Interns in the diplomatic corps of the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission at the United Nations, including Canadian Max Yun, back row right, with nuncio Archbishop Gabriele Caccia. Photo from Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See

UN interns get closeup on Church and the world

  • November 11, 2023

Passionate young Catholics looking to apply the Church’s centuries-old apostolic teaching to real-world issues will find a training ground in the diplomatic corps of the Holy See at the United Nations.

The Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN places Catholic social teaching at the heart of foreign affairs. Its nearly 60-year multilateral operation has advocated for the intrinsic dignity and sanctity of the human person at the level of global government decision-making.

Each academic term the Permanent Observer Mission extends an internship opportunity to eight well-rounded Catholic undergraduate and graduate students from around the globe, challenging them to critically engage with the Church’s teachings in the context of the modern world. Working from the mission’s headquarters in New York, interns perform a variety of tasks, including attending UN debates, filing reports and coordinating events.

“The Holy See is one of the oldest diplomatic services in the world. The Pope has been sending ambassadors for centuries,” said Fr. Mark Knestout, director of the internship program. “However, the Holy See does not vote on any of the resolutions put forward at the UN, we are just observers. We want to be ourselves without taking part in any sort of politics.”  

The ongoing conflict is a case in point. Max Yun, 24, is a current intern from Canada. Yun has been able to hear the perspectives of both Palestinian and Israeli delegates. He recounts being emotionally exhausted, hearing “some terrible things” and mourning the “loss of life of innocent people.” He notes that the Holy See has steadfastly advocated for peace.

“The Holy See always advocates for the respect of international humanitarian law and the rights of internally displaced persons and migrants. The Holy See operates with the goal of humanizing wars — recognizing the real human impact and the dignity of victims of violence. The Holy See also engages in inter-religious dialogue, which, I think, is crucial when it comes to many of these highly sensitive conflicts,” said Yun, who has a Bachelor of Public Administration with a Specialized Honours in Law, Justice and Public Policy from Toronto’s York University.

Mathew Remedios, a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto, completed the internship in the summer of 2022. His perspectives on the diplomatic efforts of the Holy See were broadened through the course of his practicum.

“Initially, I had a feeling that the Holy See working at the UN was not taken seriously,” said Remedios. “I questioned why it was there in the first place, and whether it had any real impact. Although I did not always see the impact right away, I learned that the Church had done a lot of things.”

Remedios noted that Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ was published in 2015 just months before the UN officially adopted its Sustainable Development Goals.

“It was a deliberate choice to release Laudato Si’ months before these agreements,” says the 22-year-old Remedios, noting how it influenced climate change-related deliberation at the UN long before official talks took place.

The Holy See, as a non-member state, has a long history at the UN dating back to 1964 when Pope Paul VI established the first Holy See “permanent observer mission” to create stable bonds with the intergovernmental organization.

Knestout says interns are an integral part of the Holy See’s diplomatic mission.

“The UN’s areas of deliberation and discussion have slowly ballooned over time,” said Knestout. “Interns provide a person present at all those deliberations, allowing us to understand what takes place at those meetings. An intern is the eyes and ears of our small mission so we can know what is being discussed in every area.” 

It’s a competitive process to become an intern. Applicants must submit a cover letter, a CV and two letters of recommendation. The secondary stage will have a select few applicants write an essay to demonstrate their English proficiency.

Finally, interviews are scheduled for those emerging through the first two stages. Fluency in one or more of the six official UN languages is an asset.

The daily life of an intern holistically integrates faith, said Yun, with Mass celebrated daily before a meeting with the nuncio and then getting on with daily tasks.

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