The Holy See

This weekend, our travels brought us to a “country” whose only sovereign territory is smaller than the city of Buffalo. The territory is so small, in fact, that it sits entirely within another nation’s capital. Give up? Our destination was none other than the Holy See—the secular authority over all 110 acres of Vatican City, in the heart of Rome, and the spiritual authority over some 1.2 billion Catholics around the globe. Pope Francis is the head of state.


What was there to do for an entire weekend? For the first (and possibly last) time, our globetrotting had taken us to a place that may actually have been quicker to explore in real life. But as we soon came to realize, it’s the endless history of the Holy See that takes time to explore, more than the territory itself. Let’s go!

Vatican City has its own rail network (330 yards long), postal service (with four branch offices), and police force (130 officers), but it is more than a charming tourist destination. The territory was created in 1929 to ensure that the Holy See could maintain its historical role as a sovereign entity on the world stage: signing treaties, receiving ambassadors, and operating with complete independence from the modern nation of Italy that surrounds it. The popes once governed much of the Italian peninsula themselves, as both temporal and spiritual rulers.

Several of the recent popes have not been Italian, however, and in choosing a breakfast menu Jess decided to honor the tastes of the Polish John Paul II, who is reported to have enjoyed breakfasts of buttered rolls and fresh goat’s milk. To our dismay, the co-op had sold out of goat’s milk when we visited on Friday night, but even with cow’s milk our breakfast on Saturday was decadent and rich:


The Roman Catholic Church has a substantial presence in Buffalo, much of it visible directly across the street from our apartment building. The panoramic photograph below shows from left to right: 1. the Catholic Academy of West Buffalo, 2. the Seymour H. Knox House, a dioscesan residence that bears the papal coat of arms on its facade, and 3. the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, constructed in 1887.


From 1912 to 1976, the neighborhood also boasted an imposing cathedral, of Italian design, built to replace the smaller St. Joseph’s Cathedral downtown. After the beautiful marble structure began to crumble in the harsh Buffalo weather, the new cathedral was demolished and the bishop’s throne moved downtown once again.

While I headed back to the co-op on an unsuccessful search for better rolls and real goat’s milk, Jess started making lunch. This time, the recipe came from a magisterial volume called The Vatican Cookbook, which we had borrowed from the public library. Her recipe was a pizza a caballo (“pizza on horseback”) that combined an old Italian favorite with an Argentine-style topping of chickpea flatbread, introduced to the Vatican kitchens by Pope Francis. Delicious!


As a native of Argentina, Pope Francis was also a person of interest when we explored that country back in 2014. Like Argentina and Chile, the Holy See seemed to embrace a decadent, first-world cuisine that focused conspicuouly on milk, butter, eggs, and other dairy products. But what flavors!

Because Geography Now won’t be covering the Holy See until it reaches the letter V, we next turned to this other video for a short overview of the place:

While I needed to spend much of the afternoon grading some student assignments, our adventures were in full swing again by dinnertime. I was making a second recipe from the Vatican Cookbook for eggplant mozzarella, a simple dish that (we read) takes all of its ingredients from the papal farm at Castel Gandolfo, a summer palace located just outside the city in the Italian countryside.


Jess had also baked a papal cream cake for dessert, a Polish pastry that earned its present name when John Paul II confessed to having enjoyed it as a child. We each had a slice:


We enjoyed this delicious treat while watching a suspenseful documentary about the Holy See called Secret Access: The Vatican produced by the History Channel in 2011. Always melodramatic and sometimes informative, we got “secret access” to hidden tombs, archives, and even the Pope himself. Here’s a short excerpt:

The next morning, we treated ourselves to another humble—yet staggeringly rich—breakfast of buttered rolls and milk. We had more cooking to do for our second day of globetrotting and our lunches for the week ahead. Just before lunch, however, we took a moment to hear ten travel tips from Wolters World about visiting the Holy See. We were surprised to hear that the tiny Vatican City post office is often more efficient than the Italian post office, so tourists are advised to mail their postcards there instead of in Rome.

For lunch, I stewed up one final recipe from the Vatican Cookbook for braised lentils, a nutritious vegetarian dish that is consumed regularly by the Pope’s trusted protectors, the Swiss Guard. Jess steamed some zucchini as a side dish:


Before eating, we decided to recite the Latin “table prayer” that we had found in the back of the Vatican Cookbook.

Oculi omnium in te sperant, Domine, et tu das escam illorum in tempore opportune: Aperis tu manum tuam, et imples omne animal benedictione.

According to the translation provided, this short blessing means, “The eyes of all look to Thee in hope, O Lord: and Thou givest them sustenance in due season. Open Thy hand, and bestow Thy blessing to fulfill the needs of every living thing” (p. 196). After eating, we continued to honor holy tradition by helping ourselves to more of the papal cream cake.

Along with our cake, we watched another short travel video about Vatican City. This one was from Rick Steves:

Later that afternoon, we watched a fascinating TED talk from the art historian Elizabeth Lev that introduced us to some of the themes present in Michelangelo’s famed ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, located within the Apostolic Palace—the pope’s primary residence.

Dinner meant more of the eggplant mozzarella from the previous evening, which again hit the spot. The Catholic Church has a tarnished reputation these days, thanks to the worldwide sex abuse scandal that for the past few decades has produced a steady stream of controversy—most recently in Chile. To dine on such rich food (we skipped the recipe for suckling pig) threatened to leave us with the impression that the Holy See was a hypocritical institution that cared more for indulgence and luxury than for the welfare of its billion faithful followers.

At the same time, however, the message that we heard over and over again was that the Holy See is more concerned about giving than taking. From the millions of visitors it welcomes to Vatican City every season, to the charities and outreach programs that it funds all over the world, we couldn’t help but to conclude that Catholic leaders like Pope Francis are committed to building a better world for the citizens of all countries. Amen!


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