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Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of UK in Holy See

3rd January 2014

Christmas and New Year at the Vatican

The following is a guest blog by Steve Townsend, Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy to the Holy See.

Deputy Head of Mission Steve Townsend greets Pope Francis at the end of a Papal ceremony, November 2013.

This has been my first Christmas and New Year at the Holy See. With services at St Peter’s Basilica on both Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, and the Urbi et Orbi message on Christmas Day, as well as the Angelus on 23 and 29 December (the Feast of the Holy Family) and on New Year’s Day, there have been a large number of occasions for Pope Francis to address the faithful. Christmas has a special meaning for the Pontiff – his birthday is on 22 December, and he was christened on Christmas Day.

It is interesting comparing the various styles of the services over the period. The Christmas Eve Mass (televised by CNN – great publicity for the Catholic Church) and the New Year’s Day Mass were both solemn and formal, with serried ranks of cardinals and bishops, and the diplomatic corps in full uniform.

There was weight of ceremony in the services, with the liturgy and the music giving the sense of occasion and the dignity of tradition. Contrast them with the audiences for the Angelus and the General Audiences: these are informal, with much cheering and waving flags, with much of the sense of ceremony being submerged by the enthusiasm of the crowds. There are usually youth and school groups, trying to out-do each other in their celebration of the event.

All these events attracted large numbers. St Peter’s Basilica was packed on both occasions. The crowds for the General Audiences are usually well over the 100,000 mark, and it is estimated that over 6 million have attended Papal events in the Vatican in the nine months since Pope Francis was elected.

The audiences were mixed – there were the young and enthusiastic in the Basilica, and pilgrims of all ages and backgrounds in St Peter’s Square. This mixture of vibrancy and grounding is important. Any organisation, whether it is a religion, an institution or a large company, needs its sense of tradition and core values – what they stand for. Yet at the same time, it also needs the enthusiasm to drive itself forward, to face challenges as yet unforeseen.

2013 was a momentous year for the Holy See. Everything suggests that 2014 will definitely not be a boring one. There are many challenges, both external and internal, facing the Catholic Church and Pope Francis. It will be fascinating, and a privilege, to see how the story unfolds over the next twelve months.

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About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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