The term "Holy See" is frequently found in the language of International Law and of International Relations. The term comes from the Latin name Sancta Sedes, meaning Holy Chair, and refers to the "seat" or "chair" or "Office-See" of Saint Peter.

As a result, the Popes, who are the successors of Saint Peter, occupy this seat or chair in their office of Bishops of Rome. The term "Holy See" refers also to the set of Entities and Institutions through which the Pope and the Roman Curia act as the Central Body of the Catholic Church government. Therefore, this term is not a synonym of Rome, Vatican or the City State of Vatican.

The Holy See has a small territorial base,which serves principally in allowing it freedom of action throughout the entire world. The geographical territory is called the Vatican City State. This small state was constituted by virtue of the Lateran Pacts (the Lateran Treaty), signed on the 11th of February 1929, between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See. The Vatican City State was thus a new Subject of International Law, which succeeded that, totally different, of the ancient "Papal States" or "States of the Church" which were ruled over by the Popes from the 8th century until 20 September 1870, when Rome was conquered by the Kingdom of Italy.

Many departments or, as they are otherwise known, Dicasteries, of the Roman Curia are situated in Rome, outside the Vatican City State. The population of the Vatican is very low, with its citizens numbering but a few hundred, and who have as their reference the Governorate of the Vatican City State. In 2016, the members of the Catholic Church numbered 1 282 000 000 (just over 1.28 billion). They are present in every country throughout the world and they recognize the Pope as the Head of the Catholic Church.  It is for this reason that the term "Holy See" cannot be limited to a restricted geographic area. The Holy See is a unique entity in the context of Subjects of International law. The Holy See enjoys an international legal personality, similar to that of any individual State.  It exists as a Sovereign Entity, comparable to a State, though one which surpasses its territorial possessions. It is an International Entity, as it is present in all States, therefore, it is Universal.

From its foundation, the Holy See has also been involved in Diplomatic Activities.  It is a natural question to ask why the Successor of Saint Peter, the Pope Bishop of Rome, has a need to have Diplomatic Relations with Sates and International Organizations. It is well known that, ever since its origin, the Holy See has exercised the Right of Legation. The Emissaries (Legates) of the Pope were initially called Apocrisari or Pontifical Legates. In the 4th century, Pope Julius I sent his Apocrisari to Serdica (as we know, now it is Sofia), capital of the Dacia and Thrace Provinces, in order to collaborate with the emissaries of the Byzantine emperors Costante I and Costanzo, in the preparation of the Council of Serdica (343-344) – a council at which Pope JuliusI himself participated.

The first Pontifical Legates to the Territory of Bulgaria were sent by Pope Nicholas I to the King of Bulgarians Boris. Their names were Formosus, Archbishop of Porto and Santa Rufina, (who later was elected Pope Formosus, on 6 October 891) and Paul, Archbishop of Populonia, and their mission spanned the years 866 - 867. Following the conversion by the Bulgarian People to Christianity, they initiated the construction of the first Bulgarian church, the Great Basilica of Pliska.

With the creation of National States in Europe, during the XV century, the Pope began to send his representatives to them.  It was at this time that they began to be called Apostolic Nuncios. The Apostolic Nuncios were, as they are still to this day, accredited to a State. If, however, a representative of the Pope is sent to a local church, he is given the title Apostolic Visitor or Apostolic Delegate. In 1925, the Holy See sent Monsignor Angelo Roncalli as the Apostolic Visitor to the Kingdom of Bulgaria, and from 1931 – 1934, he served as Apostolic Delegate.  As noted, he was elected Pope in 1958, with the name John XXIII.  

As you can see from this brief historical digression, the Diplomacy of the Holy See is one of the oldest in the world. It has continued, without interruption, up to this present day, even changing its way of acting along the way, in conformity with the changes of the historic situations.

What is the mission of the Holy See, of the Pontifical Diplomacy, and therefore of the Apostolic Nuncios in the world?

Principally, to promote moral values (they are apolitical, and represent neither economic or military forces) in the context of International Relations, to sustain the search for peace and socio-economic well-being; to be a reminder of the existence of superior values; to defend certain pillars that are at the base of every civil society: for instance, the protection of life, family, the environment.

Secondly, the Holy See, by virtue of the Apostolic Nuncios, in unison with the local Bishops, foster relations between the Church and the State, and, in addition, foster relations with other Churches or religious beliefs present in any particular Nation.

Naturally, all of this implies the principal task of those who exercise Pontifical Diplomacy, that is, to nurture harmonic relations between the Holy See and the local Church in a defined location; between the Pope, the successor of Apostle Peter and Bishop of Rome, and the Bishops of each of the world’s nations, who are the successors of the Apostles.


