News Analysis

The people who really keep the Vatican going

Tending the Vatican Gardens (CNS)

In all the talk of curial reform, most of the attention has focused on the top spots: what will they be when the dust settles, and who will hold the various positions that will emerge? Those are reasonable questions, even vitally important ones. Nevertheless, the Roman Curia is a bureaucracy, and will be the day after the reform is implemented just as much as it was the day before.

Bureaucracies run on bureaucrats – workaday folks with billets and briefcases and portfolios – and the Roman Curia is no different. These are the people who mind the store, keep the books, and do all the thankless things that keep the wheels on the bus, as it were. They are, in the main and with very rare exception, talented and dedicated professionals with a sense of institutional mission, and who take a quiet pride in their work.

They are clerics, most of them, along with religious men and women, and laity from around the world. One of the things the Curia does – some departments necessarily more than others, and none better than the old Vatican Radio, where this Vatican-watcher cut his teeth – is to represent the Universal Church to her universal pastor: here are people of every age and sex and state of life in the Church, from every corner of the globe, working together in the service of the Holy Father and the Holy See, whose primary mission is to preside in charity and strengthen the brethren.

“Despite all the difficulties and controversies,” one mid-level Vatican official told the Catholic Herald, “it’s an incredible blessing and privilege to be working for God and Holy Mother Church, precisely in the heart of the Church, and in the service of the Vicar of Christ.” That sums up the general attitude and approach to the job among staff in the Roman Curia.

Beyond the clerks in the various curial offices, there are the porters, gardeners, paramedics and nurses – there’s an urgent care station, a guardia medica, in Vatican City, as well as several clinical and diagnostic offices offering specialised care to Vatican employees – not to mention police and firefighters.

It takes significant manpower to keep the ship floating. Amid all the hubbub over which corner-offices will be left, and who will sit behind the desks in them, it’s good to remember all the people who actually work for a living.

St Peter’s Basilica has its own maintenance office: La Fabbrica di San Pietro. According to the now lame duck constitution Pastor Bonus, the Fabbrica handles everything to do with “preservation and decoration” as well as with “behaviour among the employees and the pilgrims who come into the church”. The Fabbrica in cooperation with the Chapter of the Vatican Basilica,” that is, the clerics responsible for worship in St Peter’s. Staying out of each other’s way is easier said than done, but they manage to.

Though technically not part of the Roman Curia, La Fabbrica has been around in one form or another since the days when St Peter’s was a construction site. Pope Julius II – the great Della Rovere soldier and patron of the arts, who among other things brought the Swiss Guard to Rome – knocked down the old basilica, setting off more than a century of intermittent construction that eventually gave us the building we have today.

It takes a great deal of energy and particular know-how even to keep the lights on in such a space, and those who are about that business know it well. They have met some extraordinary challenges over the years, while mostly staying out of visitors’ lines of sight.

One noteworthy exception was in March 2018, when some cladding on one of the pillars in the basilica broke loose and fell. It was about 5pm – peak visiting hours – when stucco fragments fell to the ground from atop a pillar, “a few steps from the chapel that houses Michelangelo’s Pietà”, according to a dramatic report from Il Messaggero. “[A] team of workers was immediately put on the task – marking off the area where the stucco fell – to make sure everything was safe, and begin the restoration.”

As June turns into July, high tourist season comes upon Rome. If any readers should be so happy as to find themselves in the Eternal City, they would do well to remember that there is much more to it than meets the eye when they tour the sites of the Vatican (and other extraterritorial sites, such as the major basilicas). Far more goes into the upkeep of the buildings and the general running of the place than people realise – even those who call it home or haunt it regularly. Visitors might spare a thought – even a prayer – for the workers while they’re here.

In the short term, the reform of the Curia is not likely to have much of an effect on day-to-day operations in the offices or the labs, barracks, workshops and garages, but the years of uncertainty have taken their toll at every level. Still, the workers know their jobs, and keep plugging away.