by Fr M J van Heerden

When speaking about the Vatican one has to make a distinction between the Vatican and the papacy. The Vatican City today is the administrative capital of the Catholic Church and the present home of the Pope who is the human, spiritual leader on earth (papacy) of the Catholic Church. The Pope has not always lived in the Vatican and there was even a time in the early fourteenth century when the Pope lived in Avignon in Southern France. So let us look at both separately and then put them together.

The papacy is the term used for the office of the Pope. It is our Catholic belief that Christ commissioned the twelve apostles to be the foundation of His church and that the leader of the twelve was Peter (who we consider to be the first Pope). Peter was given this authority directly by Christ (Mt 16: 18; Luke 22:31) and in John 21:15, it is believed that the threefold commissioning by Christ of Peter was a commissioning to teach (Feed my Lambs), sanctify (Feed my Sheep) and govern (Tend my Sheep). In the early Church the bishops succeeded the apostles and the Popes succeeded Peter and the Popes were seen as the first among equals or, as St. Ignatius of Antioch (110 AD – Letter to the Romans) described the Pope, the one who “holds the presidency – worthy of God, worthy of honour …. Because you hold the presidency of love”.

The infallibility of the Popes is a dogma of our faith that was defined at the First Vatican Council (1869-1870). This dogma refers to the first commission of Christ for Peter to teach and to bind on earth in his name. It does not mean that the Popes are without sin or that all that they say is infallible. What it means is that Christ is faithful to His promise to lead the Church to the fullness of truth (John 16:13). The infallibility of the Church means that the gates of hell would never prevail against it and that it would never stray from the truth of Christ. When the Pope has to make a final discernment of what the Church believes he speaks what is called “ex cathedra” and we believe that that teaching is then the authentic interpretation of the truth of Christ.

For most of our Christian history, the Popes have lived in Rome and the Popes have always been the Bishops of Rome. Why Rome received this honour is because both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. The Cathedral Church of the Bishop of Rome is not St Peter’s but the Patriarchal Basilica of the Most Holy Saviour and St. John the Baptist (Lateran Basilica) which was the first large basilica built in the Christian world in the fourth century.  The Popes always lived there until the fourteenth century when, under threat from Henry VII, the French Pope Clement V moved to Avignon in France. St. Catherine of Sienna ensured that the papacy moved back to Rome in 1378.

The name ‘Vatican’ derives from the Vatican Hill which became a cemetery where St. Peter was buried. Constantine (288- 33& AD) built a chapel over the grave and in the 16th century the present Basilica of St. Peter’s was built over the chapel. It was at this time that the Popes began to live at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican City is the smallest country in the world and is a remnant of the Papal States  granted to the pope in 754 AD by the Frankish king Pepin the Short. When Victor Emanuel (1820-1878) created the united state of Italy he confiscated the Papal States and only in 1929 was the independent Vatican City created. This territory includes St. Peter’s, the papal apartments, the papal gardens, the general audience hall, the new hotel for visiting Bishops and Cardinals, the papal observatoty and the churches of the Lateran Basilica, St. Mary Major and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls (built over the place where St. Paul was buried).

Putting the two together then: the Vatican City is the present location where the Popes live and, as such, is the spiritual and administrative epicenter of the Catholic Church. The Popes could live elsewhere if they wanted – and, if Rome ceased to exist as a city, they could be Bishop of another area, while still being the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church. Over the years many gifts have been made to the Popes from leaders as well as faithful Catholics – most of these treasures are housed in the Vatican Museum and while they are administered by the Pope, they belong to all Catholics. Sometimes, for example, in order to finance some charity the Pope might take a bank loan using the treasures as surety. This endowment of the Church is called the “patrimony of St. Peter”.

As the leadership of the Church has been situated in Rome from the time of St. Peter, her archives contain documents going right back to this time – there are even some original manuscripts of the New Testament. These priceless documents are housed in the Vatican Archives to which the public has limited access. But, if one was doing say vital research one could get permission to study the documents in the archives. Most of the contents of the archives is now available in electronic format which has made it generally available to the public.

About the AuthorFr Michael (1)

by Fr M J van Heerden

I have been ordained thirty years this December and I can only thank God for a wonderful life as a priest. I have been able to travel because of the academic posts I have held – study further at the Catholic University of Leuven – minister in parishes as diverse as Wynberg, Atlantis, Malmesbury, Plumstead and Durbanville. What I particularly like is to have a mixture of academic work and pastoral experience – the former keeps the gray cells stimulated and the latter keeps one grounded and in touch with life. My bucket list includes learning Xhosa, travelling to southern Spain, Madeira and Vietnam and hopefully reaching my 50 year anniversary of priesthood.


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