Where Is the Vatican?
It was a cold, wet day in March 2013. Crowds of Catholics filled a huge square outside the largest church in the world: St. Peter’s Basilica. More than fifty thousand people had come to find out who would be the next pope.
The answer depended on a vote that was taking place inside a chapel beside the huge church. One hundred fifteen cardinals were locked inside to vote for the new pope. (Cardinals are the most important Catholic priests after the pope.) To be elected pope, one of the cardinals had to receive two-thirds of the votes. The cardinals wrote the name of the person they were voting for on a piece of paper. They kept their votes secret by disguising their handwriting. After being counted, the ballots were burned and smoke drifted up from the chapel.
The results of the votes are always announced to the world in a puff of smoke. White smoke means that a new pope has been elected. Black smoke means that no one has gotten enough votes yet.
On the first day of voting, no one was chosen. Black smoke billowed out of the chapel chimney. The same thing happened the next morning—black smoke. The cardinals would have to vote again.
Rain began to fall. Still, the crowds remained, waiting under umbrellas into the night.
Finally, on the evening of March 13, a plume of white smoke floated up into the air. The crowd burst into joyous cheers. They waved flags from countries all over the world. Then bells began to ring and ring, announcing that a new pope had been chosen.
By the time Pope Francis appeared on the balcony overlooking the square, the rain had stopped. He spoke humbly to the crowds, asking them to pray for him. He knew he had a big job ahead of him.
Being pope meant he would head the Catholic Church, all the world over. As pope, he would also be the leader of a country. It is the smallest country in the world, located entirely inside the city of Rome, Italy.
The country is called Vatican City. Chapter 1
: A Safe Place for Christians
How did Vatican City become the smallest country on earth?
The answer lies in the story of Christianity—a story that began more than two thousand years ago when Jesus was alive.
The Christian religion is based on the teachings of Jesus and the events of his life. Christian people believe he is the son of God. Jesus was killed by the Romans for his preaching. He was nailed to a cross and left to die. Christians believe he rose from the dead three days later and returned to God in heaven.
For a long time after that, it wasn’t safe to be a Christian—especially in Rome. Rome was the center of power in the ancient Roman Empire. One leader of the empire was Nero. Nero didn’t want a new, different religion taking over his world. He wanted everyone to obey him and pray to the Roman gods the way they always had. He killed many Christians.
Peter was one of Jesus’s followers. He wouldn’t give up his new religion. So he was crucified, too. According to the story, his body was buried right where he died in Rome.
Christians loved and admired Peter for his faith and courage. As time went on, he became known as St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome. A bishop is someone chosen to lead the church.
For the next three hundred years, many Christians were threatened, tortured, and harmed. But an emperor named Constantine took over the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Constantine believed in the Christian religion. He declared that people should be allowed to worship whatever religion they chose.
Constantine donated lands and churches to the Christians. He gave the bishop of Rome a palace to live in, called the Lateran Palace. One of the earliest Christian churches, called St. John Lateran, was built beside the palace. From then on, the bishop of Rome was called the pope, and all the popes were called the bishop of Rome. “Pope” comes from the word papa
, which means father
. For the next thousand years, all the popes lived in the Lateran Palace.
At the same time, Constantine began to build another huge church. Construction lasted from AD 360 to 380. He called it St. Peter’s Basilica.
It was built very near the site where St. Peter was buried. It was located on a hill near the Tiber River, on a spot called Vatican Hill.
As time went on, the popes gained more and more power throughout Europe. Starting with Constantine, many emperors gave fabulous gifts to the church. In return, the popes often acted as peacekeepers when foreign tribes attacked Rome. Popes were often treated as if they had equal power to emperors, kings, and queens. They ruled over large areas of land—called the Papal States—in what is now Italy. (Italy didn’t become the country as we know it today until 1870.)
But often, the popes and the Vatican were under attack from tribes who stole many treasures.
In the ninth century, Pope Leo IV had a huge wall built around the buildings that are now known as the Vatican. This was for protection. The wall was like a fortress—twelve feet thick and forty feet high. It had towers and windows that were really just small slits. From behind the openings, men could defend the Vatican by shooting arrows at attackers below.
Having a wall around the Vatican helped. It was the first step in creating a small city that belonged only to the church, where the pope could be safe.
But the wall didn’t stop all the rivalries and violence. Before Christian leaders would be truly safe, they were going to need a bigger wall. Chapter 2
: Struggles for Power
Throughout the Middle Ages—the period from the 400s to the 1500s—church leaders struggled for power. Sometimes the pope’s power was threatened by kings. At other times, popes were challenged by rival bishops.
One pope led an army into battle in order to survive. Another pope was thrown into prison by his rivals. Sometimes, a group of church leaders would get together and elect a new pope—even before the current pope had died. Then there were two popes at once, fighting for control of the church! There is also a story that in 882, Pope John VIII was poisoned and beaten to death. In 904, Pope Leo V was thrown into his own dungeon and strangled to death.
All the infighting gave the church a bad name. Finally, in the year 1049, a pope came along who wanted priests to be more devoted to their religion. Pope Leo IX created new rules.
He said priests couldn’t marry or have children. Other popes made rules to make sure popes were not chosen by kings or emperors. They had to be elected by the cardinals.
It was a good rule, however, the cardinals did not always agree. In 1268, Pope Clement IV died in the town of Viterbo, in Italy. The cardinals gathered there to vote on a new pope. But the voting went on for three years! Finally the leaders of the town decided to force them to vote. They locked the cardinals in the pope’s house. When they still didn’t choose a new pope, the town’s leaders took away some of their food. Then they took more food. Then they removed part of the roof! At last, the cardinals chose Pope Gregory X.
Gregory X issued an order, called a Papal Bull. It spelled out more rules for electing popes.
He said that in the future, cardinals would always be locked in a room in the palace where the pope had died. Food would be passed to the cardinals through a small opening. If they didn’t choose a pope within three days, they’d get less food. Their pay would be cut short as well. The system of locking the cardinals up to choose a new pope is called a conclave.
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