April 21, 2014
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Profile: From Inside the Vatican

Business titan and political force Francis Rooney provides an up-close look at the papacy from his three years as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican.

Former Ambassador Francis Rooney with Pope Benedict at the Vatican.

Former Ambassador Francis Rooney with Pope Benedict at the Vatican.

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Naples resident Francis Rooney is not just the CEO of a major company doing business internationally. He’s also a top-tier donor to favored causes, including high-level politics. So when the idea of an ambassadorship was broached with him at an inaugural event for President George W. Bush, he thought a South American post might be in play.

It seemed logical: Rooney did business there, holds important seats on boards involving international relations and business, and is fluent in Spanish.

But Bush had something else in mind for the man who grew up in the Catholic Church and received a Jesuit education from Georgetown University and its law school.

“How about the Vatican?” asked a presidential staffer. And when the president tells you how you can best serve him and the nation, Rooney says, you don’t say no.

A year later, Rooney was in Rome, where he served as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican from 2005 to 2008 and maintained a daily journal with the idea of someday writing a book. That book, The Global Vatican, came out in October. In the works for three years, the 240-page volume examines the relationship between the Catholic Church and the U.S. since this country’s founding. The second half focuses on the last four decades—when the U.S. began serious diplomacy with the Vatican under President Ronald Reagan—and recounts Rooney’s involvement; the international events he saw unfold; and how America and the Vatican often coordinated efforts on mutual goals.

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One anecdote covers his attempt to set the date for his first official meeting with Pope Benedict in 2005. The event was the new ambassador’s credentialing ceremony, which a high-level Vatican official told Rooney would take place Nov. 12. Rooney wanted his three children there, and asked if the date could be changed to the Thanksgiving break, when they were free of school and work obligations.

The monsignor “gazed at me blankly, as if he did not quite understand what I was asking,” Rooney writes. “After a  few very quiet moments, (he said), ‘I understand, but Nov. 12 is the date available in the Holy Father’s agenda.’”

“Right. Got it,” Rooney responded. “Nov. 12 it is.”

“Lesson learned.”

Not only does the Holy Father’s schedule rule, but the Vatican sense of time in general also requires some adjustment for most Americans, Rooney says. Those who deal with the Vatican on issues must understand that the 1,800-year-old church views time in the context of centuries and millennia. “They do not feel pressure to move quickly the way an American might, especially one who has spent most of his life in business,” he says. “The Holy See is patient. They operate on principles, and those principles do not change, although their application may.”

 

A Power in Business

Rooney’s success in the construction industry is also long-lasting and legendary. He’s the fourth-generation leader of the family business, now serving as CEO of Rooney Holdings, a diversified investment company, and Manhattan Construction Group, a civil and building construction company. Structures including Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, Reliant Stadium in Houston, presidential libraries for both Bushes, the Oklahoma State Capitol Dome, the Cato Institute headquarters, the Prayer Tower at Oral Roberts University, hospitals, hotels and other government buildings were all built by his company.

Rooney grew up in Oklahoma, but his mother was from Pensacola and the family often vacationed throughout Florida. Around 2002, Rooney recalls, his family was on board their sailboat—Rooney is also a licensed captain—and spent time anchored in Naples. That sail through Gordon Pass was a game changer. Rooney found a lot overlooking the pass at the end of Port Royal, built a home there and became more involved with community and political causes.

Fred Pezeshkan, a Rooney neighbor, owned a construction company that Rooney acquired. They have a working relationship along with a friendship, and Pezeshkan says Rooney’s community involvement meshes with his business concern. “He has a passion for public service and he’s very aware of his heritage. His family is very important. He has a family company, he’s proud of that, and he wants to be sure everything is done to the highest level possible.”

Rooney’s work often took him to South America, and the family also spent time in Spain. Italy was less familiar ground, although the family had attended Christmas midnight mass at the Vatican years earlier. Once the ambassadorship was settled, Rooney embarked on a “crash course” for ambassadors that lasted roughly six months, involving church history, diplomatic procedures and related issues. His wife, Kathleen, also had weeks of classes designed for spouses. Senate confirmation was an “arduous” part of the process, Rooney says, but still friendly. Florida’s senators were extremely helpful, he recalls, as was Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, whom Rooney (who often supports conservative Republicans) describes as “very supportive and a strong Catholic.” Jim Towey, president of Ave Maria University, is in Rooney’s book in his role as director of President George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Towey now describes Rooney as “a humble, no-nonsense Catholic who tries to live his faith and isn’t showy about it.” He recalls Rooney’s hard work in the ambassadors’ prep classes, saying “he was so eager to learn the landscape so he could be most effective.” And he singles out Rooney’s success “keeping channels of communication open between the Vatican and White House during the difficult years of the Iraq war,” especially challenging in the second war when some Vatican leaders disagreed with U.S. tactics.

“Rooney is a smart guy, and his word is gold,” Towey says. “He doesn’t grandstand, and that all makes him very effective.”

 

Life as an Ambassador

Rooney still had some things to learn upon his arrival in Rome. His staff in Italy presented the former CEO with new personnel issues. The ambassador can’t hire and fire, nor change their pay. “I had to build bridges and relationships to find ways to incentivize them,” he says. “It was very different from a business.”

So was his intense and ever-present security, which Rooney says “took some getting used to. Actually, I don’t know that I ever got used to it. I always had guards with me. I understand the concerns, but that kind of security is really a deprivation of liberty.”

Rooney’s days were filled with meetings as well as some events that may appear social, but had serious intent. An ambassador’s work depends on relationships, Rooney says, and developing and maintaining such relationships takes time and work. “Nowhere do personal relationships mean more than in the Vatican,” he says. His most official work was usually with the Vatican’s Secretary of State; one-on-one meetings with the Pope were relatively rare.

