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From Leiden student to Australian Ambassador to the Holy See

Chiara Porro from Australia studied International Relations and Diplomacy at Leiden University and has been Australia’s Ambassador to the Holy See since August. How did she end up at the Vatican and what is it like? ‘The Pope told me his door was always open!’

Congrats on your new job. When you were little, could you ever have imagined becoming Ambassador to the Holy See?

‘No, not at all but I was fascinated by international politics from an early age and knew I wanted to work in foreign policy. In part, this was due to having lived in Indonesia during the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 – witnessing the protests was a real eye opener. I built on this during my International Relations studies in Leiden and joined the Australian foreign service in 2009, the year we opened an Australian Embassy to the Holy See in Rome. I still remember reading the cables from our first Ambassador there and thinking what a fascinating job it was. I had no idea I would be taking on the same role 11 years later!’

Chiara on her way to the Pope. Photo: Osservatore Romano

Chiara Porro (36)
Study: International Relations and Diplomacy (2005-2007)
Family status: Married (to a Dutch man), with two young children.

How did you end up at the Vatican? 

‘During my career in the foreign service, I have worked in India, West Africa and the Pacific. We don’t get to choose where we are sent, but can express a preference, and I was keen to come to Europe. This job came up, and I thought I would be a good fit – because of my Italian and French language skills (French is the official language of the Holy See). My Catholic background helps me understand the workings of the Holy See.’

Chiara presented her letters of credential to Pope Francis in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Photo: Osservatore Romano

How has corona affected your work?

‘It is a difficult period to start as the new Ambassador – networking is difficult and many of my meetings are virtual, which makes it difficult to establish personal relationships. But there are also lots of opportunities. Everyone is more used to working virtually – which is a real positive for a country like Australia, which is so far away.’

How often do you speak to Pope Francis and what’s he like?

‘I was fortunate to have a long conversation with Pope Francis on 27 August during my credentials ceremony. We spoke on a range of issues like how can we emerge stronger as a global community from the coronavirus, the role of youth, and issues affecting the Pacific region. The Pope was very generous with his time and views. He told me his door was always open! I have been to the Apostolic Palace a number of times now for various meetings over the past month, but am still in awe every time. So much history and tradition!’ 

You have had an impressive career. You have worked as an advisor to the Prime Minister, for instance and you have worked for the High Commission in India. How did it shape you?

‘Thank you. In my work for the Prime Minister I advised on international issues, in particular the Middle East, where Australia has important security, economic and commercial interests, and the Americas. It was an excellent opportunity to work at the pinnacle of foreign policy making, as only the very top international issues make it to the Prime Minister.‘India was my first posting with the Australian foreign service. It really confirmed my desire to pursue this career. While working in India was not always easy, it was immensely rewarding and I was really able to make an impact. We set up a number of strategic partnership such as energy security, which are fundamental for a country where two thirds of its population were still living in poverty.’

At the pub 'De Bonte Koe' in Leiden: 'Where we always used to meet to debate the foreign policy issue of the day.'

Why did you choose to study International Relations at Leiden University?

‘I was looking for a two-year Master’s programme in English, preferably in a new country, and was attracted by Leiden University’s partnership with the Clingendael Institute. I really enjoyed the programme – the mix of theory and practice, the opportunity to focus on issues of interest for the thesis and internship, the access to excellent teaching staff and the other participants in the course, most of whom I am still in touch with today.'

What were the biggest differences compared to life in Australia?

‘The Netherlands is similar to my hometown of Sydney in many ways – an easy going, relatively laid-back culture, lots of difference, passion for sports and adventure. But the weather….that was difficult! I did love how close everything was and being able to travel so easily. In Australia, the nearest city was a three-hour drive away.’

How was your student life?

‘I shared a house in Leiden with two other International Relations students and one subsequently introduced me to my now Dutch husband who studied in Delft. I made many friends through the University’s basketball team and from my course. I have missed a few of the reunions over the years but am hoping to catch up with everyone while in Europe. Leiden is perfect for students. Small, but big enough to have everything you need – and just a short train ride away from The Hague and Amsterdam. The University buildings are beautiful, and the town is picturesque. I have been back a few times since graduating and still love visiting!’

Text: Linda van Putten

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