Australia’s new resident Ambassador to the Holy See will use her role to bring a “Pacific voice” to the Vatican and to encourage Pope Francis to visit Australia.
Chiara Porro who has served in senior roles in New Caledonia, India and West Africa took up her new post last week after presenting her credentials to the Holy Father at a ceremony in Rome.
The 36-year-old, who is Australia’s youngest Ambassador to the Vatican, succeeds Melissa Hitchman.
“There are no other resident ambassadors from the Pacific region here in Rome and so I want to highlight the important work Australia is doing in the region on climate change and on seasonal workers, helping Australia source workers from the Pacific to fill labour shortages,” Ms Porro said.
“From my discussion with Pope Francis at my credentials ceremony, it was clear that the Holy Father is also very interested in the Pacific region and in coming here.”
The new ambassador said preparing for her role has made her reflect deeply upon her own Catholic values, especially in the area of social teaching.
“I am interested in the issue of trafficking and modern slavery, for example, which Pope Francis has been quite focused on and where the Catholic Church in Australia is doing a remarkable job in pushing state governments to put measures in place to protect some of our society’s most vulnerable.
“So the area of human rights will be a real priority for me in the role.” Ms Porro presented the Pope with a relic of Saint Mary MacKillop, who was canonised 10 years ago next month.
“I spoke to the Holy Father about the values that Mary MacKillop represents, especially her dedication to education for the poor which also resonates with the Pope. We’re [currently] looking at ways in which we can mark this special event in Rome in conjunction with the Sisters of St Joseph.”
The new ambassador said another priority for her would be confronting the COVID-19 crisis.
“We’ve just experienced the most significant global crisis since World War II and we’re still caught up in it. The world needs to work collaboratively to make a vaccine available to as many people as possible.
“The Holy See has a real role to play to support the sick at a time when the response from the World Health Organisation has not been as effective as it could have been.”
Ms Porro was born in the Italian city of Monza and migrated to Australia aged three with her parents, Anna and Roberto and sister Julia.
She credits her parents with having helped nurture her Catholic faith as a young child at their Castle Hill parish, where she received the sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
“The parish was a lovely community and we really felt welcome there as migrants settling into a new life in Sydney,” she fondly recalls.
“I was fortunate to meet the former parish priest from St Bernadette’s, Monsignor John Boyle, who is now chaplain of Domus Australia in Rome and it was great to be able to reflect upon our shared experiences in that parish.”
Ms Porro settles into Rome with her Dutch-born husband, Rien, who works as an industrial design engineer and their two children six-year-old Thomas and George, three.
“It’s always a challenge moving overseas with kids, but we’re fortunate that they’ve had one move before when I worked for two years as Deputy Consul General in Noumea, which was their first taste of another culture. They haven’t learned Italian yet, but that’s definitely ahead of them,” she said.
Ms Porro was in many ways born for a life in the diplomatic service. As a young child, she lived in Italy, Australia and Indonesia, as her father, Roberto, travelled the world as an engineer with tyre company, Pirelli.
Her mother, Anna, a qualified pathologist, later studied medicine when the family moved to Sydney.
Both her parents now live in Milan where her mother works as a medical consultant while her father is semi-retired. Sister Julia works in Canberra with the Department of Foreign Affairs, managing trade negotiations.
After completing primary school, the family moved to Jakarta for three years and it was her time there that she credits with instilling her initial interest in international relations.
“We were there when there was a lot of political upheaval when the Suharto regime collapsed … it was a great time to see the real strength of the Indonesian people and the strength of people power,” she recalls.
“It was a very turbulent time too and our family were among many overseas nationals evacuated from the country because of all the turmoil.”
Her family returned to Italy where Ms Porro completed her secondary schooling in Milan before studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of York in England.
Her diplomatic career has included three years as Second Secretary (Trade and Economic) in New Delhi and two years as Deputy Consul General in Noumea, New Caledonia where she helped open up a new consulate in Tahiti.
Ms Porro believes her most challenging appointment came in 2016 when she worked as part of a Crisis Response Team responding to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 people in just over two years.
“We helped set up a hospital in Sierra Leone and sent Australian doctors over there, treating over 200 patients in just four months. It was wonderful to see Australia step up in that effort, even though it was a long way from our region.
“There were real risks for us in doing so, including potentially bringing the disease to our region. We were fortunately able to manage the transmission of the virus since it was not as easily spread as a disease like COVID-19, although it was deadlier.”
And now to Rome, where she says the Holy Father was most welcoming.
“Pope Francis has reminded me that his door is always open, but I’m realistic about that too and joked with him that there are quite a few doors I need to go through before I can get to him.”