Revealed: The Vatican's 1000-Year-Old Secrets; Catholic Church: Inside the Archives

Article excerpt

Byline: NAOMI McELROY

TOP SECRET Vatican letters, a Pope in league with Hitler, and kings and queens begging Rome for help... sounds like the plot of a Da Vinci Code-style thriller.

But the documents, some hidden for more than a 1,000 years, are real and finally reveal some of the shocking secrets of the Catholic Church.

The Holy See has gathered and treasured documents since the Church was first founded. At the heart of Vatican city are scrolls, parchments and leather-bound books full of letters dating back more than 1,000 years.

No-one has been allowed to publish these priceless artefacts - until now.

A new book, The Vatican Secret Archives, gathers together 105 documents, 19 of which have never been made public before.

And it's enough to get even bestseling Da Vinci Code author, Dan Brown, hot under the collar.

The book features a letter from Pope Pius XII - pontiff from March, 1939, until his death in October, 1958 - to Hitler, six months before the Nazis' invasion of Poland sparked the Second World War.

One priceless letter comes from Mary, Queen of Scots.

In 1586 the doomed queen wrote from Fotheringay in Northamptonshire to Pope Sixtus V, just a few months before she was beheaded for plotting against her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, pledging her eternal allegiance to Rome.

One of the most unusual documents is a letter written on birch bark in 1887 by the Ojibwe Indians of Ontario, Canada, to Pope Leo XIII.

The letter, written in May but dated "where there is much grass, in the month of the flowers", addresses the pontiff as "the Great Master of Prayer" and offers thanks to the Vatican for having sent a "custodian of prayer" (a bishop) to preach to them.

And while Leonardo Da Vinci doesn't get a mention, there is an angry letter from his contemporary and bitter rival, Michelangelo, demanding in 1550 that the Vatican pay his bill which was then three months late.

Michelangelo was responsible for much of the fabulous work in the Vatican including the awe-inspiring ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

He also complains that his work on the dome of St Peter's Basilica has been interrupted by a papal conclave.

Also included are parchment letters written by English peers to PopeClement VII in 1530, about the king's "Great Matter" - divorce, of course.

They wanted Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled, but this request was eventually r e -fused by Rome, so Henry created his own Church sparking a massive crisis in Christianity in England.

Protestantism was created and the destruction of abbeys, monasteries and the persecution of Catholics and priests begun.

It eventually led to the setting up of the Church of England as the established Church in that country and Catholics are still barred from sitting on the throne of England to this day.

Cardinal Raffaele Farina, a Vatican archivist, wrote the preface to the book, and believes films like the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons have made people hungrier than ever for the Church's secrets.

He said: "An aura of mystery has always surrounded this important cultural institution of the Holy See due to the allusions to inaccessible secrets thanks to its very name, as well as to the publicity it has always enjoyed in literature and in the media."

While they may not be the mystical fictional murderers of Dan Brown's imagination, the Vatican certainly doesn't come out of the new book snow white.

It shows how ruthlessly the Catholic Church dealt with the world of science and the arts, often crushing brilliant new discoveries if they went against ancient Church doctrine.

One of the blackest chapters in the Vatican's history was how the Church treated Galileo, a gifted scientist who discovered that the earth moves round the sun - contrary to the accepted dogma of the time. …