The history of Vatican

A resignation of Pope Benedict have ignite my curiosity about Catholic Churches.


Though the Vatican is a famous icon for Christianity, its name existed long before the advent of the religion. The name was first given to one of the hills on the side of the Tiber River, which is opposite to the Seven Hills of Rome.  

The city of the Vatican is a sovereign city-state located entirely within the boundaries of Rome. It is believed to be situated on the spot where St. Peter, a prominent figure in the history of Christianity, was martyred and buried around 2000 years ago. In 324 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine, built the first papal church called the Constantinian Basilica over St. Peter’s tomb.

Till recently, St. Peter’s was the largest church that was ever built and is considered to be one of the holiest sites in Christendom.   The Vatican City expands over around 0.44 square kilometers and with a population of around 800 people, which makes it the smallest independent country in the world.

The Vatican territory includes important sites, such as St. Peter’s Square built between 1656 and 1667, the Apostolic Palace, which is the official residence of the Pope, the Sistine Chapel, which is very famous for its architecture that resembles King Solomon’s Temple in the Old Testament and was decorated by talented renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Raphael.

The “Voluntary Prisoner”

The Vatican City, which is the home of the Roman Catholic Church, is the only city that survived from the Papal States, which had been ruled for over a thousand years by religious papacy. The idea behind papal independence was to assure the complete freedom of the pope away from Roman princes and emperors. 

Pope who is the bishop of Rome and head of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide is considered for Catholics as St. Peter’s successor. According to the Bible, Jesus Christ named Peter as the “shepherd” or the “rock” of the church. Though Peter was never named a pope as the title came into existence much later, for Catholics he is considered to be the “first pope.” The analogy comes from the fact that the pope is the head of bishops as was Peter the head of apostles.

The pope had territorial control over some states in central Italy between the years 756 and 1870, and the Vatican was the capital of the Papal States. During the fights for the unification of Italy from 1860 to 1870, Italy gained back a lot of the papal territories, and Rome was established as the national capital of Italy. When the Italian armies were at the gate of Rome on the morning of September 20, 1870, Pope Pius IX was facing a hard choice. He ordered his soldiers neither to fight nor to resist the Italian forces as he realized that it was a lost war, and he wanted to avoid bloodshed.

Pope Pius IX did not want to surrender the city before it was attacked, as he was afraid that the world would recognize this act as a voluntary act of renunciation of his rights. He wanted to make it clear that he was forced to give up his temporal power, and that his sovereignty was breached by force.

In 1871, a law was issued to confine the territories of the papacy to only include the Vatican, the Lateran Palace, and the villa of Castel Gandolfo on the shore of Lake Albano. The government also granted the Pontiff a handsome amount of money as compensation for the lost revenue over seized territories. Though Pope Pius IX was adamant on revoking the law and constantly refused to abide by it, the Italian government thought they were extremely generous toward “Italy’s distinguished guests.”   Pope Pius IX refused to accept the government’s grant of money, and declared that this agreement was unilateral and did not represent the consensus of the two parties, so it should be considered null and void. He maintained his position of refusing to recognize the lawful and the rightful possession of Rome by the Italian government and refused to set foot on the soil of the seized territory, as this would mean that he accepted the Italian sovereignty.

Therefore, the pope declared himself as a “voluntary prisoner” in his Vatican Palace, yet he continued his duties and temporal power in a symbolic way.

Mussolini & the “Roman Question”

One of the proposals that were offered to Pope Benedict XV to solve the heated situation was to grant the pope full and unrestricted sovereignty over the Vatican, but the pope said that the Vatican is a palace not a territory. For the papal palace, it seemed absurd to grant the pope full sovereignty, yet he cannot exercise it anywhere. 

Long before Mussolini came to power as the head of the Fascist Party, he used to speak publicly about the importance of restoring the relationship with the Catholic Church. He asserted in Parliament that it is absurd for Italy to be in enmity with a church that 95 percent of its citizens were regarded as divinely authorized.

So, right after he seized power, Mussolini did not hesitate to state at every occasion how important the Papal Church is, and how appreciative he is to the role that religion plays in the national life. His determination to restore good relations with the pope did not stop at the level of positive speeches and words of appreciation. He actually walked the talk by restoring the crucifix in the classrooms, which was long removed by previous governments. Also, he made it mandatory in the curriculum in public schools to study religion after it was only supplementary. He also increased the allowance and the stipend paid by government to the parish priests.

While Mussolini promised not to interfere with the religious practices of other cults or religions, he declared and affirmed Catholicism to be the national faith of Italy.

Though Mussolini showed signs of good faith to reach some sort of reconciliation with the Holy See, the road was not paved, and it was not an easy ride. The greatest difficulty that faced the new Fascist government was the question of the position of the Vatican within the new Italian state and the division of authority.

It is well-known that both the Fascist government and the Vatican are at opposite poles. The pope stated numerously his dissatisfaction with the Fascist ideology of monopolizing the individuals by making their whole existence for the benefit of the state. The Church believes on the other hand that the individual exists for the glory of God.

For the next three years, Mussolini was negotiating secretly with the Vatican, and then he announced that there is an informal understanding that was reached between the state and the Vatican on points of dispute. Mussolini used to call the Vatican situation as the “Roman Question.”

The Missions of the Holy See

The Holy See was the name given to the government of the Roman Catholic Church. The Holy See diplomatic history began long before its independence. Since the medieval times, the Episcopal Church of Rome is considered to be an independent sovereign entity. Even when Italy took most of the Papal States in 1870, the Holy See maintained sending and receiving diplomatic missions.

In 1929, a political treaty was signed between the Holy See and Italy, according to which full sovereignty was granted to the Holy See in the Vatican City.

The Italian government had its own ulterior motives when it decided to solve the Roman question once and for all. Millions of Catholics around the globe will not be educated anymore by their priests that Italy is a “despoiler of the church.”

Missionary schools in the Near East might place extra importance on teaching Italian as an important language along with its history and literature. More importantly as some historians state, the political benefits of being the protector of Christianity in places like Syria and Palestine, which is a political advantage that France enjoyed, and now Italy can join in as well.   Though the pope’s liberty and independence are confined to such small piece of land in the Vatican, for the Catholics, his spiritual leadership in the Catholic World is universal with no boundaries set to confine it.

3 thoughts on “The history of Vatican

      1. I appreciate the sharing. It is always good to learn new things. Your writing has improved!!! šŸ™‚

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