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What Should I Know About Vatican City?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Vatican City is the smallest independent state on the planet, with an area of just under 110 acres. Completely surrounded by Italy, it is also one of three nations encompassed entirely by a single country – San Marino and Lesotho being the other two. Vatican City has a population of just over 800 people, ranking ahead only of the Pitcairn Islands – which is an overseas territory of the Britain.

As a modern state, Vatican City was created in 1929, building on earlier incarnations of Papal States which at times encompassed enormous swaths of Italy. The city is essentially the secular capital of the Catholic Church – in fact, the actual religious seat of the Bishop of Rome is in the Basilica of St. John Lateran outside the walls of the city, in Rome proper. Because of the fundamentally Catholic nature of the state, all high-ranking governmental officials are also ranking members of the Catholic Church.

The Pope is the head of state for Vatican City, and is elected by the College of Cardinals — excluding those over 80 years old. The Pope is elected for life, and while in office is an absolute sovereign. In fact, the Pope is the only remaining absolute monarch in Europe. Although the College of Cardinals and other bodies may exercise a degree of influence, the Pope acts with complete power. In addition to his title as secular ruler of the city, the Pope also acts as the Bishop of Rome, and as the Supreme Pontiff of the Church. The term Holy See is sometimes used interchangeably with Vatican City, but in actuality it refers to both the secular and religious dominion of the Pope.

Because of the fundamentally Catholic nature of the city, the language most often used for official documents is Latin. It should be noted, however, that because of the powers of the Pope, this language can be changed at a moment's notice, and so treating it as an ‘official’ language is somewhat misleading. Italian, German, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French are also widely used throughout the city, and many documents are translated into some, if not all, of these languages.

Vatican City includes many of the most important places in the Catholic Church. The Apostolic Palace, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, and St. Peter’s Square are all part of the city. The majority of the city itself is separated from the rest of Rome by a large wall, although in certain areas — such as St. Peter’s Square — the wall is not present, and the territorial divide is not based on a physical object. Also, with the many properties the Church possesses spread throughout the rest of Italy, it has been granted a special status. These properties — such as the Pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo — are treated similarly to embassies, with the Vatican having control over them.

Virtually all the citizens are either members of the Catholic clergy or members of the Swiss Guard. While many lay-people work within the Vatican, they are rarely actually citizens, instead residing outside of the walls in Rome itself. Some citizens also reside elsewhere in the world, serving as ambassadors for the state of Vatican City and the Catholic Church. Because of its small size and unique nature, the Vatican has no economy in the traditional sense. Most projects are supported by tithing from Catholics throughout the world, with tourist paraphernalia and stamps adding additional revenue.

Vatican City is easy to visit, with flights coming into Rome daily. Many tours travel through the area throughout the day, focusing on different aspects of the city’s culture. The Vatican Museum is a particularly popular tourist destination, including over a thousand rooms of art spanning 3,000 years of history, sections of the Papal Palace, and the Sistine Chapel. St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Gardens, St. Peter’s Dome, and the Castel St. Angelo are also popular attractions, as are the numerous traditional Swiss Guard throughout the city. General audiences with the Pope are held every Wednesday, although tickets are required, and every Sunday the Pope gives a blessing to people gathered in St. Peter’s Square. All in all, Vatican City offers many interesting tourist opportunities and a rich and captivating history.

CulturalWorld.org is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon317844 — On Feb 04, 2013

Are Swiss guards really Swiss?

By anon25652 — On Feb 01, 2009

I want to go to the Vatican City this summer. What will I need to know before I go??

By anon5146 — On Nov 14, 2007

Does a nun really have to give up 'all' her worldly possessions?

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