Pope and Ceremony: The Secret World of Vatican City

The headquarters of the Catholic church is a closely guarded city-state – centuries old and resistant to change. Can Pope Francis drag it into the 21st century? (Guardian photographer Christian Sinibaldi was given unprecedented access to his world. Words by Paula Cocozza)

Renzo Cestiè, Pope Francis’s senior driver, waits as the Popemobile is refuelled. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

The man holding the keys might have wandered into a fairytale. He faces a pair of towering doors whose knocker is larger than his head. In his hand, the giant hoop clatters as he feels his way towards No 401; it enters the keyhole with a clear, sharp clang. The man starts to push and light from inside the room falls across his shoes.

At 6.30am, the Vatican is awakening. In a few hours, the room Alessio Censoni has just opened, the Sala Rotonda, will be packed with tourists. But, for now, the building is coming to life with workers. Chatter blows along the corridors. Together with four shift-mates, Censoni continues his round of unlocking: 300 doors to go.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly praised the dignity of labour (in Buenos Aires, he once did a stint as a bouncer). Group by group, he has invited the Vatican’s 4,800 employees to mass in Casa Santa Marta, the guesthouse where he lives. In January, he baptised Censoni’s daughter. What can his employees – hastening to the clocking-in machine, past the sleepy security guard in a North Face hoodie – tell us about working alongside the pontiff?

Keeper of the keys, Alessio Censoni. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

The cleverness of Pope Francis has been to advance the message of Christ simply by being human himself. He has brought divine office down to earth with a revolution in tone. Famously, he is the first pope to use the word “gay” (“If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”). He has described the pay gap between men and women as “pure scandal”, advised Catholics that they needn’t breed “like rabbits”, and called priests who refuse to baptise the children of single mothers “animals”. He has washed the feet of young prisoners. In this sense, Pope Francis is a parable in action.

If his predecessor Pope Benedict was perceived as aloof and scholastic, this pope wears a full-faced grin and wields a thumbs-up. But while he is seen as progressive, Francis’s reform of the curia – the church’s central government, which he has castigated for its insularity and back-biting – is moving slowly. And despite the apparent liberalism of his speeches, the official teaching remains mostly intact: abortion is still “absolute evil”, homosexual acts a sin, gay marriage firmly opposed. Francis has managed to suggest a radical agenda by putting the theme of mercy at the heart of everything he does: in countless speeches, pronouncements and even the current “extraordinary jubilee” year. It’s a message that has secular appeal (who doesn’t believe in compassion?), and it has allowed the pope to sidestep a confrontation with the church’s more conservative forces, by encouraging local priests to use their own discretion.

But still the Vatican remains highly secretive, a world in miniature; packed into its 0.44 sq km is everything a state needs, only smaller. Beyond its museums and St Peter’s Basilica, the frontiers are well guarded. There are high walls, and the famous bank is housed inside an old fortress. The fire engines are the size of minibuses. Under Pope John Paul II, the cinema was busy, but the chairs are now stacked and it looks disused. There is even a tiny jail, used to detain the priest convicted in July for his part in the latest Vatileaks scandal exposing financial mismanagement and corruption at the city’s heart. Petrol costs a minuscule 40 cents a litre, compared with €1.40 over the border in Rome.

[He] says these things, catchy phrases, which are less than 140 characters, so they naturally fit on Twitter

At one of these roadside pumps, the Popemobile is being refuelled. Renzo Cestiè, chatting to the attendant, is Pope Francis’s senior driver. He was second driver for Benedict, “but we had a whole different fleet then”, he says. “We had an armoured Mercedes, an armoured Popemobile. Pope Francis doesn’t want them. He wants contact with the people. See?” He lifts a protective cover to reveal a Popemobile with tinted windows. “This was used by John Paul II and Benedict, but the Holy Father fears nothing.” And what about his driver? “I don’t feel fear,” he shrugs. “If it happens, we go to paradise.”

