Map of Vatican.jpg“All I want is a small corner of the earth where I am master,” Pope Pius IX said in 1871, when the reunification of Italy had finally overwhelmed church resistance and the Papal States were no more. And a small corner is all he got–108 walled-in acres on the far side of the Tiber, the world’s smallest state. But as often happens, the loss redounded to the church’s benefit.
Today, Feb. 11, is the 80th anniversary of the Lateran Pacts signed in 1929 by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. The pacts regularized the status of the Vatican, compensated the church for the loss of its territory, and provided a starting point for successive popes to shed their isolation as “prisoners of the Vatican.”
Paul VI’s visits overseas–the first by a pontiff in the modern era–have too often been eclipsed by John Paul II’s epic record of travel, but Paul was dubbed “the Pilgrim Pope”–and transformed the papacy into a Pauline office as much as a Petrine one. George Weigel and others have spoken about this as the “post-Constantinian” era of the church, and I think that is a legacy of Vatican II as much as anything else.
Yet today’s anniversary also reminds me of the church’s necessary sense of place in the world, for good and ill. John Paul couldn’t wait to hit the road and get out of the golden cage of the apostolic palace. But leaving his lieutenants in charge while he was away didn’t necessarily work out well. And John XXIII never traveled overseas but his outlook was hardly captive to the Curia. Besides, how many religions have their own Ruritania. Or is it Shangri-La? The Magic Kingdom?
The motto of Vatican City State (which is the temporal entity distinct from the Holy See–and with a better balance sheet, thanks to its various industries) is “A small territory with a great mission.” That seems to sum it up.
There are many resources to mark the occassion. Some of the best are on the Vatican’s increasingly spanky website. Check out the “General Information” tab for some fascinating historical bits, from the origins of the Montes Vaticani to the papal flag and anthem, the license plates, and the population. And the webcams are pretty cool.
As CNS notes, an exhibition on Vatican City State opens tomorrow, Feb. 12. in the Braccio di Carlo Magno in St. Peter’s Square.

Among the many interesting and notable objects at the show will be the actual accord from the Vatican Secret Archives, making it the first time the original treaty will be on public display.
There will also be a scale model made out of birch wood of the 108-acre Vatican City State and the magnificent miter of Pope Pius XI who oversaw the building of the state’s new infrastructure during his 1922-1939 pontificate.
Car lovers will enjoy the one-of-a-kind Citroen “Lictoria” parked at the show. It was specially made for Pope Pius XI and has a throne in the back seat.

As to that last one, well, times change–even in the Vatican.
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