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The Founding of Vatican City State: February 11, 1929

Pope Pius XI

“Gladly do We offer Our life for the Peace of the World!” These words were among the last spoken by Pope Benedict XV. The day after he uttered them, January 22, 1922, at 6 o’clock in the morning, the pope of peace “with great holiness fell asleep in the Lord.” Once again, in perilous times, the Church—and the world—was left without a shepherd. The conclave to elect the new pope opened February 3, 1922; three days later, the cardinals had made their choice—Cardinal Achille Ratti, the archbishop of Milan, a close friend of Benedict XV. A theologian and scholar, Ratti had served as head of the Vatican Library and as the pope’s nuncio to the new nation of Poland. He took the name Pius XI and announced that he would guide his reign by the motto, pax Christi in regno Christi—“The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.”

The new pope explained this motto in his first encyclical, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, issued December 23, 1922. “Since the close of the Great War, individuals, the different classes of society, the nations of the earth have not yet found true peace,” wrote Pius. Nations were still rivals; public life was clouded “by the dense fog of mutual hatreds”; the war between the rich and poor classes continued, because each class seeks “to rule the other and to assume control of the other’s possessions.” Even family members were at odds with one another, said the pope, for the war had torn fathers and sons away “from the family fireside” and had weakened the sense of morality. The people of his day, said the pope, refused obedience to rightful authority and were failing to live up to their obligations. “In the face of our much praised progress,” wrote the pope, “we behold with sorrow society lapsing back slowly but surely into a state of barbarism.”

The treaties that had ended the war, said the pope, did not bring peace; for, “this peace . . . was only written into treaties. It was not received into the hearts of men, who still cherish the desire to fight one another and to continue to menace in a most serious manner the quiet and stability of civil society.” Because of human weakness, no human institution by itself can bring peace. True peace, said Pius, can only come through justice and love, which are the fruits of the grace of Christ, communicated through his Church. “It is therefore,” wrote Pius, “that the true peace of Christ can only exist in the Kingdom of Christ—pax Christi in regno Christi.”

Pius XI gives his first blessing

Pope Pius XI made it his task “to bring about the reestablishment of Christ’s kingdom,” not only in individual hearts, but in society and the state as well. In Italy, he had taken steps to bring about a reconciliation between the anticlerical Liberal government and the Church. Such a reconciliation had to include settling what was called the “Roman Question”—what to do about the Italian government’s theft of the Papal States in 1870. Like his predecessors, Pius XI demanded that the government restore his sovereignty over at least some of the territory taken from him; only thus could the Church be truly independent of the state.

Benito Mussolini

After October 1922, though, the pope had to deal with the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, which, at first, was more anti-Catholic than the previous Liberal government had been. Yet, beginning in 1924, Mussolini began to speak as if he respected the Church and the Catholic faith of the Italian people. To prove his respect, he restored control of primary schools to the Church; he made religious instruction (given by priests and religious) mandatory in all Italian schools; and he abolished several anticlerical laws. Though in 1925 the pope condemned certain Fascist acts of oppression against the Church, it was clear that Mussolini was seeking some sort of reconciliation with the pope.

Though he had his doubts about Il Duce’s goodwill, the pope believed he had to act as if Mussolini sincerely wanted reconciliation. Thus, in 1926, when Mussolini expressed a desire to settle the Roman Question, Pius XI agreed to talks with the government. They were an opportunity, he thought, to restore both the Church’s independence and her influence over Italy. The talks resulted in a treaty between the Holy See and the kingdom of Italy, signed at the Lateran Palace in Rome on February 11, 1929.

The diplomats who concluded the Lateran Treaty

The Lateran Treaty did not restore the Papal States or even the entire city of Rome to the pope, but it did create a small, independent state of about 100 acres, centered on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The pope would be the independent sovereign of this “Vatican City” state, which would have its own currency, postage system, radio transmission, and railroad station. As the head of a sovereign state, the pope could make treaties with other nations, even if Italy were at war with them. The Italian government also paid an indemnity to the pope for the seizure of the Papal States in 1870. In return, the pope for the first time recognized the Italian kingdom as a legitimate state.

A map of Vatican City, 1929

Along with the Lateran Treaty, the pope concluded a concordat with the Italian state. According to this agreement, Italy declared the “Holy Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Religion” to be the only state-recognized religion and pledged that all future laws would be guided by Catholic moral teachings. Moreover, under the concordat, Italy recognized marriage as a sacrament and agreed to make religious instruction compulsory in elementary and secondary schools. Religion teachers were to be chosen by the bishops and supported by the state. The concordat recognized the right of Catholic organizations, including the one known as Catholic Action, to act without any hindrance from the state. Catholic Action was the name given to groups of laymen who, under the direction of their bishops, sought to influence society with Catholic ideals.

Though King Vittorio Emanuele III sincerely wanted to keep all the terms of the concordat, he was not the real power in Italy. That power was Mussolini, and Mussolini had made peace with the Church to increase his popularity with the Italian people. But Mussolini was not about to let the Catholic Church interfere with his power. Thus, within a year after the signing of the Lateran Treaty and the concordat, the Fascist government began restricting the Church’s freedom in Italy.

God’s Rest in an Age of Turmoil

Perhaps because of his traditional proclivities in an age of musical experimentation, Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968) is not well known today. Yet few would deny the beauty of this his Messa di Requiem, composed in the year Pope Pius XI ascended the Throne of Peter.

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