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No Angels or Demons –
Only Positive Reflections on a Vatican City State Visit
  By Sherri Ferris
President & CEO,Protocol Professionals, Inc.

Swiss Guards
Vatican Gardens
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
His Beatitude Ignatius Zakka II
H.E. Juan Luis Cardinal Cipriani Thorne
Cardinal's Choir Dress
Pontifical Academy
Casina Pio - Vatican's special store
His Holiness the Pope's garden displays his Coat of Arms



From the moment we arrived at the magnificent Arco delle Campane, aka Petriano Door, greeted by a welcoming salute from two handsome Swiss guards, I knew my visit to the Vatican City/State would be like no other visit to a foreign land.

The Swiss Guard is the world’s smallest and most colorful army who is responsible for security at the Apostolic Palace, the papal apartment, the main gates to the Vatican, and the pontiff’s physical safety when he travels outside the city state. There are 101 Papal Swiss Guards who must be Catholic and between the ages of 19 and 30 in order to assume their special posts. The Swiss have been guarding the Vatican since 1506. The official dress uniform is of blue, red, orange and yellow with a distinctly Renaissance appearance. I learned that it takes 32 hours, three fittings and 154 pieces of material to make a single uniform, the design of which is popularly attributed to Michelangelo. While usually attributed to Michelangelo, Commandant Jules Repond (1910-1921) created the current uniforms in 1914. One has to be of a certain height and appearance and be between the ages of 19 and 30 years to apply. For protocol buffs, this is the correct rank order:

Commissioned officers:

  • Oberst (Colonel — the commandant of the Guard)
  • Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel — the vice-commandant)
  • Kaplan (Chaplain — considered the same rank as a lieutenant colonel)
  • Major
  • Hauptmann (Captain)

Non-commissioned officers:

  • Feldwebel (Sergeant-major)
  • Wachtmeister (Sergeant)
  • Korporal (Corporal)
  • Vizekorporal (Vice-corporal; closest British equivalent would be lance corporal)


  • Hellebardier/Gardist (Halbardier/Guardsman)


The Vatican is a walled enclave within the city of Rome, the capital city of Italy. It encompasses 110 acres (44 hectares) with a population of around 900. It is the smallest country in the world both by population and area. The state came into existence in 1929. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes) and is the location of the Pope’s residence, known as the Apostolic Palace. Beautiful gardens account for more than half the territory. They are decorated with beautiful fountains and sculptures. One can say that they are truly heavenly as they are immaculately maintained as are all of the green plants found indoors in abundance.

From the outside, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, revealed a rather 1960’s dormitory style building but once you walked through the glass doors and into the lobby and grand stair cases, there were lovely plants, tended by the Sisters of Charity, spectacular oil paintings and elegant inlaid marble floors. In fact the floor of my room was beautifully hand crafted herringbone tongue and groove wood, polished faithfully every morning by the staff. The floors were the most beautiful part of the building. The lighting on the other hand was often florescent and as our PPI lighting expert, Frederick Warhanek, would say, not the most flattering or appealing.

The room itself was a bit austere but certainly comfortable with a glass topped desk, wooden chest of drawers, built-in closet, television and an air-conditioner that only worked part-time in the summer (May was on the cusp and consequently even though the temperature was in the low 80’s, was not functioning.) The schedule reminded me of the type of rigid schedule one would find in hotels in the former Yugoslavia – heating or cooling rooms was strictly by the calendar. But alas, this was no doubt due to budget considerations.

Like many things in Italy that don’t consistently work, internet access required some expert help from one of the resident Monsignors. Wow – what a reality check! How many other hotels had I stayed in, in which a high-ranking member of the clergy would provide personalized room service! Just another example of the extremely gracious hospitality offered to special guests at the Vatican.

You don’t want to visit the Vatican unless you have plenty of cash as the ATM machines at the Vatican bank have instructions in Latin only. And you do want to have enough to shop in the Vatican store, a duty-free shopper’s paradise.

Forgetting that I was about to enter a domain that had been monopolized by men for centuries, I neglected to bring my hair dryer. After all, most European hotels always provided hair dryers. When I asked the reception if they had a hair dryer I could borrow, they looked at me rather quizzically and the distinguished attendant in a conservative black suit remarked in a heavy Italian accent, “No senora. You are-a in the house-a of the Cardinales. They don’t-a blow dry their hair’a”. Shortly thereafter to my surprise, my doorbell rang and there appeared a smiling Nun, with hairdryer in hand. Dressed in full habit, with not a stitch of makeup, her face was warm and soft and just the kind of face one would imagine would be on an angel.

