Operating a state within a city; Island: Tucked into downtown Rome is Vatican City, a sovereign state that is the hub of Roman Catholic affairs -- and where the mail gets delivered on time.


VATICAN CITY -- For some Italians, dropping an important letter in the mailbox is cause for a quick prayer. Mail sent through Italy's famously unreliable postal service can take weeks or months to get where it's going.

But in the heart of Rome is a post office that handles mail efficiently, with no need for divine intervention.

Vatican City, the 108-acre island of Roman Catholic Church rule inside the city limits of Rome, is a virtually self-sufficient nation-state with a police force and a pharmacy, a diplomatic staff, a supermarket and a range of other services available to anyone who lives or works within its confines.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the formal establishment of Vatican City. On Feb. 11, 1929 -- nearly 60 years after the newly founded Kingdom of Italy took control of the 16,000-square-mile area in mid-Italy ruled by popes since the Middle Ages -- Italy and the Vatican signed the Lateran Agreement, extending mutual recognition after decades of mutual defiance.

But a sovereign state within the city limits of another sovereign state's capital needs to make arrangements not just for diplomatic affairs but for its water, electricity and mail service -- all of which are covered in the treaty of reconciliation.

The Vatican postal system is a particularly successful independent operation. It provides three deliveries a day to the papal offices and apartments and a range of mailing services to outsiders. Over the years, it has earned a reputation for efficiency that has led more than one Roman to make a special trip to drop an international letter into a blue Vatican mailbox rather than take a chance on the overloaded Italian system.

Vatican officials are duly humble. "Everything is smaller here," says the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, a Vatican spokesman, "so it's easier to be efficient."

Compared to the tens of thousands of workers and facilities in the Italian system, the Vatican employees 62 postal workers. Almost all are laypeople, but an Italian priest is the city-state's postmaster general. There are four offices, 32 mailboxes and six trucks.

The daily flocks of postcard-toting tourists tend to miss the two branches open to the general public tucked in opposite corners beneath the majestic columns of St. Peter's Square.

There is plenty of work for postal workers. Inside and outside the Vatican, regular postal mail still serves as the predominant form of communication tying together the worldwide network of priests, nuns, bishops, cardinals and lay church workers.

In 1997, more than 18 million pieces of mail were sent out through the four post offices to foreign destinations. Mail going anywhere other than Italy is flown to Switzerland, where it is sorted and dispatched around the world. Most Italians will tell you that it's Swiss efficiency that helps the mail move faster than it would if handled by Italians.

The Vatican's postal rates are the same as those in Italy, and mail services, including stamps, are paid for in Italian lire. Church officials had to receive special permission from the European Commission last year to print stamps using the new euro denominations, since Vatican City is not officially one of the 11 countries joined in the single currency union. Those stamps will join the others printed by the Vatican that are coveted by collectors around the world.

Like most everything else within the Vatican, there is a particular function directly associated with the work of the papacy -- the heavy responsibility of receiving letters and packages sent to the pope himself.

As Thomas J. Reese describes in his 1996 book "Inside the Vatican," incoming letters addressed to the pope come from priests, prime ministers and parishioners across the planet.

"Letters come asking for prayers, for apostolic blessings, for jobs, for money, for an audience or for some other favor. Some writers complain about something in their parish, diocese or country. Others complain about or praise some action of the Holy See. Some are seeking information. Some are sending donations," Reese writes.

The post office sends the pope's mail to the Vatican's Secretariat of State, which funnels it to the appropriate place. All letters receive a response, Reese explains, though often the writers are advised to seek a more complete reply from a local church official in their home diocese. Letters from cardinals often go directly to the pope, along with at least a handful of personal prayer requests.

There's more to life in Vatican City than just prayers and mail-call. While the Holy See serves as the hub of the Church's religious affairs, a 1,400-employee staff of the "Governatorato" office keeps the place up and running.

There are plumbers and firemen, gardeners and clerks, a gas station, a supermarket, a home appliance and electronics store and a clothing shop. Because the stores are not subject to Italian taxes, prices are generally lower, but access is strictly limited to Vatican personnel.

That makes Daniele Pucci wistful. Relaxing in St. Peter's Square, he is free to enjoy the view and to speculate about the Vatican store and its low prices. But he works in a pizzeria outside the southern walls of Vatican City, and the store is off limits to him.

"It's like the president having his own stores in the White House," he says.

There is also a pharmacy where residents of Rome are occasionally referred for certain medicines not available in Italian pharmacies. Certain products, including birth control items, won't be found there. A health service (which operates like an American HMO) for Vatican employees and their families relies on Italian doctors and health clinics.

A 120-member police force follows most of the laws of Italy. When the pope was shot in St. Peter's Square in 1981, the assailant was captured and tried by Italian authorities. Crimes against the pope face the same penalties as those committed against the Italian president.

As for the rest of us, the same fines -- and even the use of the infamous tire boot -- apply in the Vatican as in the jam-packed streets of Rome, though the Vatican officers seem to be particularly vigilant. "Oh, they can be very severe," Benedettini says with a smile.

As for civic life, there is plenty of politics, as cardinals and bishops maneuver for power and proximity to the pontiff.

For the 475 citizens of Vatican City (mostly clergy) there are no municipal elections or congress or city council. It is, instead, an absolute monarchy under the pope's complete sovereignty.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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