Venerable Vatican is the world’s tiniest nation

Home sweet home: The Vatican, home of the pope.
Associated Press / Alessandra Tarantino

Monaco is widely regarded as the world’s smallest country, but that tall honor belongs to a micro-state an eighth the size of Central Park, located 400 miles away in the Italian capital of Rome.

Vatican City is home of the Catholic Church, and the site of the papal residence and the Holy See — the Church’s supreme organ of government. It is also a treasure trove of exceptional data:

• The Vatican is governed as a monarchy, with an elected Pope as its head and an appointed president.

• Its citizens numbered less than 594 as of 2011, including 71 cardinals, 109 members of the Swiss Guard, 51 members of the clergy, and one nun inside the Vatican walls, in addition to more than 300 clergy members, most of whom are dispersed around the world as diplomats.

• The Vatican mints its own euros, prints its own stamps, operates its own media, issues its own passports and license plates, and has its own media outlet.

• It has its own police department, its own post office, its own flag — a yellow and white affair featuring a papal coronet and crossed keys — and its own currency in the form of the Vatican lira.

• It has its own legal system, although Italian courts deal with criminal matters, such as the assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II.

• The Vatican is politically neutral, although it has diplomatic relations with other nations.

• It has its own astronomers, who conduct research with a state-of-the-art telescope in an observatory 15 miles from the city at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo; the Vatican has a second research center in Arizona.

• Vatican City is tax-free, its revenue generated through museum admission fees, stamp and souvenir sales, and donations.

• It has a turbulent past — before Italy’s unification in the late 1800s, the government seized all of the Papal States except for the Vatican, which refused to succumb to the Kingdom of Italy.

• Benito Mussolini signed the sovereign state into existence in the late 1920s, compensating the church $92 million (more than $1 billion in today’s money) for the lost Papal States.

• The Swiss Guard is the world’s smallest standing army, made up entirely of Swiss citizens. It has been protecting Popes since 1506, when Pope Julius II hired a Swiss mercenary as his bodyguard.

• Past Popes have used the Passetto di Borgo to escape dangers. The secret passageway was built in 1277 as a route to the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. It saved Pope Clement VII from certain death in 1527, when the henchmen of Roman Emperor Charles V rampaged through the city, murdering nuns and priests.

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