Luis Ritto was from 2006 to 2011 the ambassador of the European Union to the Holy See. Today, he is the professor emeritus of the International School for Protocol and Diplomacy (ISPD) in Brussels, Belgium.

Ritto kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Novena. His answers are important in the context of the forthcoming speech of Pope Francis at the UN General Assembly in September and of the pontiff’s forthcoming third encyclical.

You were ambassador of the European Union to the Holy See. How do you see the diplomacy there in the Vatican? What are the differences and similarities compared to other diplomatic missions?

Since medieval times the episcopal see of Rome has been recognised as a sovereign entity. The Holy See therefore has long been accepted as a subject of international law and an active participant in international relations with the capacity to appoint and receive diplomats.

The Holy See started establishing diplomatic relations with sovereign states in the 15th century and at the same time developed its own protocol services from there.

They are consequently one of the oldest in the world and recognised as being very professional and efficient.

It is widely recognised that the role of the Holy See in contemporary diplomacy is huge and indispensable to human progress and world peace.

The Holy See currently has diplomatic relations with 183 sovereign states and in addition to the European Union (EU).

As a subject of international law, the Holy See appoints its own diplomats (called apostolic nuncios) to third countries and international organisations and receives diplomats that are accredited to it. Besides, the Holy Father receives regularly in Rome the official visits of numerous Heads of State and Government. The services responsible for organising such visits as well as the protocol and diplomatic affairs are headed by the Cardinal Secretary of State.

As the first EU Ambassador to the Holy See, I had the possibility to see how the diplomatic and protocol services of that entity operate. The best practices are followed by them and everything is done according to tradition, in a competent and efficient way.

It is no wonder therefore that many diplomatic and protocol services around the world try to follow (and sometimes copy) what is done in Rome by the Holy See, namely in protocol terms.

It is certainly the best diplomatic protocol that I know of in the world.

This being so, when I lecture diplomatic protocol to my students in Brussels, I make a point to start with the protocol practices of the Holy See. With photos and images to assist me, I show them how that protocol works.

With a few exceptions, the protocol used in Rome is similar to the diplomatic protocol followed by a large majority of countries in the world. Especially in the Western world, protocol procedures are largely drawn from the ones of the Holy See. This is something the Holy See is certainly proud of.

It seems the COVID-19 pandemic has put protocol and diplomacy aside. Although, it might be the opposite: that the post-COVID world will need more diplomacy to overcome tensions and the increased competition for funds.

What is your opinion on the role of protocol and diplomacy in adverse situations like this?

The COVID pandemic has not put diplomacy and protocol aside. Diplomacy is the practice of international relations and protocol is its main tool. Diplomacy exists since time immemorial: diplomats and envoys have weathered all types of crisis, wars and shifting world orders for a very long time now and they know therefore how to act in times of pandemics.

And that is exactly what happened. Diplomats are resilient people and diplomacy is consequently also resilient. They quickly adapted to the new reality brought about by the COVID pandemic in order to continue doing their work. Otherwise the world would have fallen into complete chaos.

Diplomats played an important role during the current pandemic in helping fellow citizens abroad. As the virus migrated from country to country, thousands of people found themselves stranded in foreign countries and airports, often without the means to return home.

Embassies and consulates provided citizens with information, funds and organised charter flights to repatriate them. Diplomats were also instrumental in exchanging information between governments on border closures, quarantine guidelines and new entry policies.

Besides, and in order to allow the work of diplomacy to go on, during the current pandemic different forms of digital diplomacy were employed by diplomats. Online video-conferences became an important part of everyday work of foreign ministries, diplomatic missions and international conferences.

Diplomacy is therefore much alive and recommends itself.

In September, Pope Francis will speak at the UN on new socio-economic models after the pandemic. Most likely his address will focus on the principles of integral ecology, inclusive capitalism and the Church’s social doctrine.

How do you see the socio-economics of the post-COVID world? What changes do we have to implement to live sustainably and to avoid catastrophes?

Much has been said already about the future world, of the world after the COVID pandemic. However, we still do not know when this epidemic is going to be over and what the world will look like by then.

The main wish of people is that the world of tomorrow be based on peace and security and people-to-people cooperation. A world therefore of solidarity between people and free from poverty and wars.

These are Christian values, which have been championed for centuries and that have now a better chance to be developed.

Other areas which will certainly attract more attention are: better public health services, scientific development, education and cultural development, green development and international cooperation.

All of them, if taken seriously, can lead to a better world, to a more social world.

More on Novena on Holy See diplomacy:

Holy See pleads at UN: “It is impossible to make a moral case for continued nuclear weapon testing”

Pope to address UN on need for new socio-economic models post-pandemic

Holy See “indignant” over discrepancy between 25 million victims of human trafficking and 12,000 prosecuted worldwide for crime

Vatican diplomat denounces world “not on track” to reach Sustainable Development Goal of ‘zero hunger’


Angele Bucyte is a European economist and professor who has worked for a number of universities and public institutions such as the European Commission and the European Parliament in Brussels. She is a practicing Catholic who collaborates closely with the religious communities in Brussels, including COMECE, the Jesuit European Social Centre and the Chapel for Europe.