Vatican City #233 (1958)

Vatican City - Scott #233 (1958)
Vatican City – Scott #233 (1958)

The State of Vatican City (Stato della Città del Vaticano in Italian, or Status Civitatis Vaticanae in Latin) is a country located within the city of Rome. With an area of approximately 110 acres (44 hectares), and a population of 1,000, it is the smallest state in the world by both area and population. However, formally it is not sovereign, with sovereignty being held by the Holy See. It is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state (a type of theocracy) ruled by the Bishop of Rome — the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergy of various national origins. Since the return of the popes from Avignon in 1377, they have generally resided at the Apostolic Palace within what is now Vatican City, although at times residing instead in the Quirinal Palace in Rome or elsewhere.

Vatican City is distinct from the Holy See (Sancta Sedes in Latin), which dates back to early Christianity and is the main episcopal see of 1.2 billion Latin and Eastern Catholic adherents around the globe. The independent city-state, on the other hand, came into existence in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy, which spoke of it as a new creation, not as a vestige of the much larger Papal States (756–1870), which had previously encompassed much of central Italy. According to the terms of the treaty, the Holy See has “full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction” over the city-state.

Within Vatican City are religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. They feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures. The unique economy of Vatican City is supported financially by the sale of postage stamps and tourist mementos, fees for admission to museums, and the sale of publications.

The name Vatican City was first used in the Lateran Treaty, signed on February 11, 1929, which established the modern city-state. The name is taken from Vatican Hill, the geographic location of the state. “Vatican” is derived from the name of an Etruscan settlement, Vatica or Vaticum meaning garden, located in the general area the Romans called vaticanus ager, “Vatican territory”.

The official Italian name of the city is Città del Vaticano or, more formally, Stato della Città del Vaticano, meaning “Vatican City State”. Although the Holy See (which is distinct from the Vatican City) and the Catholic Church use Ecclesiastical Latin in official documents, the Vatican City officially uses Italian. The Latin name is Status Civitatis Vaticanæ; this is used in official documents by not just the Holy See, but in most official Church and Papal documents.

The name “Vatican” was already in use in the time of the Roman Republic for a marshy area on the west bank of the Tiber across from the city of Rome. Under the Roman Empire, many villas were constructed there, after Agrippina the Elder (14 BC – AD 33) drained the area and laid out her gardens in the early 1st century AD. In AD 40, her son, Emperor Caligula built in her gardens a circus for charioteers that was later completed by Nero, the Circus Gaii et Neronis, usually called, simply, the Circus of Nero.

Even before the arrival of Christianity, it is supposed that this originally uninhabited part of Rome (the ager vaticanus) had long been considered sacred, or at least not available for habitation. A shrine dedicated to the Phrygian goddess Cybele and her consort Attis remained active long after the Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter was built nearby.

The particularly low quality of Vatican water, even after the reclamation of the area, was commented on by the poet Martial. Tacitus wrote, that in AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors, when the northern army that brought Vitellius to power arrived in Rome, “a large proportion camped in the unhealthy districts of the Vatican, which resulted in many deaths among the common soldiery; and the Tiber being close by, the inability of the Gauls and Germans to bear the heat and the consequent greed with which they drank from the stream weakened their bodies, which were already an easy prey to disease”.

The Vatican obelisk was originally taken from Egypt by Caligula. Photo taken on August 23, 2013.
The Vatican obelisk was originally taken from Egypt by Caligula. Photo taken on August 23, 2013.

The Vatican Obelisk was originally taken by Caligula from Heliopolis in Egypt to decorate the spina of his circus and is thus its last visible remnant. This area became the site of martyrdom of many Christians after the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64. Ancient tradition holds that it was in this circus that Saint Peter was crucified upside-down.

Opposite the circus was a cemetery separated by the Via Cornelia. Funeral monuments and mausoleums and small tombs as well as altars to pagan gods of all kinds of polytheistic religions were constructed lasting until before the construction of the Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter’s in the first half of the 4th century. Remains of this ancient necropolis were brought to light sporadically during renovations by various popes throughout the centuries, increasing in frequency during the Renaissance until it was systematically excavated by orders of Pope Pius XII from 1939 to 1941. The Constantinian basilica was built in 326 over what was believed to be the tomb of Saint Peter, buried in that cemetery.

