The Vatican Library and Archives: antidotes for amnesia
Benedetta Capelli – Vatican City
A silence that is memory, a treasure chest of knowledge, a yearning for the infinite. This is the air one breathes in the Vatican Apostolic Library and the Vatican Apostolic Archives, institutions that today look toward the future, adopting technology while conserving and respecting the ancient deposits of the Church’s tradition. In the Library, for example, “catholicism”, explains Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, Archivist and Librarian of the Holy Roman Church, “is not an abstraction” but rather is something that “embraces all that is human”. So as to share its heritage with scholars the world over, the Library, “an institution for conservation and research”, was separated in the 1600s under Paul V from the Archives that carries out an “intellectually charitable” activity.
What is the specific contribution the Library and the Archives has offered over the course of the centuries and continues to offer today to the Holy See’s mission and that of the Successor of Peter?
I will begin with an image that has always impressed me as I have oftentimes accompanied scholars or visitors these past years through the Apostolic Library and Archives. On entering these halls and seeing the immensity and the quality of the patrimony conserved here, they are speechless. I would say their silence is not just silence. It is something similar to those tremors that Blaise Pascal used to say is caused by infinite thought.
To understand the vocation and mission of these centuries-old institutions, perhaps the most correct thing to do is to recall the centrality of the dimension of memory in the life of the Church. It truly bases its existence on the historical and sacramental memory of Jesus’s words and actions. The Church is all the more alive the more it is aware of the living memory that pulses within it and assures its continuity. The Library and the Archives are antidotes to amnesia. For example, one of the fundamental missions of the Apostolic Library is to conserve some of the most ancient specimens of the manuscript tradition of Sacred Scripture. That alone should be enough to consider it as the heart of the Church.
But, as Pope Francis has recalled, “two great rivers, the Word of God and the words of man” converge in the Library. In effect, what ‘catholicism’ means can be touched up close. Here, ‘catholicism’ is not an abstraction. Catholicism has been and is lived by the Successors of Peter as an embrace of all that is human, valuing all cultures and forms of expression. This is how this monumental deposit of human thought was built up, extending over the span of centuries, from antiquity to the present. It is the same universality that we find mirrored in the documents of the Apostolic Archives that sort of prolong the Acts of the Apostles since they narrate the adventure of Christianity throughout time and how the Holy Spirit leads the Church. In this way, it is evident, as Pope Benedict XVI said, that the Archives and the Library are an “integral part of the means required to carry out the Petrine Ministry” and are indispensable tools for the governance of the Church.
Even the activity of the Library and the Archives have been strongly affected by the international health crisis, which has penalized above all the relationship between the academic and scientific community. How are you coping with the crisis and what measures have you put into place to guaranty safety without compromising the work of research?
The Apostolic Archives and the Library have done everything possible to mitigate the impact of this serious health crisis. To be honest, we never closed, even though there were a few months when we could not welcome scholars here physically. Our staff continued to work remotely, while the heads, assisted by a small team, continued to work in their respective offices. The requests have been met from everyone who, not being able to come physically to the Cortile del Belvedere (Belvedere Courtyard), wrote to us for information or copies of documents. And as soon as it was possible, we were among the first to reopen the doors to scholars, thanks also to reducing the length of time for the traditional summer closure. In strict compliance with the security measures in place, we can now welcome a smaller number of researchers. In any case, our efforts have been widely recognized by scholars who have praised the highly qualified service the Holy See offers to the international scientific community.
Technological innovations represent a challenge requiring continual updating to keep up with the times. What future do you foresee for two institutions founded to safeguard and conserve the testimony of the past?
As Pope Francis says often, we are experiencing not only an epoch of changes, but an epochal change. It is true: we are in an epochal change of grand proportions that will certainly have an irreversible impact in the library and archival world. We know of at least one positive thing: societies in the future will value knowledge increasingly more. This means that the patrimony that we represent is a mandatory part of the future. For the moment, however, many questions remain open regarding both the conservation using new means of human communication and the ways of constructing knowledge itself. It would be illusory to believe that jumping from analog to digital is done with a click. It requires a long and collaborative process.
It is not an option, but a duty, to keep up with the times. In fact, the Holy See has not stopped. The construction of the Virtual Library began over a decade ago and continues to develop. In reality, we have, so to speak, two libraries: a physical one and a virtual one. Using an open access regime, the latter contains about twenty per cent of the manuscripts that our physical library possesses. The idea is to keep going ahead. Clearly, all this represents an enormous effort that reveals the love the Holy See has for culture as an instrument for human development and peace. But we need the help of all Christians and persons of good will who are aware of the relevance of culture. The same is true for the Apostolic Archives where important digitalization projects continue to be implemented, both in terms of the documents as well as inventories. We are responding responsibly to the challenges of the future.