Unveiling Vatican Secrets: Inside the Archives of History

Archbishop Pagano, the keeper of Vatican secrets, reveals something in an interview before his retirement

by Sededin Dedovic
Unveiling Vatican Secrets: Inside the Archives of History
© Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

The Vatican has long struggled with the perception that its prized Secret Archives hold mysteries far beyond its official name. Recent efforts have led to a breakthrough, as the Archives opened its doors to scholars, even revealing records from the controversial reign of Pope Pius XII during World War II.

Moreover, a significant change in its official nomenclature, dropping the term "Secret", was intended to dispel the shroud of secrecy surrounding it. However, despite these changes, the institution is still shrouded in an enigma, albeit somewhat reduced.

Archbishop Sergio Pagano, an experienced custodian of the Archives, breaks the silence, offering insight into its inner workings accumulated over his four-decade tenure. Through a series of discussions contained in a forthcoming book titled "Secretum," Pagano sheds light on lesser-known aspects of the Holy See's centuries-long saga.

Pagano's revelations run the gamut, from the days of Napoleon's robbery in 1810 to the intricacies of the Galileo affair and the intriguing dynamics of the 1922 conclave, financed in part by a meager donation from American Catholics.

"This marks a departure," notes Pagano, reflecting on his impending retirement and the candid revelations he's shared in interviews conducted over the past year. The decision to lift the veil on the inner workings of the Archive, he suggests, comes at a pivotal moment in his own journey.

Since its inauguration to scholars by Pope Leo XIII in 1881, the Archive has evolved from a storage facility primarily serving papal needs to a vast repository housing a treasure trove of historical treasures. With its labyrinthine corridors stretching over 85 kilometers, much of which is located underground within a fortified bunker, the Archive houses not only papal documents but also dispatches from Vatican embassies around the world and houses the collections of noble families and religious orders.

Cardinals face the altar as Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo gives the Mass of The Lords Supper© Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Although often the source of conspiracy theories in the style of mystery novels by Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, which angered the Catholic Church, the Archive still functions like any public or private institution of its kind: researchers ask permission to visit and then see specific documents that they examine in dedicated reading rooms.

Recent research on records from the tenure of Pope Pius XII, particularly regarding his perceived silence on the Holocaust, underscores the contemporary relevance of the Archives. Newly discovered correspondence suggests that during World War II, Pope Pius XII had detailed information from a trusted German Jesuit that up to 6,000 Jews and Poles were being suffocated daily in German-occupied Poland.

This undermines the Holy See's argument that it could not confirm diplomatic reports of Nazi crimes and condemn them. Pope Francis' decision to expedite the release of documents related to the pontificate of Pius XII in 2020, ahead of schedule, was intended to clarify a contentious chapter in the Vatican's history.

Pagano keeps a close watch on them through the huge television screen of the internal video system, placed next to his writing desk, which allows him live video monitoring of the reading rooms. Pagano, however, is not a mere apologist for Pius XII.

His criticism of the pontiff's reticence to condemn Nazi crimes, even after the war, highlights a nuanced perspective. He argues that Pius' post-war silence was rooted in geopolitical concerns, particularly fears over the establishment of Israel and its implications for Christian interests in the Holy Land.

Although Pagano acknowledges Pius's diplomatically balanced act, his objection to the pope's failure to vocally condemn the Holocaust remains unequivocal. He suggests that Pius' reticence, far from being a prudent diplomatic maneuver, reflected a moral deficiency in the face of unspeakable atrocities.

In addition to revisiting familiar narratives, Pagano's interviews reveal new revelations, including the financial intricacies of the relationship between the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the US. The discovery of the emptied papal treasury following the death of Pope Benedict XV in 1922 serves as a sobering reminder of the Holy See's financial vulnerability in a tumultuous era.

Pagano's insight into the financial needs of papal conclaves sheds light on the pragmatic considerations that have shaped the history of the Vatican. The revelation of telegrams requesting urgent financial aid from Vatican envoys underscores the Holy See's reliance on outside support, especially in times of fiscal pressure.

Furthermore, Pagano's analysis of Pope Francis' decision to rebrand the Archives as the "Vatican Apostolic Archives" suggests a strategic move aimed at cultivating goodwill, especially among wealthy American Catholics. Avoiding the term "Secret", Francis' gesture seeks to reposition the Archive as a repository of historical treasures open to all, encouraging greater transparency and engagement.

Pagano's revelations offer a fascinating insight into the inner workings of the Vatican's legendary Secret Archives, revealing a complex tapestry of history, diplomacy and intrigue.