Holy See, The country brief


The Holy See is the central government of the Catholic Church. The Vatican City State was established by treaty in 1929, thus providing the Holy See with a small territorial base and consequent recognition as an independent sovereign entity in international law. The Holy See and the Catholic Church are invested with separate international juristic status, but it is the Holy See which acts as the supreme organ of government of the Church. The Hague Convention of 1954 protects all Vatican territory as world cultural heritage.

Under the terms of the Apostolic Constitution (Pastor Bonus) of 1988, the Pope is assisted in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office by the Roman Curia, a complex of dicasteries (ie ministries) and institutes. The dicasteries include the Secretariat of State, Congregations, Tribunals, Councils and Offices, namely the Apostolic Camera, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. It has offices which deal with virtually all matters concerning the central government of the Church, from political questions and diplomacy to the liturgy and appointment of bishops. The Secretariat of State is presided over by the Cardinal Secretary of State (currently His Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Archbishop Pietro Parolin will take up this role in mid-October). It administers both the 'General Affairs' Section of the Holy See as well as its 'Relations with States' Section, the latter under the direction of its own Secretary, in effect the Vatican Foreign Minister (currently His Excellency Archbishop Dominique Mamberti).

The Holy See conducts diplomatic relations through its Secretariat of State and a network of diplomatic posts (known as Nunciatures), and maintains formal diplomatic relations with 176 countries. The Holy See has a unique role and standing in international affairs, and plays an important role in a number of multilateral fora. It is a party to a number of international instruments (including a series of international human rights treaties) and enjoys membership of various United Nations subsidiary bodies, specialised agencies and international intergovernmental organisations. The Holy See became a Permanent Observer State at the UN in 1964. It gained full membership rights, except for voting (including in UN Security Council elections) in 2004. It is active in UN debates, in particular on social and humanitarian issues.

Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope (His Holiness Pope Francis I) in March 2013, following the resignation of His Holiness now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in February 2013. The Holy See's National Day is fixed by tradition to coincide with the commencement of the Pontificate of the current Pope.

Bilateral relationship

2013 marked 40 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and the Holy See (2014 will mark the centenary of the establishment of the Apostolic Delegation in Australia [Sydney]). From the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1973, Australia had maintained a non-resident Head of Mission, based in another European capital, as well as an office at the Holy See, headed by a Counsellor. The Holy See has maintained an Apostolic Nunciature in Canberra since 1973.

On 21 July 2008, the Government announced Australia would for the first time appoint a resident Ambassador to the Holy See – the Hon Tim Fischer AC. The appointment marked a significant deepening of Australia's relations with the Vatican. It has allowed Australia to expand dialogue with the Vatican in areas including human rights, political and religious freedom, inter-faith dialogue, food security, arms control, refugees and anti-people trafficking, and climate change. Mr Fischer commenced his appointment on 30 January 2009 and presented credentials to Pope Benedict on 12 February 2009.

In April 2012 the Government announced the appointment of Mr John McCarthy QC to replace Tim Fischer. Mr McCarthy arrived in Italy on 28 August 2012 and presented credentials to His Holiness now Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI on 5 November 2012. One of his first activities was to arrange a Memorial Mass for the victims and families of the 2002 Bali bombings.

His Holiness now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI opened the Australian Catholic Church's new pilgrimage centre in Rome, Domus Australia, on 20 October 2011.

Canonisation of Blessed Mary MacKillop

On 17 October 2010 Mary MacKillop was canonised as Saint Mary of the Cross, creating Australia's first Saint. The ceremony took place in St Peter's Square in Vatican City and was presided over by Pope Benedict. Mr Rudd (as Minister for Foreign Affairs) was the senior Australian Government representative at the canonisation, and was accompanied by a bi-partisan delegation of Australian Parliamentarians, including then-Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Julie Bishop MP.

It is estimated that some 10,000 other Australians attended the canonisation. Mr Rudd, accompanied by the delegation, attended a Vigil presenting Mary's life in song, drama, prayer and liturgy, and a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Australia’s Cardinal Pell. Mr Rudd also opened the "Rituals of Life" exhibition and officiated at the opening of the new chancery of the Australian Embassy to the Holy See.

High-level contact

Minister for Education the Hon Christopher Pyne MP represented the Government at the canonisations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in April 2014. Mr Pyne met Pope Francis after the ceremony, and had a bilateral meeting with Secretary for Relations with States (Foreign Minister) HE Archbishop Dominique Mamberti. Then President of the Senate, former Senator the Hon John Hogg, also attended the canonisations.

Former Governor-General the Hon Sir William Deane AC KBE, attended the Investiture Mass for His Holiness Pope Frances I in March 2013.

Mr Rudd (as Minister for Foreign Affairs) met Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States (equivalent Foreign Minister), on 9 December 2011 at the Holy See as part of a broader visit to Italy and Libya.

The Governor-General, HE Ms Quentin Bryce AC, visited the Holy See on 1 June 2011, and had an audience with Pope Benedict and met with Holy See Secretary of State (Prime Minister equivalent) Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

His Holiness now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI visited Australia 13-21 July 2008 for World Youth Day, hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

Three Popes have visited Australia – Paul VI undertook the first ever Papal visit in 1970; John-Paul II visited twice, in 1986 and 1995 (when he beatified Mary MacKillop); and Benedict XVI visited in 2008 for World Youth Day (Sydney). 

World Youth Day

World Youth Day (WYD) was initiated in 1984 by Pope John Paul II. The week-long event is held every 2-3 years. WYD 2008 was held in Sydney 15-20 July 2008 and was a significant event for Australia. Several hundred thousand people participated in WYD activities, including international pilgrims from over 170 nations. Two thousand media were accredited for WYD and WYD events were watched live by an estimated international TV audience of more than a hundred million and an internet audience of roughly equal size.

Last Updated: 4 August 2014