Vatican secrets: the Vatican City flag and 11 other answers

From outside its walls, the Vatican looks like the Forbidden City. This is where an elderly man runs the Roman Catholic Church for some 1.3 billion believers. With its conclave behind closed doors and its Kremlin-like structure, the Vatican evokes mystery, having it’s own Vatican secrets. But with a little persistence, the mysteries can be unravelled.

Vatican Secrets exposed

In the collective image, the Vatican in general is synonymous with intrigue, secrecy and power, and the Vatican apparently does everything in its power to keep this image up, given the constant turmoil. This despite the efforts of Pope Francis, who is striving for a transparent Vatican.

Luckily for us, The Vatican secrets still remain. Just think about confidential data being leaked, strange money transactions and even a triple murder (in 1999). But there are also some unknown secrets of smaller dimensions. In this article, we’re exposing a several very interesting Vatican secrets.

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1. Discover the ‘secret’ Vatican ATM

There is one ATM in the Vatican. It is on the outside of the post office. Below I have indicated where exactly. If you have managed to get there (you will have to convince the Swiss Guard first), it is as if you have landed in the Middle Ages in a spaceship. The display shows the text in Latin, the official language of the Vatican: Inserito scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem or ‘Please enter the card, to access the permitted operations’.

Vatican secrets
© Original Photo

The cash machine is located where the yellow circle is drawn. By the way, the red circle stands for one of the other Vatican secrets: 

Vatican secrets
© Original Graphic based on Google Maps

2. How secret is the Vatican Secret Archive?

The Vatican Secret Archive appeals to the imagination. Eighty-five kilometres filing cabinets, two floors above ground and 31,000 cubic metres of underground space, filled with perhaps the most interesting collection in the world. 

The Vatican Secret Archives (since 2019 known as the ‘Vatican Apostolic Archive’) were created 400 years ago. The archive, which is called ‘secret’ because it is a private archive, includes also the archives of the Vatican’s foreign service, the oldest of the world. The correspondence between the Vatican and the outside world from 1198 onwards is as good as intact.

I was there a few years ago. Inside, all bags must be placed in a locker, “including photographic equipment”, said the staff member who accompanied me. About fifteen visitors were in the reading room that afternoon, according to the attendance book. Every year, some 200 scientists are given permission to do research in the archives. Since the beginning of 2020, the archives of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) have also been public. 

Most impressive were two heavy, red metal doors of the underground bunker of the Vatican Secret Archives, which the staff member pushed open with some difficulty. Behind them, long corridors revealed seemingly endless rows of cases.

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3. What is the Vatican City Flag?

That’s an easy one. Read it for yourself in the Vatican constitution

The flag of the Vatican City State consists of two vertically divided fields, one yellow adhering to the staff and the other white, and bears in the latter the tiara with the keys.

Vatican City Flag
© Original Photo

4. How rich is the Vatican?

Now we have a topic. Until recently, the Vatican was even more seclusive than usual when it comes to money. The Vatican was actually the equivalent of an offshore financial centre. Since about eight years now, the Vatican has chosen to show more openness. Moneyval, the financial European Union watchdog, now keeps an eye on most money matters, as much as possible. According to the latest review, the Vatican is cooperative, but Moneyval nevertheless warns that:

it should be underlined that this is a desk-based review. It draws largely upon the replies to the progress report template provided by the Vatican State in October 2017.

It is not easy to calculate how much money the Holy See (see below, on what that is) has at its disposal. There are six, rather independent sections that deal with finances. The most important departement is APSA, which manages the largest part of the patrimony. The chief of APSA said in an interview that a part of the patrimony involves:

2,400 flats, mostly in Rome and Castel Gandolfo. And 600 shops and offices. Those not generating income are either service flats or Curia offices. Moreover, about 60% of the flats are rented out to employees in need, who receive a reduced rent. This is a form of social housing.

The art treasures of Michelangelo and Bernini and the ones exposed in the Vatican Museums and the Saint Peter’s are on the books for 1 euro.

