After earning a licentiate in theology and a doctorate in canon law, he entered the Holy See’s diplomatic service and was posted to Nunciatures in Guatemala, Spain and Italy. In 1967 he was assigned to the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church.
In 1973 he was appointed the Holy See’s Observer to the United Nations in New York. On 8 September 1978 he was named titular Archbishop of Santa Giusta and first Apostolic Nuncio to the United Nations. He received episcopal ordination on 16 September 1978.
In September 1986, he was called to Rome and was appointed Pro-President of the Pontifical Commission for Migration and Tourism. In 1988, this commission was reorganized and became the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and thus he became the first President of this new Pontifical Council.
President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, October 1998.
Honors: the Order of Isabel the Catholic, Commendatore of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic and of the Verdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Created and proclaimed Cardinal by John Paul II in the consistory of 21 February 1998, of the Title of Ss. Cosma e Damiano (Sts. Cosmas and Damian, deaconry raised pro hac vice to presbyteral title in 1 March 2008).
Cardinal Giovanni Cheli died on 8 February 2013.