Vatican City turns 91

The world’s smallest sovereign state was born on February 11, 1929, with the signing of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy. On Tuesday, Vatican City State turned 91. We briefly trace its history before it came into existence.

Feb 12, 2020

VATICAN CITY: For many, Vatican City and the Holy See are synonymous but they are not.  While Vatican City State refers to the sovereign geographical state which came into being only in 1929, the existence of the Holy See is a juridical entity, whose existence goes back to early Christian era and is the central authority overseeing the worldwide Catholic Church.

Vatican City is an enclave or an independent sovereign state in the Italian capital, Rome.  With an area of just 0.44 square kilometres enclosed within a perimeter of 3.2 km, it is equivalent to some 61 standard football grounds

Christianity under Roman Empire
Vatican City lies just beyond the right bank of the river Tiber in Rome, on a slight rise, part of the ancient Vatican Hill, on which several villas were built in pre-Christian times.  The history of Vatican City is liked with the history of Christianity and the Italian Kingdom and Republic.  For most of its first 300 years, Christianity in the Roman Empire was considered an underground and even criminal movement and hence was persecuted. 

It appears that many Christians living in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero were martyred in an arena called "circus", that was built in the Vatican area by Emperor Caligula.  Peter the Apostle, the first Bishop of Rome, hence the first Pope, was martyred in Rome and buried to the north of the circus.  Constantine, who ruled from 306 to 337 AD, became the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity and legalized Christianity and other religions 313 AD.  Constantine built a magnificent basilica over the burial site of St. Peter, and from then on the area started to become more populated.   It was replaced by the present St. Peter’s Basilica between the 16th  and 17th centuries. 

Christian Rome
In 380, Emperor Theodosius adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. Thereafter, Christianity spread far a wide in the empire through the missionaries, and during the early Middle Ages, most of Europe was Christianized.  From the Middle Ages onwards, as the centralized Roman power waned in southern and central Europe, the dominance of the Catholic Church became the only consistent force in Western Europe, with the Pope assuming more and more temporal power.  The Papal States, officially the State of the Church, were territories in the Italian Peninsula under the sovereign direct rule of the Pope of Rome, from the 8th century until 1870.

Unification of Italy
The “Risorgimento”, the Italian for Resurgence or revival, was the 19th century political, intellectual and social movement for the unification of Italy that consolidated different states of the Italian peninsula from foreign rule, including the Papal States, into the single state of the Kingdom of Italy.  

This was partially accomplished on March 17, 1861, with Victor Emmanuel II as Italy’s first king.  Only the region of Lazio, including Rome, remained under the temporal control of the then Pope, Pius IX, who refused to bow down to the new kingdom.  

In 1870, when the Pope's holdings were further circumscribed after Rome itself was invaded and annexed by the royalist army, the pope demanded compensation.  In protest, Pope Pius IX proclaimed himself a “prisoner of the Vatican,” and for almost 60 years popes refused to leave the Vatican and submit to the authority of the Italian kingdom. 

Vatican City State
This standoff between a series of so-called "prisoner" popes and the Kingdom of Italy was resolved on February 11, 1929, by the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy, which established the independence and sovereignty of Vatican City State and granted Roman Catholicism special status in Italy.  Hence February 11 is observed as the foundation day of Vatican City, which turned 88 on Feb. 11, last Saturday.  

There are five entrances to Vatican City which are guarded by the Pontifical Swiss Guards and by the Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State.  Because Vatican City is so small, several departments, offices and property belonging to the Holy See, most notably the summer papal residence of Castel Gandolfo and the major basilicas, are situated in buildings around Rome.  According to the Lateran Treaty, these buildings enjoy the so-called “extraterritorial” rights of Vatican City, recognized by international law, like embassies and foreign diplomatic missions abroad. 

Holy See, Pope and Vatican
The Vatican is technically a rare case of a non-hereditary elective monarchy; the monarch, the Pope, being elected by cardinals under the age of 80 during an election called the conclave held in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. 

The Pope is the head of both Vatican City State and the Holy See. The Catholic Church carries out its mission of announcing the truth of the Gospel for the salvation of all humanity and in the service of peace and justice in favour of all peoples, both through the various specific and local Churches and bishops spread throughout the world, as well as through its central administration in the Vatican, made up of the Pope and the various offices and departments called the Roman Curia, that assist him. 

As such, the Holy See is an institution which, according to the international laws and customs, is a juridical entity which permits it to sign treaties and to send and receive diplomatic representatives, as the juridical equivalent of a state.   While Vatican City State refers to the sovereign geographical state which came into being only in 1929, the existence of the Holy See goes back to early Christianity and is the central authority overseeing the worldwide Catholic Church, with some 1.3 billion faithful.

Between 1870, when the new Italian Kingdom further reduced the Pope’s territories in Rome, and before Feb. 11, 1929, when Vatican City State did not exist as yet, the Holy See maintained diplomatic relations with many States.  Ambassadors are officially accredited not to the Vatican City State but to "the Holy See", and the Pope’s ambassadors called Apostolic Nuncios to states and international organizations are recognized as representing the Holy See, not the Vatican City State.

City state
About half of the Vatican’s citizens do not live inside Vatican City.  Because of their occupations, such as diplomatic personnel, they live in different countries around the world. 

Vatican City State also has its own flag and anthem. As a sovereign state, Vatican City mints its own coins and issues its own postage stamps.  By virtue of a monetary convention with Italy, Vatican coins are legal tender throughout Italy and the rest of the European Union.  This convention gave Vatican City State the right to use the Euro as its official currency, starting on January 1, 1999.  Earlier, its currency was the Italian Lira. 

Vatican City has its own museum, one of the richest in the world, a fabulous library, a small railroad and a railway station, a helipad, a radio, a printing press and publishing house, a newspaper, a television centre, a postal system, a pharmacy, a clinic and an observatory.  

The Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State, or simply Vatican Gendarmerie, which is the Vatican’s police force, is responsible for public order, law enforcement, crowd and traffic control, and criminal investigations inside Vatican City.  Vatican City has no armed force of its own apart from the Swiss Guards, the world’s oldest and smallest army.  The military defence of Vatican City is provided by Italy and its armed forces, given the fact that Vatican City is an enclave within the Italian Republic.--Vatican News

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