Cestiè sensed that his job was changing from day one. Sent to collect the newly elected pope from his pensione in central Rome, he waited by the entrance in a Mercedes. “An official came rushing out, saying, ‘Take it away!’ Because the pope wanted to get the bus with his cardinals. He said, ‘Do you mind if I go with my friends?’ We didn’t know then that he hated luxury. We didn’t stop to think that these cars weren’t made for him.”

Jobs as cleaners and maintenance workers are often passed down through families. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

For the first few weeks, Cestiè, who is 62 and has worked at the Vatican since he was 14, reported for duty in fancy cars. Then the pope visited his garage to see the options for himself, settling on a blue Ford Focus and the smallest, most open Popemobile. Cestiè thumps its bonnet. “For us it was a wonderful thing, the Holy Father so humble.” Now Benedict’s Mercedes is boxed in at the back of the garage, its roof covered with a sheet of bubblewrap.

Cestiè flips open the Popemobile’s glove box, where a white towel is stowed to dry the pope on rainy days. As a rule, he says, the vehicle should feature the papal coat of arms, but the paintwork glints with Benedict’s golden emblem. “Pope Francis doesn’t like crests.” He also insists on shutting his own door. Cestiè lets slip a reference to the pope’s “butlers”, or assistants, and then corrects himself. “He doesn’t want to call them butlers, because we are all the same. We are people who collaborate with him.”

The pope is a quiet passenger who shuns the car radio, he says. But every now and then, Cestiè will glance in his rearview mirror and find his passenger’s gaze. “I always look away,” he says. When Francis meets his eye, “it is as if, in that moment, he looks inside you and he knows who you are”. His voice cracks, the silence eventually broken by his mobile ringtone: Barry White’s Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe.

Pushed to name the biggest change since Francis was elected, Cestiè’s answer is surprisingly pragmatic: it’s his work-life balance. Unlike Benedict’s retired driver, “who was always here, every day, every holiday”, Cestiè works a six-hour shift. “The Holy Father wouldn’t want it. He is the first to say, ‘Why aren’t you resting today?’”

A team of 80 workers maintain the Vatican’s treasures. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

It is a five-minute walk from Cestiè’s carport to the lavish apostolic palace, past the fire engines where the firemen still lean on the bonnet. This is where Benedict lived as pope, and where Francis holds meetings. Sun pours through the windows, making latticed shadows on the wall. The galleried walkways glimmer with the clean, faint fragrance of undisturbed air. At the clip of approaching footsteps, a Swiss guard materialises around a corner. He can’t talk on duty, he says (and this afternoon he is captaining FC Guardia in a match against a Gypsy team), but he promises to meet tomorrow.

He doesn’t want to call them butlers, because we are all the same. We are people who collaborate with him

In the Sala Regia, a vast antechamber to the Sistine Chapel, workers are packing portraits of 19th-century popes into removal crates after an exhibition. Just off this room is the apostolic sacristy where Father Pavel Benedik, a taciturn Slovakian priest, is fiddling with his smartphone. He is the custodian here, and calm prevails. In an hour, the phone rings once. The room is lined with polished wardrobes, a hive of numbered wooden doors in which every item has its place, and every place has a label. Vestments are stowed by size (Pope Francis takes a 3, the most popular) and the drawers are taped with old-fashioned embossed strips: “X IL PAPA [for the pope]”, “VIMPE STOLE [shawls, stoles]”.

Helping Father Pavel is Father Jesus Polentino, 30, from Venezuela. He was ordained just as Benedict resigned, so for him the election of an Argentinian pope felt particularly auspicious. “The first Latin American pope,” he says. “They went to the end of the world to find him. That means that even we, who are from the end of the world, can arrive at the heart of this church.”

He is a volcano! This dynamism – no one expected this. Not even him,’ says Father Federico Lombardi. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

Or maybe the heart, its centre, is moving outwards? “Only the style changes a bit,” Father Pavel says. He withdraws a bent cross crosier from a nearby cupboard and lays it next to the original on which it was modelled. This crucifix-topped staff fell into disuse under Benedict, but it has been revived, to the distaste of some Catholics, who find its depiction of Jesus’s suffering too brutal. “Almost the same,” Father Pavel says, looking at the two. And they are, only the Christ in Francis’s version has even thinner legs. Suffering is not something from which he shies away.