From then on, the area became more populated in connection with activity at the basilica. A palace was constructed nearby as early as the 5th century during the pontificate of Pope Symmachus (reigned 498–514)

Popes gradually came to have a secular role as governors of regions near Rome. They ruled the Papal States, which covered a large portion of the Italian peninsula, for more than a thousand years until the mid-19th century, when all the territory belonging to the papacy was seized by the newly created Kingdom of Italy.

For most of this time the popes did not live at the Vatican. The Lateran Palace, on the opposite side of Rome was their habitual residence for about a thousand years. From 1309 to 1377, they lived at Avignon in France. On their return to Rome they chose to live at the Vatican. They moved to the Quirinal Palace in 1583, after work on it was completed under Pope Paul V (1605–1621), but on the capture of Rome in 1870 retired to the Vatican, and what had been their residence became that of the King of Italy.

In 1870, the Pope’s holdings were left in an uncertain situation when Rome itself was annexed by the Piedmont-led forces which had united the rest of Italy, after a nominal resistance by the papal forces. Between 1861 and 1929 the status of the Pope was referred to as the “Roman Question”.

Italy made no attempt to interfere with the Holy See within the Vatican walls. However, it confiscated church property in many places. In 1871, the Quirinal Palace was confiscated by the king of Italy and became the royal palace. Thereafter the popes resided undisturbed within the Vatican walls, and certain papal prerogatives were recognized by the Law of Guarantees, including the right to send and receive ambassadors. The Popes did not recognize the Italian king’s right to rule in Rome, and they refused to leave the Vatican compound until the dispute was resolved in 1929; Pope Pius IX (1846–78), the last ruler of the Papal States, was referred to as a “prisoner in the Vatican”. Forced to give up secular power, the popes focused on spiritual issues.

This situation was resolved on February 11, 1929, when the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy was signed by Prime Minister and Head of Government Benito Mussolini on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III and by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri for Pope Pius XI. The treaty, which became effective on June 7, 1929, established the independent state of Vatican City and reaffirmed the special status of Catholicism in Italy.

Two days after the official foundation of the Vatican City on February 11, 1929, the Vatican post office began operating with supplies and equipment donated by the Italian government. Vatican City became a member of the Universal Postal Union on June 1, and then on July 29, Vatican City and Italy signed a postal agreement, going into effect on August 1, providing for the routing of its mail through Rome.

August 1, 1929, also saw the issuance of the first Vatican stamps (Italian stamps had been used previously), in the “Conciliation” definitive series of 15 values. The low values, 5 to 75 centesmi, depicted the heraldic arms, while the higher values (80 centesmi to 10 lira) featured a full-face portrait of the reigning Pope Pius XI.

On April 1, 1933, the Vatican issued its first semi-postal stamps, a set of four marking the 24th Holy Year. On May 31 of the same year, the “Gardens and Medallions” definitives were issued. While the lowest value still depicted the coat of arms, higher values included views of the gardens and of St Peter’s.

On February 18, 1939, just a little over a week after Pius XI’s death on February 10, the arms stamps of 1929 were overprinted SEDE VACANTE / MCMXXXIX. They remained valid until March 3, the day after the election of Pope Pius XII.

Poste Vaticane. Photo taken on October 17, 2013.
Poste Vaticane. Photo taken on October 17, 2013.

The Vatican has acquired a reputation for producing handsome and attractive issues in limited quantities (even today, the average production run for most issues is only between 300,000 and 500,000 stamps). Vatican stamps are produced under the authority of the Philatelic and Numismatic Office of the Vatican City State.

Much, but by no means all, of the mail handled by the Vatican is from tourists or official congregations of the Roman Curia. Many Romans, distrustful of the unreliable Italian post office, make weekly trips to the Vatican just to post their important letters. Italian stamps may not be used on Vatican mail nor vice versa. According to the Universal Postal Union, the Vatican post office is “one of the best postal systems in the world” and “more letters are sent each year, per inhabitant, from the Vatican’s 00120 postal code than from anywhere else in the world.”