1. Vatican – Holy See – Vatican City State

The name Vatican encompasses two very different concepts. Firstly, the Vatican City State, that is an authentic state but of a minuscule political reality, having only the function to guarantee the independence of the Pope, as the supreme Authority of the Catholic Church from any civil power. The Vatican City State has its own administration. It is the "Holy See", that is the Pope, and the Roman Curia, as the supreme Authority of the Catholic Church, that is commonly called,though incorrectly, the Vatican because it operates in the Vatican City State. However, the Holy See is not above all a civil governing body, and therefore has not primarily political functions.

Following on from what has been outlined above, it is not surprising that when we speak of Vatican Relations with other States, some people confuse the two different subjects: the Vatican City State, which has relations limited to its modest entities, and which are directed primarily towards Italy, and also with several International Organizations regarding, for example, postal services and telecommunications; and the Holy See, which has a vast network of Embassies (technically known as Apostolic Nunciatures).  Unlike other Embassies, however, the Embassies of the Holy See do not primarily follow political, defense or economic matters, but rather questions regarding the freedom of the Church and human rights. Moreover, the Holy See intervenes everywhere to guarantee the juridical status of the Church.  

2. Religion and Politics

According to the doctrine of the Church, there is a distinction, which cannot be overlooked: that is, the distinction between religion and politics. Politics is concerned primarily, and above all,with the safety, freedom – in particular the freedom of religion – and the social well-being of all people, independently of the religion that they profess. Religion relates principally to the relationship of every person, and groups or community of believers, with God or Superior Spiritual Entities. Religion implies that the person adheres to the consequences of his interpersonal and social relations. Therefore, politics directly influences the community; whereas religion, on the other hand, influences the community indirectly.

In some countries, where Catholics and Christians are in the majority, there is an example of the separation of politics from religion: despite the firm opposition of the Church, it sometimes occurs that the political forces take positions, which the Church considers profoundly different to natural law, to the well-being of the human being and the common good. The Church, however, does not try in any way to impose any civil law, which is not acceded to by thosesame political forces.

3. The diplomacy: the art of rendering the impossible possible

With the Peace of Augsburg, promulgated in 1555, the principle cuiusregio, eiusreligio,literally meaning: whose realm, his religion was established, ie, the religion of the person that inhabits a region is that of the King of the region.  In other words, the religion of the person became linked to the will of the King. Therefore, religion became embroiled in the conflicts as demanded by the King.

The Peace of Westphalia marked the ending of the Thirty Years’ war. This interminable and bloody war was a peculiar conflict, which was also the continuation to a great degree of the Religious wars that shook Europe in the XVI century. Subsequently, the religious conflict was resolved, but it was substituted by a conflict between rival States of that time. Alongside the Empires, modern states boundaries were reformed, including France, together with Sweden.

In our present day epoch, which began after the Second World War, we may wonder what is the actual role played by religions. It is an extremely topical question, given that the vast majority of terrorist attacks refer to alleged religious motives.

So we ask, can diplomacy still be influenced by the religious needs in International Relations, when terrorist groups make bloody and distorted use of them? Above all, diplomacy must defend the fundamental right of religious freedom, sanctioned by  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (1948), promoting the necessary actions to be accepted by the internal set of rules of each State, ensuring that individuals have the freedom to manifest or change their proper Religious creed.

Secondly, as with Religion, so also Diplomacy must promote the attainment of peace, repudiating the use of arms as a solution to conflicts… diplomacy has been defined as "the art of rendering the impossible possible". This can be achieved by means of negotiations, as Saint Augustine wrote: "Kill war by words of negotiations, and do not kill men by the sword".

A third element that unites all religions, and that is an ever more current task of diplomacy, is to work to protect creation, that is the space in which we are born and live, and therefore, the protection of the rights of human beings. It is the theme of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’.

Fourthly, diplomacy, in order to safeguard the peace, is committed to observing International Treaties along, with the obligations arising from such Treaties. This does not exclude the need for a juridical reflection on how to change these Treaties, in the light of the changing situations and existing International Law.

To conclude: Humanity has traced a long path from the signing of the Peace of Westphalia to the present day, and has been involved in epochal changes and conflicts, which have led to the deaths of millions of people.

Religions, that have so often been the basis of these bloody conflicts, are today, more than ever, called to become instruments of peace and understanding.


⃰ The report was made by H. E. Mgr. Archbishop Anselmo Guido Pecorari, Head of Mission, Apostolic Nuncio, during the presentation of the book Bulgaria and the Holy Throne. Celebration of the 25th Anniversary of Diplomatic Relations in Sofia (2016) on 9 November 2017 at the International Center of UniCredit Bulbank in Sofia.

 The text was made available for publication by the Embassy of the Holy See in the Republic of Bulgaria.

On the photo above: H. E. Mgr. Archbishop Anselmo Guido Pecorari, Head of Mission, Apostolic Nuncio