The four hundred years of the Vatican Secret Archive – Lux in arcana The propensity of the Church for memory

05-21-2023Weekly ReflectionInterview with Cardinal Raffaele Farina by Roberto Rotondo

Eminence, the Secret Archive is four hundred years old, but has collected documents that are much more ancient. Why has the Church always felt the need to preserve the acts and documents of its business in a systematic way? From the earliest days of the Church of Rome, as the Liber Pontificalis recalls, the popes used to preserve in their own ‘scrinium’ (archive) the gesta martyrum, the liturgical codices, the memoirs of the episcopal consecrations, donations made to the Bishop of Rome and to the Christians in the early centuries. The need arose from the necessity to pass on the memory of the early Church after the persecutions and the ‘administrative’ need of the Roman Church itself, which of course wanted to know the witnesses of the faith who died for Christ (its best treasure of faith) and the action of the pastors and the faithful in Rome. From the fourth century onwards the Archive of the Church of Rome was enriched with documents, codes, provincial books, formulas of oaths, certificates of consecration of churches or foundations of abbeys, papyri relating to the correspondence sent to the popes from the emperors of the East, first, and then the West, pastoral and administrative and other writings, as is well demonstrated by the Liber diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, an ancient chancellary code form, owned by the Vatican secret archive which dates from the late eighth or early ninth century.

So it was not only a necessity linked to the papacy’s functions particular to the exercise of temporal power... The pope’s temporal power which began only with Pope Hadrian (772-795), was not at the origins; so therefore there was a memorial, pastoral and administrative work-concern. With the birth of the State of the Church there was also an added concern of government of the Patrimonium Petri dependent on the Pope. The most important thing, as mentioned, is the primary tendency of the Church to create memory. Almost instinctively, I would say, for the care and custody of that which connects it to its origin. The manuscript was also considered something of a relic in ancient times.

The Archives experienced many vicissitudes before its transfer to its present location. Was the establishment of a central repository in the seventeenth century also due to the necessities of the emerging archival science? The reasons that may have affected this are different. The fact remains that the popes of the sixteenth and seventeenth century tried several times to bring together in one place, well guarded, the documents of the Holy See: Paul IV (1555-1559), St. Pius V (1566-1572), Sixtus V (1585-1590), Clement VIII (1592-1605) acted in this sense and failed for various reasons. Paul V Borghese however succeeded at the beginning of 1612 when, in the rooms adjoining the Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library, lived in by his Cardinal nephew up to that time, he merged documentary nuclei from different points of the Apostolic Palace and from the old Archive of Castel Sant’Angelo.

The Archive has also been called an ocean, but is there one area more important than others? All the archives are equivalent in themselves, because they all belong to an unicum that binds and holds together the dossiers; to evaluate or devalue any of them would inevitably be to ordain its salvation or its being set aside. This would never be implemented in the archives. All writings are important and all have their own reason, which binds them to each other. This does not mean that some famous acts in history don’t strike the fantasy or mind of the historian more than others.

How important today is the Vatican Secret Archive for the Church and the Pope? What role does it play? The Vatican Secret Archive preserves the acts of the Roman pontiffs and their Curias, virtually without interruption, from the eleventh century until today. From this its obvious importance. The role of the Archives is first of all ‘administrative’, in as far as it serves the action of the Pope and the bodies of the Roman Curia for the study of previous issues and situations. In this sense, the Archive is used mainly and primarily by the Supreme Pontiff and the Secretary of State. Its role then is also that of guardian of the memory of the Holy See. The Archives receives periodic influxes from the archives of the Roman Curia (with some exceptions), as well as the abundant documentary material of the various papal representatives around the world.