Okay, another reality check. The rooms. No French milled soaps, no leopard robe and slippers, no goldfish for my room (I love Kimpton Hotels), no colorful paintings on the walls – just blank except for a crucifix. One can understand how such distractions could deter one from selecting the next Pontiff. I should also mention that there are no double rooms but some are connecting rooms with single beds for married couples.

Yeah! It’s pasta time again! The dining facilities were located on the ground floor. Hours of service were breakfast – 7:30 to 8:45 AM; lunch, 1 to 2 PM and dinner 7:30 to 8:30 PM – not a minute earlier and not a nanosecond later! The Sisters run a very tight ship. I asked them if they had a vegetable garden like the White House but they said no, all of their gardens are formal gardens. Judging from the daily menu they have attempted to keep the menu very green. Today I had a vegetable risotto, followed by a plate of spinach, onions, artichoke hearts and spicy greens.

Something should also be said about their admirable job of recycling. Two days ago I had baked chicken. Yesterday I had chicken soup, followed by chicken salad. All courses are served with two kinds of wine and bottled water. No fattening chocolaty deserts here… only a basket of fresh fruit at every meal.

One of my more enjoyable lunch conversations was with His Beatitude Ignatius Zakka II, the reigning Patriarch of Antioch and All the East. As Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church, headquartered in Damascus, he covers the entire Middle East. At the time of his election as Patriarch, he was the archbishop of Baghdad and Basra and presently serves as a president of the World Council of Churches. I found him to be a very charming man who could weave in and out of many languages. It reminded me of how His Holiness Pope John Paul II would give his Easter greetings in 61 languages.

I found myself utterly fascinated with all of the brightly colored sashes, robes and hats known as “birratas” worn by the Cardinals whom I met at the Vatican. My eye was drawn to an amazing hand painted beautiful adornment that fell with a fine gold chain in front of his black robe and white stiff collar. I told him it reminded me of a gift I had received from the Patriarch Alexus II, Patriarch of All Moscow and Russia shortly before his death in 2008. I was curious to learn if they were acquainted. As a protocol person, I asked him if he had any guidance pertaining to how an observer might know, based on attire, whether someone was a Monsignor, a Bishop, a Brother, a Cardinal or a Patriarch. He said there was no way of knowing except to ask. This was unfortunate news for those of us in protocol who have to rank order individuals. Too bad they don’t have epaulets like the military! A reminder of why our PPI team is so incredibly valuable, because one person cannot possibly know everything about every element of protocol.

Every encounter at the Vatican was an education in protocol. This evening I had the extreme pleasure and honor to dine with His Eminence, abbreviated as reference, H.E. Juan Luis Card. Cipriani Thorne, the only Cardinal in Peru and Cardinal Priest of San Camillo de Lellis. Each of the cardinals are assigned to a particular church in Rome with which they are identified, a custom dating back hundreds of years. The spoken style reference to a Cardinal is “Your Eminence” and the informal style is simply, “Cardinal Cipriani”.

Cardinal Cipriani was a fascinating conversationalist and someone that could captivate me for hours. He was extremely well versed on protocol issues and enlightened me on the process of becoming a Cardinal. Those who become Cardinals, come to Rome to a “Consistory”. The candidate bends down on both knees, bowing to His Holiness the Pope. To symbolize their bond with the papacy, the Pope gives the cardinals he appoints a gold ring, which is traditionally kissed by Catholics when a cardinal is greeted. The Pope chooses the image on the outside: under Pope Benedict XVI it is a modern depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, with Mary and John to each side. The ring includes the Pope's coat of arms on the inside. It is worn on the right hand. He said the ring is one way you can distinguish a Cardinal from an Arch Bishop, Bishop and so on.

While the ordinary dress of the Cardinal is black (cassock) with red piping and buttons, red fascia (sash), pectoral cross on a chain, and a red zucchetto, the choir dress is more formal and embellished. The rochet, which is apron like is always white, is worn with scarlet garments- the blood-like red symbolizes a cardinal's willingness to die for his faith. I noticed that one of the unique features of my room was the very high location for the closet hangers in order to accommodate long robes.

