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The Vatican: Very small but powerful

July 20, 2019


WHAT a great privilege it was for me to be assigned to our Embassy in the Vatican! To be so was to be steeped in the history of one’s religion, of a great religion. For the history of the Vatican is the history of Christianity itself.

Jesus Christ said to Peter, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my community.” (Matthew 16:18). Peter’s name was originally Simon but Jesus gave him the new name Peter, after the Greek word petros, which means “stone.” And so it came to pass that Peter became the first Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Church records show that St. Peter was Pope until he died on June 29 in 67 AD; he was followed by St. Linus, elected in 67 until his death on Sept. 23, 76; the third Pope was St. Cletus, elected in 76 and died in 88; the fourth was St. Clement, elected in 88 and died in 97; the fifth was St. Evaristus, elected in 97 and died in 105. The present Pope Francis is the 266th since Peter. During the papacy of St. Peter, he convened in around 50 AD the Council of Jerusalem, which instituted the first ecclesiastical code and the recitation of “Our Father.”

The Roman Emperor Nero began the first persecution of the Christians in Rome in 64 AD following the great fire that year which he blamed on the Christians. Tradition holds that the Apostle Peter was arrested and was condemned to be crucified but he demanded that his crucifixion be done upside down saying that he was unworthy to be crucified the same way as Jesus. He was buried in the place called Ager Vaticanus where the St. Peter’s Basilica, the center of Christendom, would later rise. The persecution of Christians in Rome was continued for centuries by subsequent Roman emperors until Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312. Constantine converted when hours before the start of the Battle of Milvian Bridge in Rome, he was praying to the supreme deity of his religion, the Sun, and he and his army saw the figure of the cross in the heavens with the inscription in hoc signo vinces (“in this sign prevail”). Constantine won the battle.

Another figure who greatly influenced the course of Christianity was Saul of Tarsus. Saul was a persecutor of Christians and he was on his way to Damascus to hunt down and destroy Christians in that Syrian city when he was felled by the force of a dazzling light. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” said a voice from the sky. Saul asked “Who are you, Lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” was the reply. Blinded by the light, Saul was taken by his companions to Damascus where an initially reluctant Ananias restored his sight. After that encounter with Jesus, Saul decided to dedicate his life to the spreading of the gospels. He changed his name to the Roman “Paul” while on his first mission to Cyprus, Greece and Asia Minor. His other missions took him around the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East regions, covering thousands of miles in the course of his ministry. He was arrested in Jerusalem, accused of blasphemy just like Jesus. As a Roman citizen, he was eventually transported to Rome for trial. He arrived in Rome in 64 AD and, like Peter, died during that first major persecution of Christians under Nero..

Emperor Constantine formally recognized Christianity with the Edict of Milan of 313. The first stone for the construction of the original St. Peter’s Basilica was laid by Constantine in 320, with the tomb of St. Peter at the center of its apse. The grand building was completed by Constantine’s son, Constants, in 349. The finished basilica has five aisles. During the Middle Ages, several new buildings were constructed near St. Peter’s by Eugene 3rd (1145-1153) and Innocent 3rd (1198-1216) and enlarged in the late 12th to early 13th century. When the papal court moved in 1305 to Avignon, France, Rome and St. Peter’s were abandoned for over a century. The popes returned to Rome in 1377, but it took another 50 years before the city regained its former glow. The complete rebuilding of St. Peter’s was discussed in the mid-15th century. The original St. Peter’s Basilica of Constantine stood for more than a millennium until it was finally demolished in 1506 and replaced with the current St. Peter’s Basilica which took 120 years to build.

There were times when the Vatican wasn’t as small as it is today. During the 4th century, the popes already had considerable property around Rome known as the Patrimony of St. Peter. For more than a thousand years, from 756 to 1870, the pope had sovereignty over territories in central Italy which were called Papal States, also known as Church States. The popes maintained their sovereignty over this territory through the Middle Ages although the local feudal lords were on the rise in the 9th and 10th centuries and despite conflicts with the German Holy Roman Emperors from the mid-11th century to the 14th century. For more than half a century during the time when the papal seat was moved from Rome to Avignon, local independence became widespread in the Papal States until the end of the Great Schism in 1417. Starting in the mid-15th century, the Renaissance popes tried to bring back papal authority in central Italy but by the end of the 16th century the Papal States were merely one of a number of petty Italian states. The Papal States were taken from the Pope in 1798-1799 for inclusion in the Cisalpine and Roman republics when France’s Napoleon became the dominant power in the Italian peninsula in the late 1790s, and again in 1808-1809 to be included in the Italian kingdom and the French empire. Although the Congress of Vienna of 1815 restored the Papal States to the Pope, there were revolts in the States in 1830-1831 and in 1849. During the movement for Italian unification, also known as Risorgimento, in the 19th century, the Papal States were observed to be an obstacle to national unification because the States divided Italy in two and because of the foreign power intervention to protect papal independence. The Papal States were eventually annexed to the new Italian nation when in 1859 Austria was defeated and the papal territories of Emilia, Umbria and Marche in central Italy voted to join the Italian kingdom. The area around Rome which remained papal territory was taken by Italian forces in 1870 and Rome was made capital of Italy. Recognition of the loss of their temporal powers were rejected by the popes and they remained “prisoners in the Vatican.”