Apart from the real estate, APSA invests money in stocks, bonds and other yielding instruments. Adding up the value of real estate and investments, APSA has about 5 billion euros on its books.

Super secret was the balance sheet of the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, better known as the Vatican Bank, which is also known for its (fictional) unholy role in The Godfather III (Cardinal: “Don Corleone, I need your help”). 

But since glashost has stepped in, it is actually rather disappointing how much is in the bank, as the lastest official annual review (June 2021) shows:

The Institute served 14,991 customers representing 5.0 billion euros in financial resources, of which Euro 3.2 billion related to assets under management and in custody.

And then there’s the current balance sheet of the Holy See (i.e. separate from APSA and the Vatican Bank). It is quite a modest organisation, according to the head of the Department of the Economy (that should be in control of all money flows):

We had [in 2019] revenues of 307 million euro and we spent 318 million euro. Our deficit is 11 million. We have a net worth of 1,402 million euros. There are many high high schools in the United States that have a greater volume than the Roman Curia.

That leaves us with Vatican City, which has its own financial housekeeping. It made a profit of 60 million euros, mainly thanks to ticket sales for the Vatican Museums. This figure comes from 2014, the last year the balance sheet was published – which is a bit odd.

All in all, the Vatican (including the Holy See) accounts for around 11 billion euros.

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5. How many people visit the Vatican?

In 2019, nearly 6.9 people visited the Vatican Museums. This makes it the world’s third best visited museum (at number 1 is the Louvre, number 2 is the National Museum of China), according The Art Newspaper. It is not known exactly how many people have visited St Peter’s Basilica that year, because that is not a matter of simply counting the admission tickets. The entrance is free, that’s no Vatican secret.

By the way, most tourists in Rome also visit the other major attraction: the Colosseum. In 2019, this Amphitheatre attracted 7.5 million visitors.

Since March 7, 2020 when the coronavirus hit the Vatican, since then restricting access to the mini-state the numbers have obviously plummeted. The Vatican Museums can still be visited anyway. 

6. Who becomes the next pope?

We have the best intentions for Pope Francis, but it is not all bad to wonder who the next pope would be. Unfortunately, a woman is still far away, but does the Vatican finally get a black pope? It is all too easy to drop some names. It should not just be based on skin colour, passport or because you often hear about a certain cardinal. I have made the following list of aspects that are important when choosing the next pope:

Vatican City Flag
© Original Graphic

Based on that, I come up with the following names:

Vatican City Flag
© Original Graphic

Very briefly their biography:

  • Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras, born 1942): Candidate of Latin America and the Vatican bureaucracy. Is a seasoned curia tiger, chairs the powerful Council of Cardinal Advisers in the Vatican.
  • Tagle (Philippines, 1957): for those who want a young, modern, charismatic pope. Pushed by Francis, boss of the International Caritas (important Catholic aid organisation).
  • Schönborn (Austria, 1945): interim Candidate, in line with the previous pope (Benedict XVI), man of dialogue.
  • Zuppi (Italy, 1955): Italian candidate (20% of the votable Cardinals come from Italy). He is more of a pastor than a career man, charismatic, young.
  • Parolin (Italy, 1955): man of a part of the Curia. Francis’ right-hand man. Dull Italian politician. Man behind the opening with China (the ‘religious market’ of the future).
  • Sarah (French Guinea, 1945): Candidate of the traditionalists, not in line with Pope Francis. Was head of the Vatican Department of developing countries (thus, has a large network in Africa and Asia).
  • Turkson (Ghana, 1948): for those who want to continue the line of Francis, man of interreligious dialogue (comes from a mixed faith family), Chief of the brand new Congregation for Human Development, a department with a future.
  • Ouellet (Canada, 1944) Alternative candidate if the top contenders were to fall. Finished in the top 3 after the first vote at the 2013 conclave.

Read my more detailed analysis on the leading candidates to become pope.

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7. Is the Vatican a country?