Cardinal Cipriani was named Archbishop of Lima on 9 January 1999. He was “created”, which is the proper term to use and proclaimed Cardinal by John Paul II in the Consistory of 21 February 2001 and he participated in the important election of the current Pope. Pope John Paul II brought the number of cardinals with the right to enter the conclave to over 120, perhaps calculating that, though his death was approaching, the number would be sufficiently reduced when his successor was elected. And in fact, at John Paul II's death, only 117 of the then-current 183 cardinals were young enough to be electors. They have to be under age 80.

Apart from the occasional sound of church bells everything seemed very quiet here. In fact when we remarked how quiet it seemed, a worker at the DSM stated, “You have NO idea how really quiet it is here”. For entertainment one could go to the basement and buy drinks from the beverage machine or walk in the nearby garden. This place exudes an atmosphere of inner reflection and peaceful contemplation.

How glorious! Another lunch time bonanza in the dining room of the Domus Sanctae Marthae aka "House of the Cardinals". The nun seated me at a table with an identifying card written in Latin. I pointed to another table with a place card for the Pontifical Academy, where I usually sit but the Nun shook her head and pointed to this table where she wanted me to sit. In no time at all I was entirely surrounded with black robes, white collars and crosses. FIVE cardinals joined me for lunch. They were from many countries but they preferred to speak in Spanish so I did my best to muddle through conversation. It reminded me of how self-involved many Americans are, never bothering to learn another language. All of these cardinals spoke at least five languages, weaving many tongues into a conversation, making a glorious international tapestry of words.

There are 58 cardinals who reside at the Vatican and here I was, right in the middle of five of them. As an example of how special they are, the Cardinal from Brazil, who sat next to me is only one of five in the entire country of Brazil. I was told that most come to the Vatican three times a year for about one week. We were all looking forward to a private meeting with "Papa" tomorrow at Sunday Mass. Apparently when the cardinals convene to choose a new Pope, they cannot utter one single spoken word. The entire process is done without verbal communication. What self discipline!

The government of Vatican City has a unique structure. The Pope is the sovereign of the state. . Legislative authority is vested in the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, a body of cardinals appointed by the Pope for five-year periods. Executive power is in the hands of the President of that commission, assisted by the General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary. Since 2006, the second in command is known as the President of the Governate of the State of Vatican City. He is also known as the President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, His Excellency Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo.

The state's foreign relations are entrusted to the Holy See's Secretariat of State and diplomatic service. Nevertheless, the Pope has full and absolute executive, legislative and judicial power over Vatican City. He is currently the only absolute monarch in Europe. The Pope is both the Head-of-State and Head-of-Government. Of all the wonderful dignitaries I have dealt with in my twenty year career as a protocol professional, the Pope’s title is by far the longest. It has 49 words! At least when you write a place card the title would be just “His Holiness the Pope”.

Regarding correct protocol, I had previously greeted Pope John Paul II (1978 – 2005) but never had the extreme honor of greeting His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Alois Ratzinger. It’s important to remember that there has been a succession of Pope’s for almost 2,000 years. For a complete list, go to: New Advent.

One refers to the Pope as “Your Holiness” or “Most Holy Father”. If you are Catholic you re expected to make a low bow or go down on one knee; cross the palms of your hands facing up; take the Pope’s right hand and kiss the Papal ring. If you are not Catholic it is proper to shake his right hand (never with gloves on). One always needs to prepare ones remarks in advance of an audience. I chose a poignant comment on one of his famous quotes, “One can only be a Christian in the Church, not beside the Church”.

One of the interesting things I learned about Papal attire is that the Pope actually has a tiara but like his predecessor, chooses not to wear it. With Gucci sunglasses, red Prada loafers, and vintage styles, this Pope has become somewhat of a fashion celebrity. He made quite a fashion statement recently, donning a red velvet cape trimmed in ermine for the traditional papal visit to the statue of the Madonna near the Spanish Steps that marks the beginning of Rome's Christmas season. Politics aside, especially regarding the Pope’s recent visit to the Middle East, by all reports, he is a very practical man. As one of the most powerful figures in the world, justified or not, he is often viewed through a critical microscopic lens. No one can argue that he is a much needed messenger of peace. As a non-Catholic, I am left with nothing but awe, as someone who has had the rare opportunity to be his honored guest and to see the wonders of the Vatican from the privileged inside.


Copyright © May 2009 Sherri Ferris. All rights reserved.




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