And so for the next 59 years, during the incumbency of five popes (Pius 9th, 1846-1878; Leo 13th, 1878-1903; Pius 10th, 1903-1914; Benedict 15th, 1914-1922; and Pius 11th, 1922-1939) while the “Roman Question” lingered, the popes refused to leave the Vatican or even appear at the St. Peter’s Square and they remained prisoners in the Vatican. The 1871 Italian Law of Guarantees attempted to solve the problem by making the pope a subject of the Kingdom of Italy, but the popes demanded total sovereignty so that there would never be interference in the governance of the Roman Catholic Church. The resulting crisis of the “Roman Question” resulted in the excommunication of the King of Italy by Pope Pius 9th.

To settle the Roman Question, negotiations began in 1926 between Italy and the Holy See. Finally, the Lateran Treaty was signed on Feb. 11, 1929 at the Lateran Palace and the Italian Parliament ratified it on June 7, 1929. It recognized Vatican City as an independent state with the Italian Government agreeing to pay the Roman Catholic Church financial compensation for the loss of the Papal States.

The Vatican City was born with the official name State of Vatican City, the smallest country in the world with an area of 108.7 acres (44 hectares), which Pius 11th described as “just big enough to keep body and soul together.” Current population is around 1,000. There are many properties of the Holy See in Rome and outside Rome with extraterritorial status, including the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the Basilica of St. Mary Major, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, and the Castel Gandolfo Palace. Vatican military defense is provided by the Italian Armed Forces. The Swiss Guard, established in 1506 by Pope Julius 2nd, is a military corps of the Vatican responsible for the personal security of the Pope. During the sacking of Rome on May 6, 1527, 147 Swiss Guards were massacred defending Pope Clement 7th.

However, the central government of the Vatican city state, the Holy See, enjoys a sovereignty distinct from the city state and so it is the Holy See that enjoys diplomatic relations with the other countries of the world and not the Vatican. In the political provisions of the Lateran Treaty, the Pope was pledged to perpetual neutrality in international relations. The other neutral country, Switzerland, opted to join the United Nations in 2002, leaving the Holy See as the sole neutral country that is not a UN member-state. The Holy See was granted permanent observer state status by the UN on April 6, 1964. It was described by the UN as a sovereign entity with statehood over the territory of the Vatican City state. On July 1, 2004, it was granted all the rights of full membership, except voting rights.

At present, the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 183 countries. Several Muslim countries have resident embassies in the Holy See, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Lebanon and Turkey, with the embassies of Indonesia and Iran even bigger than the Philippine Embassy. Within Asean, diplomatic relations between Myanmar and the Holy See were established in 2017 and it was reported that Myanmar plans to open its resident diplomatic mission to the Holy See. So far, Brunei, Lao, and Vietnam remain as the Asean countries without full diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Holy See were established in 1951 with the first Philippine Ambassador Manuel Moran presenting his credentials that year. The Philippines being one of the largest Catholic countries of the world, the Embassy in the Vatican is kept busy year round by the many requests for assistance from Filipino pilgrims visiting the various Catholic pilgrimage sites in Rome and all over Italy, particularly the St. Peter’s Basilica. The Embassy also coordinates the official visits of Philippine government officials to the Holy See and the visits of Vatican officials to the Philippines, with work more intense during times of presidential or papal visits.

The Embassy maintains a separate Consular Section due to the presence of more than 3,000 Filipino religious composed of priests and nuns all over Italy whose consular needs have to be taken care of. During national elections in the Philippines, the Philippine Embassy to the Holy See has its own polling center, exclusively for the Filipino religious, separate from that of the Philippine Embassy to Italy. The Embassy likewise is responsible for maintaining the harmonious relations between the Philippine side and the various Holy See institutions as well as with the Philippine Catholic hierarchy’s Pontificio Collegio Filippino, located in Rome’s Via Aurelia near the Vatican. The latter is a home for Filipino seminarians and priests in Rome built on land bought with 1961 with funds donated by the Filipino Catholic faithful through fund raising in the Philippines. The Collegio (originally with an area of almost 24,000 square meters but now down to only more than 18,000 square meters after some parts were sold in the past) is the usual venue for the hosting by the Philippine Embassy to the Vatican of the diplomatic reception for the celebration of Philippine Independence Day. Collegio officials also allow various Filipino community associations in Italy to use its premises for their community events and activities.

The Vatican was declared by the UN as a World Heritage Site for its extraordinary cultural importance and no other country in the world has that designation. The 2017 Vatican Yearbook counts 1.285 billion baptized Catholics as of Dec. 21, 2015. The 10 largest Catholic countries in order are: Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, US, Italy, France, Colombia, Spain, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Argentina. As of the end of 2015, there were 670,320 professed women religious; 415,656 priests; 54,229 religious brothers; 45,255 deacons; and 5,304 bishops around the world. With more than a billion people adhering to the Roman Catholic faith globally, the benevolent power of the Holy See is indeed visible and shines brightly internationally.

Credit belongs to : www.manilatimes.net


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