This morning, His Holiness Pope Francis will address a Joint Session of Congress in Washington, and then fly this evening to New York City, where he will address the United Nations General Assembly. Few heads of state other than the President of the United States could command both of these bully pulpits during time of peace; certainly, none besides il Papa would trail thousands of reporters hanging on his every word, or draw millions to open-air rallies.
This week also marks the 145th anniversary of one of the best things to ever happen to the Holy See—but which was seen at the time as one of the worst: the Capture of Rome. On 20 September 1870, the armies of the newly-united Kingdom of Italy broke through the walls of Rome and deprived the Pope of his last major temporal territory. This arrangement, wherein the Pope retained spiritual authority but only a couple of acres of real estate, was bitterly resented by Pope Pius IX and his successors; it would not be formally ratified until the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Mussolini. But from 1870 on, the Vatican’s millenium-plus temporal reign was at an end.
And what great timing this was. Can you imagine if the Pope were still tied down to administering a chunk of Italy? Or if he had been committed to doing so during the horrible wars of the 20th century?
Instead, the Pope wound up with a state that looks remarkably ready for the new realities of the Information Revolution in the 21st century. It owns only a small (though admittedly very stylish) headquarters complex, but has claim to intellectual property of unparalleled importance. These ideas are supported by great wealth, held both by the headquarters and by its subsidiaries (archdioceses) around the world, which the Vatican bends toward its spiritual and charitable ends. And any time it wishes to, it can command the attention of the whole world, just by calling a press conference.
Not bad for a supposedly stuffy old institution. And that it happened against its will, back when people thought small chunks of Europe were more important to fight over, well—it’s enough to seem almost Providential.