clear, though, is that work levels have not gone back to the “normal” of pre-February 2013. That is one feature of “the Francis effect”.

I look back on a year notably short of quiet moments, and full of major steps, changes, announcements and initiatives that have had huge impact on the Holy See, the global Catholic Church and beyond. A few highlights. The creation of the council of eight cardinals to advise the Pope on Holy See governance and Vatican reform, alongside a range of other commissions and consultants, which has already led to powerful changes at the Institute for Religious Works (the so-called Vatican bank), Holy See economic structures and the announcement of a new “finance minister”, a prefect for economic affairs. Papal teaching including the extraordinary catechesis of the daily Santa Marta Masses, the “joint” encyclical with the Pope Emeritus, Lumen Fidei, positioning religion at the heart of contemporary culture, and the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, generating conversations and consternation from Wall Street to Davos.

Perhaps more palpably, we should mention physical acts and gestures. Pope Francis’s extraordinary visit to Brazil for World Youth Day, greeting those three million young people on Copacabana Beach. Or his very different visit to the tiny island of Lampedusa, celebrating Mass on an upturned fishing boat, and bringing the plight of the victims of human trafficking to the attention of governments around the world. The world sat up and took notice when the Pope offered a day of prayer for Syria following the cruel use of chemical weapons on civilians by the Syrian regime, as the international community considered how best to respond. It heard his call to listen to “the periphery” and followed attentively a journey that has included washing the feet of men and women in prison on Maunday Thursday, including Muslims, spending hours in the sunshine and rain with tens of thousands of people at the regular audiences at St Peter’s, but with a special focus and care for the ill and wheelchair-bound, or lunching with homeless people from the area of Rome around St Peter’s so he could listen to their concerns directly.

Inevitably, and rightly, there has been great interest from the British Government in what is going on. As an embassy we have set up encounters on tackling human trafficking, organised visits from senior officials on issues from the Middle East to climate change and the post-2015 international development agenda, and celebrated the nomination of an Englishman on Pope Francis’s first list of new cardinals. As Britain takes up the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, we have talked in depth to Holy See figures about Pope Francis’s relationship with Judaism, and discussed in Rome and London inter-religious and ecumenical dialogue in advance of the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land in May. The Prime Minister wrote to the Pope before the G8 Summit at Lough Erne and the Home Secretary has been in touch on modern slavery. Next month, Her Majesty The Queen will pay her fifth visit to Rome to meet a pope.

This interest is not coincidental. During an extraordinary first year Pope Francis has caught the imagination of young and old, Christians and non-believers, from those in power to the unemployed and disadvantaged. He uses simple language which everyone can understand, and startling images – “the smell of the sheep”, the Church as “field hospital” – which illustrate his message better than a thousand words. Politicians like to measure their impact in terms of numbers and focus groups. At 12 million followers on Twitter – and as the most re-tweeted world leader, reaching 60 million more – Pope Francis can do the numbers, too. I like to think, though, that what is crucial to the Pope’s impact is the authenticity of both man and message, a Jesuit to his core.

Benedict XVI flung wide open the doors to change by his unprecedented gesture on February 11 2013. His presence at the consistory Mass last month, warmly greeted by Pope Francis, served to show the close and respectful relationship between the Pope and his predecessor. This has been a special year at the Vatican, and for the global Catholic Church. It has been a privilege to have a front-row seat.

Nigel Baker is Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Holy See