A reformer

At 6pm, it is rush hour in the Vatican. Cars file along the road behind the palace of the governatorato, a sort of mayoral building opposite which Francis’s crest has been clipped out of box hedging; maybe it was planted before he made his wishes clear. Nuns unload shopping trolleys into their car boots by the supermarket, and a crowd gathers at the pharmacy where a promotional stand offers samples of Avène skincare. Outside the Swiss Guard barracks, the air is thick with sweat and deodorant. The young soldiers who guard the pope have just finished a football match.

Just beyond the Vatican gates, Father Federico Lombardi, 73, shows the way to his office, up marble stairs, through a room stacked floor-to-ceiling with boxes of paper and ink. For 10 years until this summer, he served as the pope’s spokesperson (though he rejects that title, because “the pope can speak for himself”), working with John Paul II, Benedict and the current pope.

What has Francis been like? “He is a volcano!” Lombardi says, settling into his swivel chair. “This dynamism – no one expected this. Not even him! He is very creative, he has lots of initiatives.”

These have included choosing to launch the pope’s “holy year of mercy” at Bangui cathedral in Central African Republic, rather than Rome. Then there were the 11 Syrian migrants he brought back to Rome from Lesbos in April. Not to mention the free-form press conferences, the reinvigorated synod of bishops, which is devolving power to the regions, and the council of cardinal advisers tasked with reforming the curia. Twelve times in an hour, Lombardi describes Francis as “dynamic” – but would he say the pontiff is a reformer?

“Let’s say he has given a strong impetus to putting us on the road, no? When he speaks about the church ‘going out’, he means a church that is not inside the walls defending itself, not self-referential,” Lombardi replies, cupping his hands as if to enclose a tiny city. “That definitely is a sense he has given us. The church on the road – and, in this sense, I accept the definition of reformer.”

Sisters iron ceremonial robes. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

You can almost feel the volcano cool as Lombardi speaks, though such circumspection comes with the territory. “There is what one might call a turf war going on,” Austen Ivereigh, author of Pope Francis: The Great Reformer, explains. “The different departments have their own fiefdom. That’s what he is setting out to change.” Nine communication teams have become one. This month, the Vatican ministries of family, laity and life, which have always overlapped, will merge. Others will follow. Ivereigh calls this “the biggest redesign of the curia in 30 years. It’s radical in the sense that Francis is introducing collegiality, which is allowing the local church to have a much greater say. The reordered Vatican will be a slimmer, more focused structure.”

Crucially, there will be financial reform. Last December, the Vatican appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers as its external auditor. But in April the audit was suspended; the Vatican has since announced that its own Office of the Auditor General, created by Pope Francis, will conduct the audit with PwC in “an assisting role”.

Lombardi waves away these subjects as “very particular arguments. I am not sure it’s worth going into them. The suspension of the deal with Pricewater…” he trails off, apparently having forgotten the name. “If you do a contract for three years, that costs €3m, that looks at all the central institutions – it can happen that you need to correct the odd thing.”

He thinks Francis’s reforms have had “partial results. Certain things are already seeing positive results, but others are still a little in train.”

How difficult is it to bring about change? “Exactly like in all the organisations of the world. I have been here 25 years. I know how things are done and why they are done. If someone comes along and says, ‘Now we are changing everything’, I say, ‘Look, perhaps you haven’t yet understood what we do and why we do it.’ Perhaps I make one or two objections. Is this resistance because I don’t want to change anything, or is it because I simply want to make you understand what we have done and why?”

Florists at work. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

The swivel chair is in a state of agitation now, and Lombardi’s shoulders rise and fall in frustration. “I have always found it very simplistic, the way the world is divided between those who want to make things better and those who resist, because they want to conserve their power. If anyone says this about the Vatican, they are saying an idiocy. Perhaps in 3,000 people, you will have three or four who will say, ‘I lose my power!’, and lots of others who will say, ‘No, let’s discuss what we want to change.’ There should be a discussion.

