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The Holy See is the central government of the Catholic Church. The Vatican City State was established by treaty in 1929, thus providing the Holy See with a small territorial base and consequent recognition as an independent sovereign entity in international law. The Holy See and the Catholic Church are invested with separate international juristic status, but it is the Holy See which acts as the supreme organ of government of the Church. The Hague Convention of 1954 protects all Vatican territory as world cultural heritage.

Under the terms of the Apostolic Constitution (Pastor Bonus) of 1988, the Pope is assisted in the exercise of his supreme pastoral office by the Roman Curia, a complex of dicasteries (ie ministries) and institutes. The dicasteries include the Secretariat of State, Congregations, Tribunals, Councils and Offices, namely the Apostolic Camera, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. It has offices which deal with virtually all matters concerning the central government of the Church, from political questions and diplomacy to the liturgy and appointment of bishops. The Secretariat of State is presided over by the Cardinal Secretary of State (currently His Eminence Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone). It administers both the ‘General Affairs' Section of the Holy See as well as its ‘Relations with States' Section, the latter under the direction of its own Secretary, in effect the Vatican Foreign Minister (currently His Excellency Archbishop Dominique Mamberti).

The Holy See conducts diplomatic relations through its Secretariat of State and a network of diplomatic posts (known as Nunciatures), and maintains formal diplomatic relations with 176 countries. The Holy See has a unique role and standing in international affairs, and plays an important role in a number of multilateral fora. It is a party to a number of international instruments (including a series of international human rights treaties) and enjoys membership of various United Nations subsidiary bodies, specialised agencies and international intergovernmental organisations. The Holy See became a Permanent Observer State at the UN in 1964. It gained full membership rights, except for voting (including in UN Security Council elections) in 2004. It is active in UN debates, in particular on social and humanitarian issues.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papacy following the death of Pope John Paul II and was inaugurated as Pope Benedict XVI on 19 April 2005. The Holy See's National Day is fixed by tradition to coincide with the commencement of the Pontificate of the current Pope. The Holy See's National Day under His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI thus falls on 19 April. Pope Benedict celebrated the sixth anniversary of his Pontificate in 2011.

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Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1973, Australia had maintained a non-resident Head of Mission, based in another European capital, as well as an office at the Holy See, headed by a Counsellor. The Holy See has maintained an Apostolic Nunciature in Canberra since 1973.

On 21 July 2008, the Hon Kevin Rudd (as Prime Minister) announced that the Government would for the first time appoint a resident Ambassador to the Holy See – the Hon Tim Fischer AC. The appointment marks a significant deepening of Australia's relations with the Vatican. It allows Australia to expand dialogue with the Vatican in areas including human rights, political and religious freedom, inter-faith dialogue, food security, arms control, refugees and anti-people trafficking, and climate change. Mr Fischer commenced his appointment on 30 January 2009 and presented credentials to Pope Benedict on 12 February 2009. There are 79 missions (including Australia) with resident Ambassadors in the Holy See and five non-state missions (Arab League; EU; Sovereign Order of Malta; Taiwan; UNHCR).

Pope Benedict XVI issued a press release through the Nunciature in Australia with a message of support for the Queensland floods. He also instructed that $US50,000.00 be allocated to the St Vincent de Paul Society through the Diocese of Rockhampton. On 16 January 2011 the Australian Embassy to the Holy See arranged a Special Mass in Rome for victims and communities affected by the floods.

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On 17 October 2010 Mary MacKillop was canonised as Saint Mary of the Cross, creating Australia's first Saint. The ceremony took place in St Peter's Square in Vatican City and was presided over by Pope Benedict. Mr Rudd (as Minister for Foreign Affairs) was the senior Australian Government representative at the canonisation, and was accompanied by a bi-partisan delegation of Australian Parliamentarians comprising the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, Leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Senator Barnaby Joyce, and Labor Senator for NSW Senator Ursula Stephens.

It is estimated that some 10,000 other Australians attended the canonisation. Mr Rudd, accompanied by the delegation, attended a Vigil presenting Mary's life in song, drama, prayer and liturgy, and a Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Cardinal Pell. Mr Rudd also opened the “Rituals of Life” exhibition (see media release Una Notte Australiana at the Vatican Museum ( and officiated at the opening of the new chancery of the Australian Embassy to the Holy See (see media release A permanent home for Australia's Embassy to the Holy See ( ).

The beatification of the late Pope John Paul II took place in the Holy See on 1 May 2011. Beatification is a necessary step in the process towards Canonisation. The event attracted a large number of visitors to Rome, including Australian pilgrims.

Pope Benedict opened the Australian Catholic Church’s new pilgrimage centre in Rome, Domus Australia, on 20 October 2011.

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The Governor-General, HE Ms Quentin Bryce AC, visited the Holy See on 1 June 2011, and had an audience with Pope Benedict and met with Holy See Secretary of State (Prime Minister equivalent) Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

Mr Rudd met Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, in December 2010.

Mr Rudd visited the Holy See 15-19 October 2010 (see media release Visit to the Holy See for the Canonisation of Blessed Mary MacKillop ( ). He was accompanied by Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, Senator Barnaby Joyce, and Senator Ursula Stephens.

A Parliamentary delegation led by Senate President Senator John Hogg visited the Vatican on 5 and 7 July 2010. The group participated in a General Audience with Pope Benedict and met with Vatican officials.

Mr Rudd (as Prime Minister) visited the Holy See on 9 July 2009. During the visit, he had an audience with Pope Benedict and met the Vatican's Secretary of State, His Eminence, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

The Hon Stephen Smith MP (as Minister for Foreign Affairs), met HE Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Holy See's Secretary for Relations with States (equivalent Foreign Minister), during the UN General Assembly in September 2009. They had previously met on 3 December 2008 during Mr Smith's visit to Oslo to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The Holy See played a facilitating role in relation to the Oslo process as a member of the Core Group of States. Mr Smith had met Archbishop Mamberti during Mr Smith's visit to the Holy See 3-4 June 2008.

Pope Benedict visited Australia 13-21 July 2008 for World Youth Day, hosted by the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

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World Youth Day (WYD) was initiated in 1984 by Pope John Paul II. The week-long event is held every 2-3 years. WYD 2008 was held in Sydney 15-20 July 2008 and was a significant event for Australia. Several hundred thousand people participated in WYD activities, including international pilgrims from over 170 nations. Two thousand media were accredited for WYD and WYD events were watched live by an estimated international TV audience of more than a hundred million and an internet audience of roughly equal size.

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Last Updated: October 2011

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