Do you not believe that the relevance from the journalistic point of view of the Archive might also be the possibility to deepen the knowledge of the structures and working methods of the Vatican offices? The diplomatic correspondence between the Secretary of State and the apostolic nuncios, apart from the subjects dealt with, could illuminate in the most minute details a way of thinking and acting that the succession of years and pontificates has not substantially changed... Certainly, but there is also another aspect that is rarely studied: the Church, from the end of the persecutions, took on the imprint of the State reform ordered by Diocletian and Constantine, both in the geographical division into dioceses, and in the imitation of the imperial chancery. Sometimes historians overlook the fact that the chancelleries had their own policy and that on certain issues they also had some decisionmaking power. So, to understand the behavior of some popes of the past, account must also be taken of the Secretary of State, of the Curia.

How many people work in the Archives? The ordinary government of the Archive is entrusted by the Pope to his prefect, who is assisted by the vice-prefect, the secretary general, by archivists, writers, workers and employees at various levels: in all fifty-four people. A small number, when compared with the staff in other State archives comparable in a certain manner with the Secret Vatican Archive. It is hoped that in future these forces could increase, according to the compatibility of the budget of the Holy See, which for the Vatican Secret Archive because of its free availability to scholars around the world already invests a large sum.

How important is the Archive today for scholars and how is it evaluated? What are the historical periods that are most consulted? The importance of the Vatican Secret Archive for solid historical studies is obvious. Almost no serious historical scholar, especially in Europe, as also in parts of the world where the Catholic Church has been present, can ignore the Vatican Secret Archive; and so it happens in practice, because every year over two thousand researchers throughout the world use our Archive. The most studied periods vary according to the historiographical interests of the time: up to mid-way through the twentieth century the Middle Ages and the Modern Age prevailed without doubt; from the mid-twentieth century and especially in recent decades the contemporary period is also much investigated, up until the death of Pius XI (February 1939).

Who were the Popes of the modern era who most valued the Secret Archive? To my knowledge Pius XI, Pius XII, Blessed John XXIII (who visited several times) and Paul VI greatly valued the Archive sources for their magisterium or for their ordinary government. The current Pope Benedict XVI reserves much attention for the Archive.

The Vatican Secret Archive is among the most accessible to the world and yet enjoys an undeserved reputation, according to which it is a place where who knows what secrets and documents embarrassing to the Church are hidden. Why this bias that is evidenced in the pressing request to open ever new sectors and sources? This question has been put to me several times, but only by people who are not versed in historical research or lacking in real knowledge of the Archive. The tale of dark plots that are being hatched there derived from its name: the Vatican Secret Archive. That ‘secret’, which simply says ‘private’ archive (as were the Secret Archive of the Estes, the Gonzagas, the Sforzas, etc.) is read in the popular imagination or by some novelists as ‘mysterious’, obscure. Perhaps no other archive in the world is more ‘open’ than the Vatican Secret Archive, which has provided researchers with access to its approximately 630 sources for more than a century.

In addition to opening the documents regarding the pontificate of Pius XII for consultation, what other projects are planned in the coming years? The projects are many, but the economic means to implement them rather modest, at least for now. In recent decades, under the prefecture of Monsignor Sergio Pagano, three new study rooms were created, three new laboratories, we moved to digital photography, to the computerization of administrative procedures, the series of publications of the Archive have greatly increased. In addition, we would like to proceed in the future to the computerization of the applications to access the documents and would like to improve the digital versions of over two thousand indexes or inventories of the Archive. And perhaps more, with the help of God. As for the documents of the pontificate of Pius XII, coming back to your question, it is almost certain that in less than two years they will be available.

To what extent are the documents preserved in the Archive and in the Vatican Library helpful for the Church in addressing current problems? This is a question that refers to theology more than to history. For example, during the Second Vatican Council, for the subject of the liturgical reform, the study of ancient texts preserved in the library was very important. The myth that the Middle Ages was a dark age was also debunked, while, conversely, from the point of view of the liturgy and popular piety, it was instead a very rich era. In general, I think that to rediscover the wealth of tradition over the centuries makes the Church grow. Somewhat as in the history of our personal lives. What we have done for good will not be deleted. It is also so for the Church. Renewal is also looking back to the ancient Church as a model for reform, to the Church as the Body of Christ without spot or wrinkle. To preserve also involves an enrichment.