Vatican City & the Papacy with Burt Wolf
This documentary shows the history of the Papacy in a somewhat more favorable light than it deserves, utilizing sound bites and on-camera depictions of historical art (much, if not all, owned by the Vatican and/or institutions supported by the Catholic Church) to portray some notable Popes as well as the art and architecture they commissioned, giving the works and the Popes behind them a sense of reality and immediacy they might not have otherwise. Vatican City & The Papacy is commendably thorough and far-reaching in its focus. For instance, though I had some acquaintance with the succession of Popes, I had not known that the building within which they actually crown the Popes, the church of San Giovanni in Laterano, had actually been a villa belonging to a wealthy Roman, had changed hands while the Roman Empire was still extant, and become part of the dowry of one Fausta, who married the Emperor Constantine.
Emperor Constantine famously legalized Christianity after having conquered in Christ’s name, he actively promoted it, becoming one of the new religion’s biggest financial supporters. He donated the building to the Catholic Church, and it has been in prominent usage ever since.
Besides some of the more well-known buildings and works of art commissioned or held by the Catholic Church, Wolf discusses the evolution of some publicly known Catholic practices centered at buildings of the Vatican, such as the “Holy Year”, an event frequently marked by building (as in the case of Pope Sixtus), or demolition (the symbolic knocking down of the brick wall to reveal the picture of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus practiced to mark some recent Holy Years, e.g. 1983).
Unbeknownst to many, besides being credited with having given the world bureaucracy and propaganda in its most eminent and obvious forms, the centralization, consolidation, and refinement that the Catholic Church has undergone through its centuries of operation has given the world some less tangible but equally important things:
“We tend to think of courts of appeal and legal precedents as concepts that developed in the secular world. But in fact it was the papacy that popularized the idea of a court of appeals.”
As it uses rich period imagery and teaches how a number of sacred works of art and architecture in the Vatican City area were created or acquired, and how the churches and museums of the present-day Vatican City supplanted the fortune-tellers of ancient Rome’s Vatican Hill, this documentary is a good way to get a comprehensive overview of the history of the architectural development of the area, and the growth of the Papacy, albeit one favorable to the official Catholic Church.
As I watched this documentary all the way through on PBS, I found myself wishing it had been in existence when I was getting my official Catholic religious education in CCD class. It’s probably fair to say that most American Catholics are ignorant of many aspects of their religion and of many of the past Popes. This documentary or something very like it would seem to be a potential remedy to that.
Also, when the official religious instruction is in some way lacking, boring, or irrelevant, it is no wonder that so many Catholics drift away from the Church in young adulthood.

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