The Holy See, which ruled Vatican City, pursued a policy of neutrality during World War II, under the leadership of Pope Pius XII. Although German troops occupied the city of Rome after the September 1943 Armistice of Cassibile, and the Allies from 1944, they respected Vatican City as neutral territory. One of the main diplomatic priorities of the bishop of Rome was to prevent the bombing of the city; so sensitive was the pontiff that he protested even the British air dropping of pamphlets over Rome, claiming that the few landing within the city-state violated the Vatican’s neutrality. The British policy, as expressed in the minutes of a Cabinet meeting, was: “that we should on no account molest the Vatican City, but that our action as regards the rest of Rome would depend upon how far the Italian government observed the rules of war”.

After the American entry into the war, the US opposed such a bombing, fearful of offending Catholic members of its military forces, but said that “they could not stop the British from bombing Rome if the British so decided”. The British uncompromisingly said “they would bomb Rome whenever the needs of the war demanded”. In December 1942, the British envoy suggested to the Holy See that Rome be declared an “open city”, a suggestion that the Holy See took more seriously than was probably meant by the British, who did not want Rome to be an open city, but Mussolini rejected the suggestion when the Holy See put it to him.

In connection with the Allied invasion of Sicily, 500 American aircraft bombed Rome on July 19, 1943, aiming particularly at the railway hub. Some 1,500 people were killed; Pius XII himself, who had been described in the previous month as “worried sick” about the possible bombing, went to the scene of the tragedy. Another raid took place on August 13, 1943, after Mussolini had been ousted from power. On the following day, the new government declared Rome an open city, after consulting the Holy See on the wording of the declaration, but the British had decided that they would never recognize Rome as an open city.

Pius XII had refrained from creating cardinals during the war. By the end of World War II, there were several prominent vacancies: Cardinal Secretary of State, Camerlengo, Chancellor, and Prefect for the Congregation for the Religious among them. Pius XII created 32 cardinals in early 1946, having announced his intentions to do so in his preceding Christmas message.

The Pontifical Military Corps, except for the Swiss Guard, was disbanded by will of Paul VI, as expressed in a letter of September 14, 1970. The Gendarmerie Corps was transformed into a civilian police and security force.

In 1984, a new concordat between the Holy See and Italy modified certain provisions of the earlier treaty, including the position of Catholicism as the Italian state religion, a position given to it by a statute of the Kingdom of Sardinia of 1848.

Construction in 1995 of a new guest house, Domus Sanctae Marthae, adjacent to St Peter’s Basilica was criticized by Italian environmental groups, backed by Italian politicians. They claimed the new building would block views of the Basilica from nearby Italian apartments. For a short while the plans strained the relations between the Vatican and the Italian government. The head of the Vatican’s Department of Technical Services robustly rejected challenges to the Vatican State’s right to build within its borders.

St. Peter's Square, Vatican City.
St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City.

Scott #233 is the lowest value in a set of six stamps released by Poste Vaticane on February 21, 1958, to commemorate the centenary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, a small market town lying in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There were three designs used with the 5- and 25-lira stamps both portraying the apparition. The 5-lira dark blue stamp was engraved and perforated 13×14.

In 1858, Lourdes rose to prominence in France and abroad due to the Marian apparitions claimed to have been seen by the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous, who was later canonized. Shortly thereafter the city with the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes became one of the world’s most important sites of pilgrimage and religious tourism. Today, Lourdes hosts around six million visitors every year from all corners of the world. This constant stream of pilgrims and tourists transformed quiet Lourdes into the second most important center of tourism in France, second only to Paris, and the third most important site of international Catholic pilgrimage after Rome and the Holy Land. As of 2011, of French cities only Paris had more hotel capacity.

According to believers, the Virgin Mary appeared to Marie-Bernadette Soubirous on a total of eighteen occasions at Lourdes. Lourdes has become a major place of Roman Catholic pilgrimage and of miraculous healings. The 150th Jubilee of the first apparition took place on February  11, 2008, with an outdoor Mass attended by approximately 45,000 pilgrims.