In 2029 the Vatican City will be celebrated as officially being a country, although it is the smallest in the world. Its territory measures 104 acres. Apart from surface area, the Vatican City fulfils other requirements of a state. You have people living there, although no more than 453 (cardinals, diplomats, Swiss guards). Then there is something resembling governmental power. 11 February is their public holiday. They have an anthem (“O immortal Rome of martyrs and saints…”) as well. Listen well: 

“O felix Roma, o Roma nobilis…” – Via: Wikipedia

Vatican City is in fact a (non-dynastic) monarchy that is 100% ruled by the Pope. The Constitution makes no secret of it:

The Supreme Pontiff, Sovereign of Vatican City State, has the fullness of legislative, executive and judicial powers.

Actually, the Pope does not need a country. When the Pope was landless (1870-1929), states also maintained diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The justification for the international status of the Holy See is not based on the existence of the Vatican. It was created precisely because of international recognition of the international status of the Holy See.

8. What is the Holy See?

Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost, it is not easy, but we at least know the existence of this concept. But what on earth does Holy See mean? 

The Holy See is a notion that refers to the seat of the Bishop of Rome. The Bishop of Rome is the pope, who, as the primus inter pares of all the (more than 5,000) bishops in the world, exercises the highest authority in the Church. The Holy See is the central administration of the Roman Catholic Church.

Even though the Vatican City State and the Holy See are two different institutions, they are strongly linked, especially through the personal union of the Pope, who is both the head of the Holy See and head of state of the Vatican City State. 

What certainly links the two is the fact that the Holy See has its seat in Vatican City. If the two institutions were to be hierarchically divided, Holy See would come before Vatican City. In the words of former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold (1953-1961):

When I go to the Vatican for an audience, I do not get to see the King of the Vatican City, but the head of the Catholic Church.

9. Can I book a Vatican Hotel?

The first lines of a book I wrote about the Vatican give an impression of what to expect when you plan to visit the Vatican:

Vatican City is a village. A walled village of 439 square metres with its own parish church, a pharmacy, a bank, the gendarmerie and a supermarket. Like so many Italian villages, it is situated on a hill, which here is called Mons Vaticanus. The highest point is 77 metres above sea level. After that, it gradually goes downhill. The church square is almost 60 metres lower. 

The Vatican City may have the characteristics of a village, but it is an independent state and the beating heart of the Roman Catholic Church. Its village-like dimensions make it the smallest state in the world.

What you can visit as a tourist is limited to the St Peter’s Basilique and St Peter’s Square, the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel) and some smaller other things. So, no Vatican hotel, no Vatican restaurant (except of some snack bars in the museums) and neither walking through narrow streets as you do in other villages. 

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10. Is the camerlengo from Angels & Demons really such powerful?

Since the Angels and Demons book and film, the camerlengo has become a familiar figure in Vatican affairs for a general public. Dan Brown portrays him as a young priest. In reality, the Camerlengo is a cardinal and usually an over his 80s – it takes a while to get through to the highest ranks.

Camerlengo means chamberlain, a lower position at the court of a royal. That does not sound like a super job. The opposite is true.

The quintessential camerlengo is the Cardinal Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, who, in addition to directing the financial administration of the Holy See through the Apostolic Chamber, has the main task of presiding over the sede vacante (the period between two Popes when the papal chair (sede) is empty). As of February 2019, this post is held by US Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell.

11. How do you become a saint?

According to the Roman Catholic Church, saints reside in heaven and deserve to be honoured because they can mediate between God and man. However, before someone is venerated in heaven, some earthly work has to be done. A group of ‘fans’ of the deceased, who was “already a saint in life”, should have their case promoted by a ‘postulator’,  who pleads the case with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, an administrative body of the Holy See. 

If the Congregation determines that a miracle has occurred, the “servant” is eligible for beatification. For example, a sick person who is cured through the intercession of a would-be saint for medically inexplicable reasons, is considered a miracle. Two miracles are required for the status of saint. Under John Paul II, the Catholic Olympus has become enormously populated. A few have achieved saint status in record time. The very champion of canonisation, John Paul II himself, was beatified (2011) and canonised (2014) in no time after his death in 2005. The bunch of miracle workers serve as examples for believers. Many of them are venerated locally.