While the Vatican is obviously different from a nation, the church and the U.S. share many of the same concerns, including basic human rights, human trafficking, hunger, corruption, poverty and disease, Rooney says. “Soft power,” or the power of relationships, people skills and persuasion, is a key force for the Vatican, he says, and often deployed in tandem with U.S. efforts for mutual benefit.

Pope Benedict held the papacy during Rooney’s time as ambassador, and Rooney describes him as “complicated,” a true intellectual who rejected sound bites, developed complex speeches and positions, and suffered from remarks taken out of context.

Benedict’s resignation was a surprise in that such an event had not happened for hundreds of years, Rooney says, but not so surprising on a personal level. “He was feeble when he became pope, and he deteriorated over the years,” Rooney says. “The job is about service; it’s demanding. … Between his humility and his determination to serve, it’s not so surprising” that he stepped down when unable to perform at his highest level.

Rooney saw some of his written communications that he expected to stay classified be exposed in the “WikiLeaks” controversy. Some deserved to be open, he says, such as the church’s concern about growing secularism in Western Europe.

The real damage, he says, came in erosion of trust. “A lot of what we do requires some element of confidentiality and trust that will be maintained,” he says. “Gathering useful information requires a bond, and confidence that things you say are confidential will remain that way.”

In 2008, with President Bush’s second term coming to an end, Rooney decided it was time to return home. His children visited often, “but three years is enough,” says Rooney, who’s 59. “It was time to come back home and get back to business.”

And to work on his book.

At least two-thirds of the three years it took was for research, Rooney says, growing especially animated when he describes working in the Vatican Archives, a limited-access treasure trove of ancient documents, books and objects. Rooney used in the book many original letters and documents from America’s founders that dealt with church-country relationships, such as a letter from Jefferson Davis to the Pope.

Rooney’s inclination was to approach the book much as he would write a law school paper, but he says he had good editors and advisers who helped him find different tacks that could attract a broader audience. Time for writing was squeezed in around work and family commitments.

He’s also keenly interested in watching the new Pope Francis. With his “new world” attitudes and communication style, Rooney says, Francis may increase understanding of the Vatican’s “fundamental diplomatic message of protection of essential human dignity and the natural rights of man, and safeguard religious freedom in the world.”

Jim Towey enjoys watching them both. “I love that we have a Pope Francis, because Francis Rooney is so much in his mold,” Towey says. “They’re both pro-life, devoted to helping the poor, and demonstrate the attitude of the humble servant.”

 

*

 

The Papacy in Action

Rooney’s book, The Global Vatican, examines his time as ambassador to the Holy See, and major world events involving U.S. and Vatican interests and involvement. He writes about many events in depth; a brief look at some includes:

• One of the first tests of recent U.S.-Vatican relationships came in 1989, during “Operation Just Cause,” the U.S. invasion of Panama, when Manuel Noriega received asylum in papal facilities in Panama City. The papal representative believed admitting Noriega would prevent bloodshed in the streets, and asylum fit church policy and diplomatic norms. The U.S. believed Noriega did not qualify for asylum. Efforts to extract him included playing heavy-metal rock music at high volumes—also heard by diplomatic staff, which some U.S. officials later said was regrettable. Papal officials on the scene did not yield to U.S. demands, but tried to persuade Noriega to leave, including making threats to move out themselves and take immunity with them. Ten days later Noriega gave himself up with no shots fired.

• When the U.S. launched “Operation Desert Storm,” to get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, the Vatican deplored Hussein’s tactics but also opposed military action against him. Nevertheless, the first Iraq war lasted six weeks, until Saddam agreed to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. The pope’s pleas to avoid war were ignored, but the Vatican moved quickly to back U.S.-initiated post-war peace efforts. Rooney quotes an earlier Vatican ambassador saying that while the U.S. and Vatican disagreed over how to best resolve the crisis, “there were no hurt feelings as each power appreciated the other’s commitment” to a peaceful world.

• In the summer of 2006, war broke out in Lebanon after Hezbollah attacked Israelis and Israel retaliated forcefully. The church condemned Hezbollah, but also blamed Israel for its response, which was considered disproportionate and dangerous to civilians. Central to the church’s worries was that Lebanon has a large Christian community, and had been a good example of religious freedom in the Middle East. The church feared war would disrupt the status quo, and urged the U.S. to push Israel for a ceasefire. The U.S., meanwhile, pressed the Vatican to urge its Lebanese leaders to unite with fellow Christians in defiance of Hezbollah.

• Relations between the Catholic Church and China are complex; positions of both are seemingly intractable. China is determined to control the church inside its borders, and the church is determined to maintain final authority on all church matters everywhere. Yet the two have managed to find some compromises: The church has tacitly accepted some government-appointed bishops; the Chinese have ignored the underground church as long as worship is discreet. Though Catholics are a tiny fraction of the country’s population, it’s likely to grow and the Vatican wants to be there when the time comes for more religious freedom.

• The Holy See is as concerned as the U.S. about growing threats of terrorism, although the two sometimes disagree on how to deal with it. The Vatican had protested the Iraq invasion in 2003; the conflict was two years old when Rooney was named ambassador to the Vatican. At Rooney’s arrival in Rome, during his introductory credentialing meeting with Pope Benedict, he was prepared to defend U.S. actions in Iraq. He reports surprise at the Pope’s reaction, as the Pope told him to speak no more about Iraq. “Iraq is past history. Let’s talk of the future.” The Pope intended to focus Vatican energies on bringing stability and reducing conflict in the country.

—BP

 

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