Vatican: keeping the faith

Article published on Jan. 9, 2007
Article published on Jan. 9, 2007
The Vatican – city within a city – and the Roman Diocese, which together govern the 338 parishes, 247 colleges and 558 Catholic secondary education institutions, condition life in the Italian capital

In Rome, many aspects of life – tourism, tradition and custom, the very nature of the city – are determined by Catholicism. It even affects your health. On November 24 2006, for example, local newspapers reported that an investigation into the increased number of leukaemia and lymphoma cases found in the north Rome suburb of Cesano was being reopened. The contamination could be caused by emissions from the huge antennae of the Vatican’s radio station.

The key of the city

The Vatican dominates the land quite literally too. 'It owns between 25% - 30% of properties in the centre, with a value of 5,000 million Euros,' claims Mario Staderini, head of the Radical Party in the city’s central district.' If you add to that the nearly 2,000 religious orders which have their headquarters in Rome, you could claim that the property market is controlled by an ‘absolute monarchy’. In fact, 25% of the Piazza Navona belongs to the Spanish Obras Pía [a heritage trust for buildings]' he insists. Meanwhile Radical Party's HQ, which maintains an 'unholy alliance' with the Italian Democratic Socialist Party, is owned by a congregation of Benedictine monks.

Francesco Paoletti's Union of Atheists, Agnostics and Rationalists of Italy (UAAR), continues to fight for the removal of crucifixes from public buildings: 'The parishes exert an invisible network of control over the whole territory of Rome. People ask them for favours or references, in return for help in finding work.'

The work is often the field of tourism, 'in which the protagonist is the Vatican,' reveals Mario Staderni. 'During the Jubilee celebrations, convents are converted into hostels, but not just to let to pilgrims. To rub salt into the wound, the Vatican is exempt from paying tax on these earnings.'

Fit for a king

'Rome is not a republic worthy of its name. It has its own king – the Pope,' remarks Fabio Mastretta, a 29-year-old Sicilian who has lived in Rome for ten years. He makes this ironic assertion in the Piazza di Campo dei Fiori, the only churchless square in this city of 2,600,000 inhabitants. One casts a look to the foot of the square, where the brooding statue of Giordano Bruno stands - an eternal memory of the Renaissance philosopher who was burnt at the stake for heresy.

Mastretta works in a ministry. But in this city of churches, it is hard to see which buildings pertain to the government. Most ministry offices are found well away from the centre, as if deliberately not wanting to encroach upon territory where they do not belong. 'In Rome you don’t see 'suits' rolling out of their offices and chatting away about business meetings or trips,' says Alice Kiandra Adams, a 36-year-old English teacher who arrived from Australia 19 months ago. It’s all very different from the atmosphere in the bars and cafés of the Paseo de la Castellana and the business neighbourhood Salamanca in Madrid, or the great doorways of the official 'palaces' in the Solférino or Rue du Bac in Paris, where ministerial buildings are located centrally. Here, groups of monks cross the street, whilst aristocratic-looking priests climb out of Mercedes and head for small chapels. There is a distinct lack of a gay neighbourhood such as London's Soho, the Marais in Paris or Chueca in Madrid.

Singular spirituality

Micaela Vitale, who works in the Centre of Hebrew Culture in the neighbourhood of Trastévere, does not believe that it is difficult not to be Catholic in Rome. 'When the Jewish community wants to organise an event in Rome, we do not have problems either with the authorities or the Catholic Church.' Nor has the Muslim community encountered any difficulties in erecting the largest mosque in Europe, with a capacity of 3,000. Kiandra Adams, a Catholic, does not even feel that in Rome 'there is more spirituality than in any other city in the world.'

So is the presence of the Catholic Church really as invasive as people say? Vitale says yes. 'There's a huge influx of pilgrims. On their own, they are no bother. But when they come charging up in huge groups in equally huge coaches, they block up the city. During the papal audiences on Wednesdays, you can barely move anywhere around Rome!'

Ave, María

It's Sunday, and it's a warm, sunny winter morning. The faithful duly flood the Plaza San Pietro of the Vatican. The Pope intones the Angelus (the first prayer of the day, and the bell of the same name that signals it.) Despite the furore surrounding the Vatican, nothing can compare to the feelings that its ceremonies provoke. You can hear a pin drop, but you are in the presence of a crowd that could fit into Wembley Stadium. Inside the cathedral, 1,500 devotees sing their psalms in unison, sounds which blend with melodies from the Eucharist to envelop the visitor and heighten their senses. Incense floats alongside melismas of music against a golden backdrop. 'The art and spirituality that the Vatican radiates are great benefits to the city,' affirm Pilar Domínguez and Antonio Sintas, two pilgrims from Malaga. They're overwhelmed by the experience of attending mass in San Pietro; 'many of us wouldn’t mind having the Vatican in our own city at all.'

Photo Piazza Navona: Pedro_qtc/ Flickr

Photo Rome's mosque: Metaphoto/ Flickr

Photo San Pietro's Basilic: Judit Járadi