“These ones here, when they came,” he says, casting around for the name of another, previous consultant. “It was very interesting for me: McKinsey. We worked with much friendship and serenity. But at the start,” he says, dropping his voice, “they knew absolutely nothing. They didn’t know about shortwave radio! They had not the least idea, while we had worked on it for 80 years. Do you understand? It’s great to draw up new plans. But there is also a dialogue to be had.” He laughs. “I had the impression I taught them more than they did me.”

As director of communications for an outspoken pope, one imagines Lombardi’s job became tougher with Pope Francis. But, no, he says, it was harder under John Paul II. “For the last five or six years, he was in a chair and didn’t say a word.” And Benedict was also “less concrete in his communication, so it was more challenging”. Pope Francis, meanwhile, has “a great gift” for speaking directly. He “says these things, catchy phrases, which are less than 140 characters, so they naturally fit on Twitter. In this type of communication, Francis is ideal. It’s as if he were made for the purpose.”

The sky is darkening through Lombardi’s office window. “Instead of going about with complete indifference, feeling the church is out of step with the times,” he adds, “Francis has made it closer, more present, with all the suffering and difficulty that humanity experiences today.”

‘Fran-cis-co! Fran-cis-co!’

In St Peter’s Square, crowds have gathered, chatting, chanting, singing a cappella. Soon Pope Francis will descend the steps and faithful hands will grasp the air around him. Renzo Cestiè’s mother will be watching on TV. A murmur rises. An elderly man is pushing a wheelchair; his son, Carmelo, who lost speech and movement after a stroke, sits with a white cap on his lap. He hopes that Pope Francis will wear it. People shout, “Carmelo! Over here!” They know that where a wheelchair is parked, Francis will come.

The Papal Audience in St Peter’s Square. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

A cry of “Fran-cis-co! Fran-cis-co!” breaks from the crowd. The pope is coming. Carmelo is bringing him to us. The pope looks thrilled. He is beaming as if he has been waiting for this. He stoops, eyes crinkled, and clasps Carmelo’s head so eagerly, his fingers disappear into his thick hair. Spotting the cap, he gives a magician’s grin and plucks off his own by a tassel. Ta-da! In its place he puts Carmelo’s. He presses it down, to make sure that whatever goodness rises from his head will stick to Carmelo’s cap. He smiles again – something is happening – and returns the cap; the delight on his face suggests that it is he who has met Carmelo, and not Carmelo who has met the pope. The crowd roars. People wipe their eyes. Carmelo has been hugged and it feels like a hug for all. A new chant breaks out. “Car-mel-o! Car-mel-o!” The pope climbs into his jeep, black trousers showing through his white robe. Underneath it all, they seem to say, he is just a parish priest.

Speak to those who work with Francis, and the stories of countless acts of consideration mount (though he could send the nuns help with the ironing). Alessio Censoni, the key-keeper, knows that the rumours the pope encouraged women to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel are true: at Censoni’s daughter’s christening, when babies wailed, he turned to the mothers and asked, ‘Can’t you hear they’re crying? Feed them tranquilly.”

He asks us … if we’re hungry, if we want to sit down. On my first night shift, he offered me a biscuit

“Yes, I’ve heard that one,” says Filippo Petrignani, who works in the museum’s rights office. “But there are loads. Of him taking a coffee from the vending machine. With coins.” Petrignani rattles off the stories like jokes. “Last summer: ‘Father, it’s very hot in Rome. Would you like to go out of the city for a week?’ ‘And how many people would I have to move to go out of the city? Hmm. We’ll stay at home. What we save, we’ll give to the poor.’”

