By Tina Dennelly
Joe Donnelly was appointed U.S. ambassador to the Holy See by President Joe Biden on April 11, 2022.
Growing up, Joe Donnelly wanted to be the centre fielder for the New York Yankees. Now he’s the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
Donnelly, 67, has been the ambassador since 2022. He recently sat down with Colm Flynn of EWTN News In Depth for an interview about his background and political career. He also discussed the war in Ukraine as well as religious persecution in China.
How did Donnelly — whose first time ever in Rome, Italy, was his first day on the job as ambassador — get to his current position?
In the interview, Donnelly shared that his mother died of breast cancer when he was only 10 years old.
“You talk about something that turns your life completely upside down,” he recalled. “Imagine being my dad with five children — I was the youngest of five — he basically sat with us and said you know, we’ll get through this, we’ll be okay.”
He also pointed to the family’s Catholic faith as helping to recover from their loss.
“It was very important,” he said. “I found out like when I was in my 40s that [my dad] said to [one of his friends] if I didn’t have my Catholic faith I don’t know how I could have gotten through it, so that’s how important it was.”
Donnelly was born on Long Island, New York, and moved to Indiana in his teens. A job with the Yankees never did pan out: “I didn’t hit as well as I needed to and I didn’t throw as well as I needed to so it never quite worked out,” he told Flynn, laughing.
He attended the University of Notre Dame and graduated from its law school in 1981. He worked at a family printing business and practiced law before getting involved in politics, first on a local school board, then later as a U.S. congressman from Indiana.
While in Congress, Donnelly was known as a pro-labour, pro-life moderate Democrat who changed his position on marriage in 2013, CNA reported at the time of his nomination as ambassador.
He supported some pro-life policies over the years, including restrictions on abortions after 20 weeks and banning taxpayer-funded abortion; he also earned criticism from some pro-life groups for eventually voting against defunding planned parenthood in the Senate.
Appointed ambassador by President Joe Biden on April 11, 2022, Donnelly recalled meeting Pope Francis for the first time and discussing the war in Ukraine with him, which at the time was less than two months into the conflict. The pope told him, “You’re here at a really hard time.”
Donnelly said he told the pope: “Here’s how we view this in the United States, that Ukraine is fighting for their very survival, that if they lose they’re gone.”
When asked if religious freedom around the world was something that Donnelly, as ambassador, was focused on, Donnelly said it was.
“It is actually core to our work,” he responded. “We’ve had a number of representatives from our government come over here to talk to the Vatican about various religious freedom subjects. One in particular met with the Vatican on the situation for the Uyghurs, where they’re in concentration camps in China because of their religious beliefs.”
“Is there a place for religious beliefs in politics?” Flynn asked.
“I think it’s at the core of almost everything we see,” Donnelly said. “Even if someone’s not in a church on a Sunday, they still have core values that they learned that help to guide what they do. The things that are important, of making sure that people have a place to stay, that children can be fed, that rights are respected — those are all religious values, values that Jesus taught us.”