This study of the diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican with an introduction by Giulio Andreotti, who invited the current US ambassador to the Holy See, Jim Nicholson, to write this summary history, is one of the most interesting short books I have read in years. It begins with the message George Washington sent to Pius VI through Benjamin Franklin that, in the brand new republic, there would be no need for permission prior to the appointment of a bishop on the part of the Holy See. It ends with Nicholsons reflections on the privileged role he cherishes in representing the US government in a common quest for freedom, justice, peace and human dignity throughout the world.

There are many dramatic times to recall that impinged on relations between the US and the Vatican: the revolution of 1848, which sent Pope Pius IX into temporary exile from Rome; the end of the papal states in 1870, when Italy was finally united; the horrors of world war one and even more those of world war two. Finally, the Cold War helped to bring about the appointment by President Ronald Reagan of the first US ambassador to the Holy See in 1984.

Nicholson writes with a light touch and puts vivid faces on the chief protagonists on the long road from 1788 to the establishment of full diplomatic relations. He skillfully quotes lively passages from many letters, reports and memos. This use of sources not only makes the book an easy read but also allows the issues and principles involved to emerge by permitting those involved to speak for themselves.

My favourite story is the visit Pius IX made in 1849 to the USS Constitution, which was moored in Gaeta harbour. Since admiralty law deemed the frigate extraterritorial US soil, this marked the first time a had pope set foot on US territory. He was welcomed by the skipper, Captain John Gwinn, and spent three hours on board, visiting with the sailors and dispensing rosaries to the Catholic crewmen. He became seasick, revived in the captains quarters, and eventually departed to a 21-gun salute. For his role in the incident Gwinn was court-martialled. He had received strict orders not to receive on board the pope and his companion, Ferdinand II of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. But before the court-martial could take place, Gwinn died of a cerebral haemorrhage. Pius IX returned to Rome in 1850 and lived to be the longest-serving pope in history.

The editor of I Libri di 30 Giorni, Andreotti, has done us all a service by encouraging Nicholson to write this book.

The text of The United States and the Holy See: The Long Road is available on the publishers website, www.30giorni.it, in both English and Italian. To find out how to obtain copies of the book freephone 800271509. Published by I Libri di 30 Giorni, Rome, December 2002.