A very intensive 24 hours this week saw the strongest ever delegation of ministers from the United Kingdom – 7 in total, including 4 Cabinet Ministers – paying an official visit to the Holy See.
As Baroness Warsi, the leader of the delegation, noted in her speech at the official dinner hosted by Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone on 14 February, some might misinterpret the fact that the visit was taking place on St Valentine’s Day!As it was, the visit had little to do with sentiment (though the delegation was delighted to be here) and more to do with the hard reality of our global interests and the way we can and should interact through our extensive global networks.
That was very much the theme of a full morning of talks in the Secretariat of State on 15 February. Not surprisingly, and as the joint communiqué published afterwards attests, we found that there is a broad agenda of work to conduct together. From climate change to tackling small arms and conventional weapons proliferation, from our common concern over the situation in the Horn of Africa (we discussed our aspirations for the London Somalia Conference on 23 February), to sharing analysis of the Middle East, there was a great deal to talk about.
We also discussed more domestic issues – the positive role that the Catholic Church, alongside other faith communities, can play in Northern Ireland, or the engagement of faith communities in the government’s Big Society programme (for example through encouraging voluntarism or work in education) in Scotland, England and Wales.
We want to explore how we can strengthen our contacts between British embassies and Apostolic Nunciaturas in third countries, and ensure a greater flow of official visits at other levels between London and Rome, maintaining the rhythm of our conversations across the spectrum of our bilateral engagement.
During the delegation’s audience with Pope Benedict XVI, Baroness Warsi delivered a message from The Queen in which Her Majesty expressed her pleasure that the visit was building in a concrete way on His Holiness’s successful State Visit to Britain in 2010. There is certainly plenty for me and my small team to do.