In another anecdote, Pope Francis offers a chair to a Swiss Guard. “That’s true,” says guard Nico Castelluzzo, today sitting in the visitors’ mess, just after lunch, his colourful livery peeled to the waist to protect the uniform from spatters from his pasta sauce. “It was the same when we did the night shift outside his apartment. He would always ask if we’d slept OK. It took a while for him to understand that we were on duty, that we needed to stay awake. He asks us – he’s a very human person – if we’re hungry, if we want to sit down. On my first night shift, he offered me a biscuit. It tasted good: an Argentinian biscuit.”

Christoph Graf, the 35th commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, is dressed by an assistant as his son plays. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

According to the Swiss Guards’ website, beneath Castelluzzo’s colourful costume “is actually a state-of-the-art trained Swiss security professional”. So it is surprising to learn that guards are not required to undertake exercise and they have a liberal curfew of 2am (though they are required to shave each day). Castelluzzo passes the solitary hours on duty with a book. “I was never a great reader. I started when I joined the Swiss Guards, so I’m still trying to work out what I like,” he says. Despite the Vatican’s disapproval of its author, he has just finished Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. “Well,” he says, “it’s good to know the opposition.”

Has Pope Francis’s predilection for entering crowds make Castelluzzo worry? “Security is more complicated. Pope Francis is very close to the people. But he knows what risk he takes, and he still wants to do it.” The Swiss Guards work with the carabinieri, Italy’s military police. “But,” Castelluzzo says, “if someone wants to do something, they will surely find a way.” He shrugs. “You need to pray a lot.”

From the guards’ barracks, the road loops around the rear of St Peter’s to reach the basilica’s maintenance division, near the smokers’ corner and the vending machines. Here, Pietro Zander helps oversee the cleaning and maintenance workers (the job that Renzo Cestiè’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all did). “We continue that which they who came before us started,” Zander says. The St Peter’s Zander knows is not the one most visitors see. There are 22,000 square metres of floor to be cleaned daily. When a shaft of light enters a window, Zander sees “threads of wool, hairs, all this microdust”. He knows the basilica in its vastness and its particulars. But it is also a home. “St Peter’s house,” he says. “Like a house, the door is closed with a key.”

Pope Francis, whom Zander considers “a neighbour”, likes to greet the cleaners in the basilica, but there are other examples of crossover between the devotional side of things and what Zander calls “contingent necessities”. When, for example, John Paul II required a tomb, it was Zander’s department that solved the problem of where to put him by moving the remains of Pope Innocent XI because otherwise, he says with a straight face, “There was a pedestrian traffic problem. The huge flow [of mourners] would have created jams.”

Driver Renzo Cestiè with the Pope’s Ford Focus. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

A colleague enters his office. “Have you seen this?” Zander asks, holding up an old chandelier. He is fascinated by the metal grid that protects the bulb. “If the bulb breaks, the glass won’t fall. And if the grid breaks, the grid won’t fall, because look…” He waggles a small metal tie that acts as a second safety catch. “One of the principles of doing things properly in St Peter’s is to look at what has been done before you. Because here perfection has happened that way.” He rests the chandelier on the table. There is an echo of Father Lombardi and his defence of the curia’s right to question change: for both men, precedent should be upheld to protect the future.

Pope Francis’s critics broadly divide into two camps: those who think he is trying to change too much, and those who would like him to do more. Reform is happening slowly, unevenly. His ad hoc gestures and comments can feel like progress, but in other areas – in confronting institutional child abuse, for example, or tackling financial reform – he can seem wanting. And, of course, devolving authority to local churches has empowered conservative as well as liberal voices. As the pope said in an address last Christmas, “We cannot do everything, yet it is liberating to begin.”

It must be hard to reform a structure when the past is seen to confer its own kind of providence. But Pope Francis’s smile has yet to slip and, at 79, he has “an energy unexpected of a person of his age”, Father Lombardi tells me. “I asked him how he did it, how he managed. He said, ‘Well, God asked me to do it and he gives me the strength to do it.’ His Argentinian friends say, ‘But we don’t recognise him! He seems 20 years younger than when he left.’ In his last years in Buenos Aires, he seemed to be preparing for retirement. Instead, he has taken off again – and he pulls us all along.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s