First Hispanic to represent U.S. at Vatican

Miguel H. Díaz is first Hispanic to represent U.S. at Vatican
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES, Miami Herald

ROME -- Deep in the heart of Vatican City, Cuban-born Roman Catholic theologian Miguel H. Díaz has managed to find an Italian version of a sandwich that reminds him of home: pan con lechón.

“They're Italian pork sandwiches but very, very close to pan con lechón,'' said the Miami-raised university professor who was plucked out of academia by President Barack Obama for one of the most sought-after jobs in the U.S. diplomatic corps: U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

“The woman has just adopted the family,'' he chuckled. “We've gone in there several times, and she's like `L'ambasciatore Americano.' She knows exactly what I like.''

Since his official arrival in this historic city last month, Díaz, 46, has been seeking out the familiar while soaking in his new surroundings, from patronizing the shop that makes his favorite sandwich to hobnobbing with Catholic bishops and cardinals to sifting through endless invitations from curious Italians wanting to meet the man chosen to carry out U.S. foreign policy at the Vatican.

“There is so much hospitality accompanied by wonderful friendship and food that it's a wonderful challenge to have,'' Díaz told The Miami Herald in his first interview with a U.S. publication since arriving in the Italian capital.

But it's not all cocktail parties. Díaz will be working to shape policy on issues where the church and Obama administration share common goals: poverty, world hunger, human trafficking, the Middle East, HIV/AIDS, terrorism and the environment.

What he won't be doing: focusing on abortion or domestic problems confronting the Catholic Church, such as gay rights and the ordination of women priests.

“I am not here as a representative of the U.S. church nor a particular group, however noble that cause may be,'' he said. “I am here as a diplomat, as a representative of the U.S. government.''

An alumnus of Miami Coral Park High and St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens, Díaz is an academic religious thinker who has made history as the first Hispanic appointed to this ambassadorship. The United States and the Holy See -- the ancient central government of the Roman Catholic Church -- established full diplomatic relations in 1984.

One of three top U.S. diplomatic posts in Italy -- there is an ambassador to Italy and another assigned to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations -- this is considered a prized appointment that often goes to someone close to the president. Díaz was among several Catholic religious advisors to Obama during his presidential campaign.

“Once an opportunity like this comes around, you can't really say ‘No' to something like this,'' he said.

Those who know Díaz said he's more than capable of fulfilling his new role.

“He's very gifted in many ways,'' said the Rev. Steven O'Hala, academic dean at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, where Díaz worked from 1998 to 2003. He was academic dean for two years before leaving for an associate professorship at Barry University in Miami Shores.

“He's able to relate to many different kinds of people even though he's a theologian by trade,'' O'Hala said. “He's the kind of person who can easily relate to just about anybody.''

Díaz attributes the talent to his Miami experiences and humble roots as the child of Cuban immigrants.

“Since the beginning of my nomination, I have underscored that I want to be a bridge-builder,'' said Díaz, whose parents left Cuba for Spain when he was 9 before settling in Miami, where his father worked as a waiter. “As a Cuban-American I have lived ‘life on the hyphen,' bridging cultural, language and various other social experiences.''

MORE THAN HERITAGE

Still, Díaz doesn't want to be defined solely by his heritage.

“When people say I am the new face of Catholicism, I like to say in some ways I am the face that characterizes Catholicism. I'm not sure if it's new. It's the face that is part of our culture, our diversity,'' he said.

“I am the U.S. ambassador who is Cuban-American and is proud of that tradition,'' he said, “but who is able to precisely build bridges because of the way I was raised, and the experiences I have had in a city where most of my friends came from very different backgrounds and traditions.''

That experience, coupled with his professional background and love of languages -- he speaks fluent Italian and French as well and English and Spanish and reads German and Latin -- could be useful in key areas that may shape the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda with the Vatican, including the Middle East.

“I am hoping to build a lot on President Obama's Cairo speech,'' said Díaz, referring to Obama's June speech in Egypt in which he touched on inter-faith dialogue.

Still, Díaz's appointment wasn't without controversy. While some Catholics lauded it, others questioned where he stood on abortion given the Vatican's pro-life stance and Obama's pro-choice position.

“I've always stood for a consistent ethics of life from the beginning,'' he said.

As the U.S. representative, Díaz said he plans to be a set of eyes and ears on the litany of issues on which the church and the administration agree.

“The fact that we have the opportunity to engage the Holy See and the fact that the Holy See has such extensive relations worldwide gives us an opportunity to really serve as a listening post,'' he said, sitting in his spacious second-floor office overlooking the manicured grounds of the tiny embassy.

Meanwhile, he continues to adjust to life in Rome. He's prioritizing his agenda after co-hosting a conference with the Holy See on HIV/AIDS and getting to know his staff, which includes fellow Cuban American, Deputy Chief of Mission Julieta Valls Noyes.

His wife, Marian, who also has a doctorate in theology, and their four children, ages 5 to 15, are settling in, he said.

ON THE HOMERFRONT

In Miami-Dade's Westchester neighborhood, his parents, Félix and Silvia Díaz, laud their son's accomplishment. The family, including brother Jorge, traveled to Washington for the swearing-in ceremony, and his dad went to Rome to see him present his credentials to the Pope.

“It is a great honor for us,'' said Silvia, 73.

When she and her husband left Cuba, she said, they had just one goal: to work hard to give their children an education. Her baby Miguel, she said, has more than fulfilled their expectations.

“He was always an excellent student,'' she said. “He has a good heart. He's noble.''

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