Archive image of Pope Francis receiving George Johannes, South African Ambassador to the Holy See 

By Linda Bordoni

Feb 9 2021

South Africa’s Ambassador to the Holy See shares his impressions of the Pope’s annual audience with the diplomatic corps in the Vatican.

Known as the Pope’s “State of the World” address, the annual papal meeting with ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, is a privileged occasion for the diplomats to hear, first-hand, what the Holy Father’s thoughts are regarding their particular parts of the world and his aspirations for the year to come.

The long and complex discourse typically paints a fresco of the current state of world affairs, highlighting areas of crisis, war, suffering and need, while encouraging and guiding action and diplomacy for peace and development.

Even if you weren’t in the “Aula delle Benedizioni” for Pope Francis’ address on 8 February 2021 to the diplomatic corps, you wouldn’t need a crystal ball to guess that the covid-19 pandemic and its far-reaching effects would be dramatically present in many of his considerations.  

This was confirmed to me shortly after the audience with the diplomats by George Johannes, Ambassador of South Africa to the Holy See, who told me that although Pope Francis touched on many painful and even tragic issues, he came away from the audience feeling energized and comforted, encouraged to look ahead and see the light at the end of the tunnel:

“This is one of the best speeches that I’ve heard for a very long time,” said Ambassador Johannes, “because it was very comprehensive and it brought together so many different themes, and what was key was our inter-connectedness.”


The ambassador said that, in line with Pope Francis’ many exhortations to never forget we are “One Human Family” and that we must care for “Our Common Home”, the Pope eloquently highlighted how in the past years there has been a tendency to “build walls”, to “isolate each other” and pursue selfish interests, while the covid-19 pandemic has forced us to realise that we are all inter-connected and that no one is saved alone.

“What interested me a lot,” he said, “was that he clearly outlined the position of the Holy See on international economic and political relations,” and what made me very happy was that he outlined clearly the spirit of sharing and dialogue.”

Ambassador Johannes said Pope Francis spoke at length about the setting up of the Vatican’s Covid-19 commission that, he explained, goes well beyond the health issues of the pandemic: “It’s focusing on welfare rights and on the fact that more and more people are actually on the streets, that more and more people are poor, are having serious social and political problems in their lives.”

What really struck him, Ambassador Johannes told me, was that the Pope went to great lengths to highlight how prior to the pandemic “everything was selfishness,” and subjected to a “culture of waste” while the pandemic has reminded us of the value of human existence.

Covid reminded us about the value of life

“Covid confronted us to look at the two unavoidable dimensions of human existence: sickness and death” and reminded us about the value of life.

This he said, led him to talk about other pandemics: the pandemics of war and exclusion and of the need to look to the call of the poor and the marginalized and of how impellent it is for us to restructure society.

Paradoxically, he agreed, the Pope is saying that although the pandemic, the virus, has pushed us apart because of health precautions, it has forced us to take stock of our inter-connectedness: “he was talking about the world being fragile and he also mentioned this issue in terms of climate change, and the problems that we have in Africa.”

Ambassador Johannes said the Pope’s speech spanned the continents with more than a mention of the critical situations in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, South Sudan, the Korean Peninsula, the Holy Land, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, where he hopes to visit very soon.

The Pope’s Copernicum revolution

“What is interesting he says there is a need for a new Copernican revolution,” for turning the economy upside down and creating a new kind of economy, “one that brings life not death! Pope Francis – Johannes reiterated – really was my man today!”  

The twelve-page long speech included references and reflections on religious freedom, terrorism, the importance of interreligious dialogue and the fundamental need for dialogue and mutual understanding, the ambassador said, and it concluded with a reference to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in which man is led from pain and suffering into a condition of bliss.

One rather beautiful and touching part of his discourse, Ambassador Johannes noted, pertained to Italy when the Pope expressed his appreciation for how Italians, who were the first in Europe to have to deal with the grave effects of the pandemic, never lost heart.

The Pope, he said, revealed that he “urged them build a society in which no one is discarded or forgotten” reiterating that “2021 is a time that must not be wasted.”

A vision in which society is based on fairness

“This resonates with me personally,” the ambassador said, “because my vision is very much of a society which is non-capitalist based, but a society which is based on fairness and human capitalism where we share each other’s strengths, resources, good will, etc.”

“I see me and Pope Francis being on the same wave-line,” Ambassador Johannes concluded: “and that is why I came out of the audience feeling good, feeling energized, and happy also to see how well he looked! One can only say ‘long may he live’ and ‘long may he go on’  because we really need him!” – Vatican News