One of my former students, a librarian at the Orlando Public Library, asked me recently if I would repeat my talk, "Behind Vatican Walls," as part of the library's Preservation Week. The topic, she said, was all about saving and preserving the culture in various parts of the world, and my talk, which she had heard last year, was important.
I was initially surprised at the invitation because my research into what happens in the world's smallest country, Vatican City, had focused mainly on the surprising customs and practices of what I call Pope World. Yet, as I thought about how the Holy See (the papacy) has for centuries valued tradition and maintained its vast art collection, library, and archives, I realized that the preservation emphasis was worth emphasizing.
So I mentioned how Latin is still spoken by 200 or so of the priests who work in the Secretariat of State, translating documents (and many of the Pope's tweets) into the language of Cicero and Caesar. Latin is not a dead language at the Vatican, although Italian (along with English and other languages) is used for daily business. The Vatican uses eight official languages to communicate with the world.
I mentioned how the Vatican Library's vast treasures include the earliest example of Arabic (a 7th-century Koran), 800 Hebrew manuscripts, including a Torah used by Maimonides, as well as Persian and Hindu texts, rare papyrus manuscripts dating back 2,500 years and 300,000 Greek and Roman coins. This library was founded in 1451 and has been open to scholars since the 17th century.
The so-called Secret Archives are not really secret (just private)--except that, for the past 100 years, scholars can consults nearly all of them. They include the letters of Henry VIII asking for an annulment of his first marriage, the excommunication of Martin Luther, letters from Mozart and the first Queen Elizabeth. Official documents from 1939 to the present remain sealed, but many of the famous documents, like letters from President Lincoln, can be viewed online. Novelists who write sensational fiction about Vatican secrets prefer to ignore what the Archives are really about.
I also mentioned (among many little-known facts) that the first high-ranking woman hired by the Vatican was Jewish: Hermine Speier was hired in 1934 to set up a photographic archive, which she headed for forty years. Today, 41 percent of the female employees have university degrees: they are curators, librarians, linguists, media experts, historians, and lawyers. About 19 percent of the staff are women.
I mentioned that the Vatican Observatory has been doing important work in astronomy for 400 years and now is a partner with the University of Arizona. Of course, the eight museums with 100,000 objects from Roman, Etruscan, Egyptian, Greek and medieval times as well galleries filled with Renaissance art make the Vatican home to the greatest concentration of art in the world. Today, there is a Ministry of Culture to promote exchanges with other museums.
Although the past is a constant presence in Pope World, I reminded the audience that the Pontifical Academy of Science (and of Social Science) has regularly invited scholars of many faith traditions to discuss humanitarian issues: most recently, stem cell research and the environment. When the mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, recently attended an economic summit at the Vatican, he declared that, for the first time in his life, he could say that "the Church is one of the centers of progressive thought in the world." Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia Univ. economist, has been a regular consultant on the environment; he stated that the Catholic Church, through the various Vatican agencies, has provided leadership on nuclear disarmament, the international debt crisis, human trafficking, and refugee relief. A lot goes on behind those old walls besides theology!
I have been fascinated to learn how the past and the present intersect in this unique place that Lord Norwich, the historian, has called the "most astonishing social, political, and spiritual institution ever created."
The Vatican has been around a long, long time, often as a center of controversy and conflict, but also as a powerful institution that affects much of the world, beyond the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church.
Thanks to my interest in Pope Francis and the way he is reinventing the papacy, I have learned a great deal about the colorful, complex organization he heads and have enjoyed sharing what I've learned with audiences.