The 400th anniversary of the Vatican Secret Archives

George Weigel writes from Rome for NRO about the 400th anniversary of the Vatican secret archives and an exhibit about the famous and oft-misrepresented institution:

The very name “Vatican Secret Archives” tends to trigger the Dan Brown reflex in minds given to conspiracy theories and black legends about the Catholic Church. In fact, there is nothing sinister about the title of this treasure trove of historical materials; “secret,” in this case, is Vaticanspeak for the private archives of the papacy, which were opened to qualified scholars in 1881 by Leo XIII, the founder of the modern papacy and a man unafraid of the truths that history could teach.

To mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of this remarkable institution, the Vatican and the City of Rome have assembled an extraordinary exhibit of materials from the Secret Archives, Lux in Arcana (“Light in Mysterious Places”), which can be enjoyed at the Capitoline Museum in the Piazza del Campidoglio until September 9, and sampled online at If good fortune brings you to La CittÀ before September 9, reserve at least three hours to savor an assemblage of primary historical materials of a magnitude never before exhibited in one place, and unlikely to be shown again in the foreseeable future.

Some of the documents — written on such various materials as parchment, vellum, paper, and birchbark (the medium for an 1887 letter from the Ojibwe Indians to the pope, “the Great Master of Prayer, he who acts in Jesus’s stead”) — bring to mind epic moments and historical turning points across ten centuries: the handwritten records of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition; Pope Alexander VI’s bull Inter Cetera (which might be translated, “Among Other Things”), dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal; the 1530 petition from dozens of members of England’s House of Lords, asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that the Tudor king might marry Anne Boleyn; Gregory XIII’s calendar of 1582 with the “missing ten days” in October, an excision that rectified the inaccuracies of the earlier Julian calendar; a letter from Mary Queen of Scots to Sixtus V just before her execution; Polish king John III Sobieski’s 1683 letter to Innocent XI, reporting his victory over the Turks at the Battle of Vienna; letters from Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln to Pius IX during the U.S. Civil War.

Read his entire piece. And learn more about the exhibit.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.