VATICAN CITY — With millions of documents filling almost 53 miles of shelf space, the Vatican Secret Archives obviously still hold some secrets.
Despite the aura of mystery surrounding the archives, the Vatican actually encourages academics to research its holdings and has worked with a Belgian publishing house to bring 105 of the most important, or curious, documents to the public.
The coffee-table book, “The Vatican Secret Archives,” was published by VdH Books in Dutch, English, French and Italian.
Cardinal Raffaele Farina, the Vatican archivist, wrote in the introduction that he knows popular books and movies love to imply there are deep dark secrets intentionally hidden from public view.
But, as Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the archives, explained, the “secret” in the archives’ title comes from the Latin “secretum,” meaning “personal” or “private.”
In fact, Pope Leo XIII ordered the archives opened to researchers in 1881, and currently 60 to 80 scholars work there each day, poring over the parchments, ledgers, letters and texts.
The new book lets readers see some of the things the academics have seen, including handwritten letters to Pope Pius IX from Abraham Lincoln and from Jefferson Davis.
Both letters were written in 1863 while the U.S. Civil War raged on.
President Lincoln’s letter is a formal, diplomatic request that Pope Pius accept Rufus King as the U.S. representative to the Vatican.
The letter makes no mention of the war, but assures the pope that King is “well informed of the relative interests” of both the United States and the Vatican “and of our sincere desire to cultivate and strengthen the friendship and good correspondence between us.”
On the other hand, the letter from Jefferson Davis, president of the secessionist Confederate States, is filled with references to the war and its “slaughter, ruin and devastation.”
Only the first page of the letter and Davis’ signature are included in the book, but the Vatican historian’s commentary about the letter includes quotations from the second page as well.
The commentator said Davis wrote to Pope Pius after the pope had written to the archbishops of New York and New Orleans “urging them to employ every possible means to end the bloodshed and restore peace.”
Davis wrote to the pope about the suffering caused by “the war now waged by the government of the United States against the states and people over which I have been chosen to preside.” He assured the pope that the people of the South are fighting only to defend themselves and to ensure they can “live at peace with all mankind under our own laws and institutions.”
The book’s historical commentary said the letter was, in fact, a veiled ploy to convince Pope Pius to recognize the independence of the Confederacy and establish diplomatic relations; the pope did not do so.
The book also includes a photograph of a letter to Pope Leo written on birch bark. The 1887 letter from the Ojibwe people of Grassy Lake, Ontario, thanks the pope — “the Great Master of Prayer, he who holds the place of Jesus” — for having given them a good “custodian of prayer,” the local bishop.
The birch-bark letter and the most fragile ancient documents in the archives have been digitally scanned, and scholars consult them on one of the computers in the archives’ Index Room.
But most of their requests result in the actual document being retrieved from storage in an underground bunker, a loft or one of the many rooms lined with 16th- and 17th-century wooden cupboards.
In a silence broken only by an occasional page turning and a constant click-click of keys on laptop computers, the scholars examine and write about the documents.
Alfredo Tuzi, director of the reading room, said the most popular topics of current research are the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and the rise of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy, roughly during the same years.
The archival material those scholars are working with has been available to the researchers only since 2006 when Pope Benedict XVI authorized the opening of all materials related to the papacy of Pope Pius XI, who died in February 1939.
Tuzi said that like any government, the Vatican has a set policy for the gradual opening of documents to public research. While some countries stipulate a number of years — often 50 years after the documents were written — the Vatican Secret Archives open records one entire pontificate at a time. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have asked the archives’ staff to speed up the organization and cataloguing of the records from the pontificate of Pope Pius XII — who reigned during and after World War II — so that scholars can access them soon.
Archival material created after February 1939 is kept behind a strong wire fence in the archives’ two-storey underground bunker, inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in 1983.
Made of reinforced concrete, the bunker resembles an underground parking garage featuring rows of metal shelves instead of cars. The yellow lines painted on the floors do not indicate parking spaces, but are glow-in-the-dark arrows pointing to emergency exits.