I am in Rome. I usually make the ‘pilgrimage’ at some point during the run-up to Christmas. The street illuminations are magnificent, the shopping is deliciously decadent and hectic and the Irish Catholic child in me thrills at St Peter’s Church and Square decked out in all its Nativity glory. Except that this year the crib is not ready. It looks like a building site. When I asked one of the volunteers keeping the flow of tourists moving when they expect it to be on display, she said they had high hopes it will be completed by the end of this week, which will be past Christmas Day. It rather confirms the cliché image of Italian punctuality.
I brought my 91-year-old mother this year, a dyed-in-the-wool Irish Catholic who never misses Mass and believes firmly in the infallibility of the Pope. As we stepped outside the great church, the largest religious building in the world, erected over the tomb of the Apostle Peter who was the first of an unbroken line of Popes, into the December sunshine, we stood gazing out across St Peter’s circular piazza with its towering Christmas tree and obelisk (taken by Caligula from Heliopolis in Egypt).
The Vatican City is an independent state, a walled enclave of 44 hectares, situated within the city of Rome. It counts approximately 840 inhabitants, including thirty female Vatican passport holders, which makes it the smallest internationally recognised independent state, both in size and population, in the world. Its monarch is the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. It is an independent economy, a free city in its own right with its own armed guards. Since the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981, security has been more vigilant. As well as the traditional halberd and sword, these men now carry guns.