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Inside the Vatican's walls: how a spiritual center became a country.

What is the world's smallest country? Here is a clue: It serves as the spiritual center of the Roman Catholic Church and is surrounded by the city of Rome.

The answer: Vatican City. This tiny nation occupies a mere 109 acres. Its 820 residents could fit comfortably into a large apartment building in New York City.

The Pope, Benedict XVI, presides over Vatican City--and the world's largest body of Christians (see GeoSkills, p. 15).


The Vatican's Christian history goes back almost 2,000 years. In 64 A.D., Roman Emperor Nero had many Christians put to death on Rome's Vatican Hill. According to tradition, one of those martyrs was Peter, an fapostle of Jesus. Catholic belief holds that the Pope is Peter's successor as head of the church.

Persecution continued sporadically for about two centuries. Then, in 313, Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius legalized Christianity. Constantine, the first Emperor to convert to Christianity, built the original St. Peter's Basilica (church), thought to be on the site of Peter's tomb.


Although Italy's history dates to ancient times, it was not united as one nation until 1870. Before then, the Catholic Church had ruled the Papal States for more than 1,000 years. But in the 1860s, the Italian Army conquered the Papal States, taking Rome in 1870.

For the next 60 years, Italy and the Vatican were at odds. This ended in 1929, when the Lateran Treaty recognized Vatican City as a mini-state (small independent nation) and the Pope as its sovereign.

Because it is such a small country, however, Vatican City shares government functions with Rome and Italy. Vatican City has its own coins, for instance, but they are minted in Rome. It has its own police force, but depends on the Italian Army for its military defense. There is a small jail, but "to my knowledge, it has never been used," says Monsignor Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

Residents of Vatican City include the Pope and his staff; several Cardinals, who are the Church's highest-ranking officials; and the Swiss Guard, a corps of soldiers that has guarded the Pope since 1506.

Among his many responsibilities, the Pope oversees the Church's 3,000-plus dioceses (districts) worldwide. He appears in public twice a week to deliver blessings and often says Mass (religious service).


However, his life is not all work. Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) had a bowling alley built at the Vatican, and Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), an avid sportsman, loved to swim and ski.

The few children who live in Vatican City go to school in Rome. But there is a boarding school for the altar boys who serve at Vatican Masses.

Tourists and Pilgrims

Each year, about 4 million people--both religious pilgrims and tourists--flock to Vatican City. Most tourists come to see the art, especially the frescoes painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A great Renaissance artist, Michelangelo spent four years completing the frescoes. He recalled being twisted into uncomfortable positions on a scaffold, noting that the paint dripping onto his face turned it "into a rich mosaic."

In addition to its art, the Vatican maintains vast archives. The collection includes a 1,500-year-old Bible manuscript and love letters from English King Henry VIII to his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The King's desire to divorce his first wife caused him to split from the Catholic Church and create the Church of England.


The museums and St. Peter's Basilica are open to the public. But the rest of Vatican City is not. Admission is limited to those who have appointments to meet church officials or study in the archives. "You can't just wander in," says Monsignor Wister. "Otherwise, the city would be flooded [with people]."

If you do go to Vatican City, you'll have to watch what you wear. The dress code for visitors to St. Peter's calls for clothing that is "modest" and "appropriate." This means no shorts, sleeveless shirts, or skirts above the knee. For anyone who arrives with insufficient covering, however, vendors on the plaza sell paper clothing.

Words to Know

* Papal States: the name given to territory once controlled by early Popes of the Roman Catholic Church. Most of the states were located in central Italy.

* Renaissance: a Vest cultural movement that began in Italy during the early 1300s.

* sovereign: an individual who exercises supreme authority within a limited sphere.

Think About It

What makes Vatican City unique as a country?


* Learning how the seat of Roman Catholicism became an independent nation.

* Word to Know

* persecution: a persistent punishment, oppression, or other harsh treatment, aimed at persons of a specific race, ethnic group, gender, or religious faith.

* Before Reading

What do you know about Vatican City? Where is it? What is it famous for?

Reading prompt: What makes Vatican City unique among the world's nations?

* During Reading

[1] The Swiss Guards are an elite unit of soldiers responsible for protecting the Pope and guarding his homes at Vatican City and Castel Gandolfo (a country retreat). They answer only to the Pope, to whom they have sworn a loyalty oath. [2] The world's five-smallest countries, in order from smallest, are Vatican City, Monaco, Nauru, Tuvalu, and San Marino. For more on these and other small countries, visit

* After Reading

* In charge: How does the Vatican's government differ from those of most countries? (headed by the Pope, a religious leader; in most countries, heads of state are elected by the people or their representatives, or take power by force.)

* Keep It Going

Assign teams one of the smallest nations to learn about, then create a wall display and/or report on it to the class.



* Interactive Map. Points of interest.

* Vatican City State. The nation.


* The Incredible Book of Vatican Facts and Papal Curiosities, Nino Lo Bello [Liguori Publications, 1998]. Q&A format. Grades 6 & up.

* Inside the Vatican, Bart McDowell [National Geographic Society, 2005]. Includes many large fullcolor photos. Grades 6 & up.


* The Vatican Revealed [DVD]. Early Christianity; history of the Vatican. [A&E Home Video, 2005] NR [not rated].

* Use a word from this list to correctly complete each sentence.

annual income, display of art, dress code, Italian Army, King, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Paris, police of Rome, President, Prime Minister, Rome, sovereign, Swiss Army, Swiss Guards, Venice, Vincent Van Gogh

6. The famous Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted during the Renaissance by--

7. The country of Vatican City is surrounded by--

8. A 1929 treaty established Vatican City as a mini-state with the Pope as its--

9. The Pope is personally protected by members of the--

10. Museums and churches in Vatican City have a modest--


6. Michelangelo

7. Rome

8. sovereign

9. Swiss Guards

10. dress code
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Title Annotation:World
Author:Wishnia, Steve
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Article Type:Country overview
Geographic Code:4EXVA
Date:Feb 25, 2008
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