Vatican city flag
Pope John Paul was beatified and canonised very soon after his death. © Original

12. Is the Pope sufficiently protected against terrorism?

We think his protection should be better. Anyone who wants to do harm, can send the Pope to an early grave without much difficulty. During mass meetings he is often driven in an open car. We photographed the Pope here at one of his last public appearances before the corona epidemic broke out. So it is not so difficult to get close to him.

Vatican City Flag
One of the last public appearances before the corona epidemic broke out (February 2020). © Original Photo

Of course, there is some surveillance. Since the attack on Pope John Paul II in 1981, the pope often drives around in a glass car with bulletproof glass. The Apostolic Palace, where the Pope works, is also fitted with protective glass. 

The personal guard is the Swiss Guard, whose members are dressed in the uncomfortable uniform (including halberd) designed in 1506 when the corps was founded. The 100 or so guardsmen are young, unmarried and Catholic Swiss who sign up for two years. 

Since the terrorist attacks in Europe this century, you do not enter St Peter’s without a fairly thorough check by the Italian police, who take care of the control outside the church. According to the Italian security service, the Vatican is a major target. 

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13. Are the Swiss Guard Actually Swiss?

The Swiss Guard is 100 percent Swiss. If you catch up with the list of the newest recruits, it becomes clear. By the way, of the 34 new halberdiers (2021), traditionally most come from the German-speaking part of the country (23). Eight soldiers are French-speaking, two come from the Italilan katons, one has as his mother tongue retro-Romanian.

Watch this short video below of how the oath-taking ceremony is conducted:

Other topics about the Vatican?

We could tell a lot of other things about the Vatican, secrets or not. Let us know if you want us to highlight any particular topic about the Vatican.

Books about the Vatican

Wagonloads of books have been written about the Vatican, about the popes and about their scandals. Forty-five per cent of them are books about, shall we say, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and forty-five per cent of them describe it as all rose scent and moonshine. Ten per cent are good.

  1. John L. Allen Jr., “All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks”. This American journalist in Vaticanism has kept track of the Vatican for some 15 years, in a balanced and analytical way. This book is not super new, but retains its value for how the Vatican works.
  2. Peter Hebblethwaite, “Inside the Vatican”. Even older, but it remains my favourite, also because of the wonderful British, ironic way it is written. The nice thing about older books that deal with the Vatican: they never really age, because the Vatican hardly ever changes.
  3. Frédéric Martel, “In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy”. You will read this book from 2019 in a jerk, because what happens in the closet (or the bed, or love shacks) between clergymen in Rome and the Vatican will make your hair stand on end. Fairly well documented, here and there a bit exaggerated.
  4. John Thavis, “The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Power”, Personalities, and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church. Another (North-) American journalist in Vatican and religious affairs who wrote a provocative account of this singular institution in an increasingly secularized world.

Below I have condensed the information from this post into a few short questions and answers.

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How rich is the Vatican?

The Holy See and the Vatican are thought to have about 11 billion euros.

Who will be the next Pope?

Vatican City Flag

The most likely to become the next Pope are Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras), Tagle (Philippines), Schönborn (Austria), Zuppi or Parolin (both from Italy), Sarah (French Guinea), Turkson (Ghana) or Ouellet (Canada):

What is the difference between the Vatican and the Holy See?

The Holy See is the central administration of the Roman Catholic Church with its seat in Vatican City. If the two institutions were to be hierarchically divided, Holy See would come before Vatican City.

What is the Vatican City Flag?

Vatican City Flag

The flag of the Vatican City State consists of two vertically divided fields, one yellow adhering to the staff and the other white, and bears in the latter the tiara with the keys.

Photo of author
Ewout is an Italy expert who has written thousands of articles for Dutch media as a correspondent and has published 10 books on wide-ranging topics such as Rome, the Vatican, Tuscany, Italian brands and Italian women.

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