Vatican City, 18 April 2012 (VIS) - The Vatican Secret Archives, where all the documentation relating to the Holy See is conserved and catalogued, are this year celebrating their fourth centenary. Among the initiatives organised to mark the occasion is a congress entitled "Religiosa Archivorum Custodia", which began yesterday in the Vatican and is examining the history of the archives, their cultural importance and the results of the most recent research.
Due perhaps to an erroneous interpretation of the name (the word "secret" is to be understood in its Latin definition of "private"), the archives have always been surrounded by an aura of mystery. They were established by Pope Paul V in 1611 and originally contained the manuscripts from the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-1085) which had survived the Avignon schism. Speaking on Vatican Radio Msgr. Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, explained that they "contain centuries and centuries of catalogued letters sent or received by Popes, documents of the Apostolic Camera, diplomatic papers from the various nuncios and diplomatic missions, as well as documents from Councils and Synods, etc. The archives were originally contained in 400 metres of shelf space, now they cover 85 kilometres".
In 1881 Pope Leo XIII opened the archives for free consultation by researchers. According to the German historian Arnold Esch, "it is the greatest archive in the world as regards the Middle Ages. Above all it is an archive which contains material of universal value and importance".
Despite the efforts of academics a large part of the Vatican Secret Archives remains unexplored, chiefly the vast amount of material originating in apostolic nunciatures, and from the period of World War II.