- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

Four years ago on a cool April evening, thousands of us stood in St. Peter’s Square to watch the new Pope Benedict XVI be introduced to the world.

Covering such a momentous event was pure fun.Thus, when an embossed edition of “The Vatican,” a 320-page book loaded with photos and maps of the city-state, landed on my desk, I took a second look.

Moreover, “Angels & Demons,” a movie starring Tom Hanks that takes place at the Vatican, opens this week.

There are five entrances to the city, all of which are heavily guarded. But the author, the Rev. Michael Collins, had unusual access. An Irish priest who studied at the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome, he volunteered as a tour guide at St. Peter’s, then taught archaeology to university students in the Eternal City.

Even though he has moved back to Dublin, his Vatican contacts got him into places like the papal treasury, filled with papal tiaras, monstrances, Mass implements, incense holders and accessories such as Pope Pius VII’s early 19th century gold-embroidered white-silk shoes, each topped by an emerald.

Only a fifth of the 5,000 available photos made it into the book. Christopher Pillitz, an Argentine freelance photographer, took about one-third; the Vatican Museum and various photo agencies provided the remainder.

“The pope gave us three days to follow him around,” the author told me. “The biggest disappointment are the places we didn’t get into,” including about seven rooms that make up the papal apartments. The current pope does not occupy the same bedroom as did John Paul II.

“He has moved up into a loft bedroom, which is a bit cozier and smaller,” Father Collins said. When I asked if Pope Benedict had done so in order to sneak in one of his favorite animals, “I got the impression there might be a cat,” he added.

Alas, the existence of a papal kitty cat may remain unconfirmed for now.

We see items such as the papal helicopter pad, Bramante’s stairwell, which allowed Pope Julius II to ride his horse to the top without dismounting, and vignettes of people, ranging from choirboys to the Missionaries of Charity nuns who run a homeless hostel in the Vatican walls.

Father Collins notices every detail and trend, such as Benedict no longer carrying the famous Lello Scorzelli staff/crucifix that John Paul II hoisted about. The pontiff recently switched to a lighter neo-Gothic one favored by Pope Leo XIII.

When I noticed how beautiful the papal wardrobe is, he told me five nuns in their 70s maintain it full time.

“I asked them, ‘Who of the popes did you like the most?’” he says. “All five of them said they liked John XXIII because he was always in good humor and smiling and joking with them.”

During the bulk of his years in Rome, the current pope was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

“I’d cross the street so as not to meet him,” the priest said half-jokingly, “because he’d engage me in these long conversations because he’s fascinated by church history and archaeology. He is a first-rate historian and theologian. And a top-rate pope. We have never had a pope with such intellectual prowess as him.”

Father Collins is happy to answer questions from the public about the Vatican. E-mail him at Michaelangelo 100@hotmail.com.

Julia Duin’s column Stairway to Heaven appears Sundays and Thursdays. Contact her at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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