Recently I was standing in line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, and I overheard the conversation of a Dutch man and a Scots woman (in English) who were standing behind me. The gentleman pointed out the Apostolic Palace, which overlooks St. Peter’s Square, and mentioned how the Pope no longer lives there. The lady responded, “Yes, he didn’t want to live in such an ostentatious place“.
(Besides the idea that the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is pretentious and showy, as the Scots woman implied, the press have also advanced the idea that it is luxurious and pompous, and that is why Pope Francis has shunned it, opting instead for the simple and humble Vatican hotel.)
Well, I am going to set the record straight here – for the benefit of anyone in my regular reading audience who might not know, and also for the benefit of those who regularly arrive here via internet search!
There are several points to be made:
1. The Pope himself said in his “big interview“:
The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.
2. When we Americans hear the word “palace”, we automatically think “the lap of luxury”. The word “palace” in European terms (Italian palazzo, Spanish palacio, etc.) simply means “a building of large dimensions”. Usually they are nice, usually they are ornate, but they were also built to last, and there are many that, like the traditional papal apartment, are fairly basic. (There are fancier sections of the Apostolic Palace, with frescoed walls/ceilings, etc., but not where the Pope resides.)
3. The Pope still receives visitors in the papal apartment and conducts other business there. For example, in these days it’s where he is having meetings with his new Council of Cardinals. So the papal apartment still has to be maintained and cleaned – as does his new residence (where he also has meetings), the Vatican “hotel”, Domus Sanctae Marthae (Latin for “St. Martha’s House”). So it could be said that his current living and working arrangement – with two main locations – is more expensive and more complex than the traditional one! It’s clear that this move was not for financial reasons or for giving the appearance of austerity.
4. No, the Holy Father himself gave the reason in another interview that he recently granted (also mentioned above):
You mentioned the fact that I remained at Santa Marta. But I could not live alone in the Palace, and it is not luxurious. The Papal apartment is not particularly luxurious! It is a fair size, but it is not luxurious. But I cannot live alone or with just a few people! I need people, I need to meet people, to talk to people. And that’s why when the children from the Jesuit schools asked me: “Why did you do that? For austerity, for poverty?” No, it was for psychological reasons, simply, because psychologically I can’t do otherwise. Everyone has to lead his own life, everyone has his own way of living and being. [Source]
5. Finally, does it really bother anyone if the Pope has an apartment overlooking St. Peter’s Square (i.e., the traditional papal apartment)? Seriously? I rather like the idea, and think that it’s entirely appropriate that the Holy Father should be able to look out on the faithful who are coming to pray and visit the heart of the Catholic Church. There’s nothing ostentatious about the leader of over one billion Catholics having a room with a view over the entrance to his main church! Please!
Here is a map of the Vatican City-State (from Wikimedia Commons), to which I have added a few reference numbers. #1 is the traditional papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace (overlooking St. Peter’s Square – where the Pope still appears on most Sundays to deliver his Angelus Address); #2 is the current papal residence in the Vatican’s “hotel”, Domus Sanctae Marthae; #3 is the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, where Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI now lives.