On the evening of February 11, 1858, a young Roman Catholic girl, Bernadette, went to fetch some firewood with her sister and another companion when a Lady who was indescribably beautiful appeared to her at the Massabielle grotto. Although the Lady did not tell Bernadette her name when asked at first, she told her to return to the grotto. On subsequent visits, she heard the Lady speak to her, saying Que soy era Immaculada Concepciou (I am the Immaculate Conception), and asking that a chapel be built there. This was a reference to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception which had been defined only four years earlier in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, stating that the Virgin Mary herself had been conceived without sin.

Bernadette, having only a rudimentary knowledge of the Catholic faith, did not understand what this meant but she reported it to her parish priest, Father Peyremale. He, though initially very skeptical of Bernadette’s claims, became convinced when he heard this because he knew the young girl had no knowledge of the doctrine. The Lady also told Bernadette to dig in the ground at a certain spot and to drink from the small spring of water that began to bubble up. Almost immediately cures were reported from drinking the water. The water has been shown through repeated testing to not have any special curative properties. Today thousand of gallons of water gush from the source of the spring, and pilgrims are able to bathe in it. Countless purported miracle cures have been documented there, from the healing of nervous disorders and cancers to cases of paralysis and even of blindness. “The estimate that about 4000 cures have been obtained at Lourdes within the first fifty years of the pilgrimage is undoubtedly considerably less than the actual number.”

The statue within the rock cave at Massabielle in Lourdes, where Saint Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have witnessed the Blessed Virgin Mary, though however she disapproved of its artistic demeanor. Now a religious grotto. Photo taken on June 28, 2014.
The statue within the rock cave at Massabielle in Lourdes, where Saint Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have witnessed the Blessed Virgin Mary, though however she disapproved of its artistic demeanor. Now a religious grotto. Photo taken on June 28, 2014.

The Church, faced with nationwide questions, decided to institute an investigative commission on November 17, 1858. On January 18, 1860, the local bishop finally declared that: “The Virgin Mary did appear indeed to Bernadette Soubirous.” These events established the Marian veneration in Lourdes, which together with Fátima, is one of the most frequented Marian shrines in the world, and to which between 4 and 6 million pilgrims travel annually.

In 1863, Joseph-Hugues Fabisch was charged to create a statue of the Virgin according to Soubirous’s description. The work was placed in the grotto and solemnly dedicated on April 4, 1864, in presence of 20,000 pilgrims.

Soubirous was later canonized as a saint in 1933.

The veracity of the apparitions of Lourdes is not an article of faith for Catholics. Nevertheless, all recent Popes visited the Marian shrine at some time. Benedict XV, Pius XI, and John XXIII went there as bishops, Pius XII as papal delegate. He also issued an encyclical, Le pèlerinage de Lourdes, on the one-hundredth anniversary of the apparitions in 1958. John Paul II visited Lourdes three times during his Pontificate, and twice before as a Bishop.

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes or the Domain (as it is most commonly known) is an area of ground surrounding the shrine (Grotto) to Our Lady of Lourdes in the town of Lourdes, France. This ground is owned and administrated by the Church, and has several functions, including devotional activities, offices, and accommodation for sick pilgrims and their helpers. The Domain includes the Grotto itself, the nearby taps which dispense the Lourdes water, and the offices of the Lourdes Medical Bureau, as well as several churches and basilicas. It comprises an area of 51 hectares, and includes 22 separate places of worship. There are six official languages of the Sanctuary: French, English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and German.

Yearly from March to October, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes is a place of mass pilgrimage from Europe and other parts of the world. The spring water from the grotto is believed by some to possess healing properties.

An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860, and the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized 69 healings considered miraculous. Cures are examined using Church criteria for authenticity and authentic miracle healing with no physical or psychological basis other than the healing power of the water.

Tours from all over the world are organized to visit the Sanctuary. Connected with this pilgrimage is often the consumption of or bathing in the Lourdes water which wells out of the Grotto.

At the time of the apparitions the grotto was on common land which was used by the villagers variously for pasturing animals, collecting firewood and as a garbage dump, and it possessed a reputation for being an unpleasant place.

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