Vatican City has a new governor. What does he actually govern?

A Pillar Explainer

Pope Francis on Wednesday appointed Bishop Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, L.C. to serve as the president of the Governorate of Vatican City State. His appointment will take effect Oct. 1.

The bishop will take up oversight of the Vatican City’s administrative offices, police department, post office, and of the Vatican Museums, a major economic engine of Vatican activity, which fall under the purview of the Vatican City State.

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Here are some things you might not know about Vatican City:

What it is

Vatican City State is the smallest sovereign state in the world, and has the smallest population of any state in the world — roughly 450 residents, and 350 Vatican citizens who live elsewhere, or who represent the Church as diplomats around the world, but have official residence inside the Vatican City State.

The state houses the administrative and pastoral offices of the Church, as well as St. Peter’s Basilica and numerous other churches and chapels. 

Vatican City has no permanent citizens — citizenship is conferred on clerics and lay people with certain leadership or administrative positions in the Church, and on some family members who live within Vatican City. That citizenship is lost with the positions which conferred them, or, in some cases, when citizens move from Vatican City to other countries, including Italy.

Vatican City State’s primary function is to help ensure the freedom and independence of the pope, so that he is never resident in a country he does not govern, or subject to any foreign government. 

Vatican City is under the governance of the Holy See, by which the pope functions as an absolute monarch; the pope possesses all legislative, executive, and judicial power. 

The city state is governed, by the pope’s delegation, through the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, whose president is the leader of the Governorate of Vatican City. Those bodies relate to the pope through the Holy See’s Secretariat of State. 

What it is not

Vatican City State is not the Holy See, the sovereign entity which governs the Catholic Church and represents the Church in international law and diplomacy. 

Instead, Vatican City State houses the Holy See, and is governed, through the pope’s delegation, by officials who officially work for the Holy See, including Bishop Vérgez.

The Holy See, not Vatican City State, issues passports to the diplomats who represent the Church around the world, including the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.

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Where it came from

For hundreds of years, the pope was responsible for governing a large territory across the Italian peninsula called the Papal States. The Papal States interacted with surrounding kingdoms and territories in ordinary ways, giving the pope both a spiritual role as supreme pontiff, and a temporal leadership role in international affairs.

In 1861, King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia was proclaimed the King of Italy, and claimed the whole territory of the Italian peninsula. Over the next nine years, the small states and regions of Italy were united within the new Italian Kingdom, including the Papal States. 

Rome itself, the center of the Papal States, was captured by the Italian Army in 1870, and the papal states soon became a part  of the Italian Kingdom.

Even after the capture of the Papal States, the pope continued to maintain diplomatic relations with other nations, and insist on the Church’s right to total sovereignty, free from interference by any civil government.

For the next 59 years, Popes Piux IX, Pius X, and Pius XI remained within the Vatican, describing themselves as imprisoned or confined by the Italian state, and initially declining negotiations regarding some solution to the impasse, which was a source of tension across central Italy.

On February 11, 1929, after three years of negotiations, the Holy See and the Italian government signed the Lateran Treaty, which created the Vatican City State and recognized the full and independent sovereignty of the Holy See.

How it’s governed

In practice, the city state is governed by the Governorate of Vatican City, on behalf of the pope. 

The governorate oversees administrative offices; the Vatican Museums;  the Vatican Observatory; Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s rural retreat outside of Rome, and several “extra-territorial” office buildings and residences across Rome.

The city state has a police force, a financial investigative and intelligence service, an ambulance corps, a fully functional court system, and even a very small jail. 

By the terms of the Lateran Treaty and subsequent agreements, Vatican City State also receives supportive and infrastructure services through cooperation with the Italian government.  

The laws of Vatican City bear considerable resemblance to Italian laws, because until 2008 the city state adopted Italian criminal and administrative laws, insofar as they did not conflict with divine law or canon law. Since 2008, as Italy has adopted increasingly secular values, newly passed Italian laws are considered for adoption in Vatican City State, but are not adopted automatically.

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How small is it?

Vatican City State’s territory is 121 acres, or .17 square miles.

For comparison, you could fit Vatican City into:

You could not fit Vatican City into the Mall of America, which, at 96.4 acres, is just slightly too small.

The Swiss Guard

The Swiss Guard operates within the Vatican City State, but is not technically a military force of the city state.

Instead, the papal protection unit, which was first founded in the sixteenth century, is the last vestige of the military of the Papal States, and is now technically a military unit of the Holy See. 

The unit serves the ceremonial duties for which it is well known, guarding the pope and buildings within Vatican City in colorful uniforms and cool hats.

But the Swiss Guard also serves a sophisticated papal protection role using modern weaponry, training, and tactics, and coordinates building security with Vatican City’s national police force.

Recruits must be Catholics with Swiss citizenship and basic Swiss military training. New Guards serve two year terms, which can be extended. 

Members of the Swiss Guard. Fun fact: Since January 2019, the ceremonial helmets shown above have been 3D printed plastic. Credit: Jayaprakash via flickr. CC BY SA 2.0

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The parish

The Church provides that the entire territory of Vatican City State makes up the Parish of Santa Anna, located at the Porta Sant’Anna, a border crossing between Italy and the city state. Every resident of Vatican City State is a parishioner of the territorial parish, including Pope Francis himself.