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Pope and ceremony: the secret world of Vatican City

The headquarters of the Catholic church is a closely guarded city-state centuries old and resistant to change. Can Pope Francis drag it into the 21st century? Guardian photographer Christian Sinibaldi was given unprecedented access to his world. Words by Paula Cocozza

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The man holding the keys might have wandered into a fairytale. He faces a pair of towering doors whose knocker is larger than his head. In his hand, the giant hoop clatters as he feels his way towards No 401; it enters the keyhole with a clear, sharp clang. The man starts to push and light from inside the room falls across his shoes.

At 6.30am, the Vatican is awakening. In a few hours, the room Alessio Censoni has just opened, the Sala Rotonda, will be packed with tourists. But, for now, the building is coming to life with workers. Chatter blows along the corridors. Together with four shift-mates, Censoni continues his round of unlocking: 300 doors to go.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has repeatedly praised the dignity of labour (in Buenos Aires, he once did a stint as a bouncer). Group by group, he has invited the Vaticans 4,800 employees to mass in Casa Santa Marta, the guesthouse where he lives. In January, he baptised Censonis daughter. What can his employees hastening to the clocking-in machine, past the sleepy security guard in a North Face hoodie tell us about working alongside the pontiff?

The
Keeper of the keys, Alessio Censoni. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

The cleverness of Pope Francis has been to advance the message of Christ simply by being human himself. He has brought divine office down to earth with a revolution in tone. Famously, he is the first pope to use the word gay (If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?). He has described the pay gap between men and women as pure scandal, advised Catholics that they neednt breed like rabbits, and called priests who refuse to baptise the children of single mothers animals. He has washed the feet of young prisoners. In this sense, Pope Francis is a parable in action.

If his predecessor Pope Benedict was perceived as aloof and scholastic, this pope wears a full-faced grin and wields a thumbs-up. But while he is seen as progressive, Franciss reform of the curia the churchs central government, which he has castigated for its insularity and back-biting is moving slowly. And despite the apparent liberalism of his speeches, the official teaching remains mostly intact: abortion is still absolute evil, homosexual acts a sin, gay marriage firmly opposed. Francis has managed to suggest a radical agenda by putting the theme of mercy at the heart of everything he does: in countless speeches, pronouncements and even the current extraordinary jubilee year. Its a message that has secular appeal (who doesnt believe in compassion?), and it has allowed the pope to sidestep a confrontation with the churchs more conservative forces, by encouraging local priests to use their own discretion.

But still the Vatican remains highly secretive, a world in miniature; packed into its 0.44 sq km is everything a state needs, only smaller. Beyond its museums and St Peters Basilica, the frontiers are well guarded. There are high walls, and the famous bank is housed inside an old fortress. The fire engines are the size of minibuses. Under Pope John Paul II, the cinema was busy, but the chairs are now stacked and it looks disused. There is even a tiny jail, used to detain the priest convicted in July for his part in the latest Vatileaks scandal exposing financial mismanagement and corruption at the citys heart. Petrol costs a minuscule 40 cents a litre, compared with 1.40 over the border in Rome.

At one of these roadside pumps, the Popemobile is being refuelled. Renzo Cesti, chatting to the attendant, is Pope Franciss senior driver. He was second driver for Benedict, but we had a whole different fleet then, he says. We had an armoured Mercedes, an armoured Popemobile. Pope Francis doesnt want them. He wants contact with the people. See? He lifts a protective cover to reveal a Popemobile with tinted windows. This was used by John Paul II and Benedict, but the Holy Father fears nothing. And what about his driver? I dont feel fear, he shrugs. If it happens, we go to paradise.

Cesti sensed that his job was changing from day one. Sent to collect the newly elected pope from his pensione in central Rome, he waited by the entrance in a Mercedes. An official came rushing out, saying, Take it away! Because the pope wanted to get the bus with his cardinals. He said, Do you mind if I go with my friends? We didnt know then that he hated luxury. We didnt stop to think that these cars werent made for him.

Jobs
Jobs as cleaners and maintenance workers are often passed down through families. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

For the first few weeks, Cesti, who is 62 and has worked at the Vatican since he was 14, reported for duty in fancy cars. Then the pope visited his garage to see the options for himself, settling on a blue Ford Focus and the smallest, most open Popemobile. Cesti thumps its bonnet. For us it was a wonderful thing, the Holy Father so humble. Now Benedicts Mercedes is boxed in at the back of the garage, its roof covered with a sheet of bubblewrap.

Cesti flips open the Popemobiles glove box, where a white towel is stowed to dry the pope on rainy days. As a rule, he says, the vehicle should feature the papal coat of arms, but the paintwork glints with Benedicts golden emblem. Pope Francis doesnt like crests. He also insists on shutting his own door. Cesti lets slip a reference to the popes butlers, or assistants, and then corrects himself. He doesnt want to call them butlers, because we are all the same. We are people who collaborate with him.

The pope is a quiet passenger who shuns the car radio, he says. But every now and then, Cesti will glance in his rearview mirror and find his passengers gaze. I always look away, he says. When Francis meets his eye, it is as if, in that moment, he looks inside you and he knows who you are. His voice cracks, the silence eventually broken by his mobile ringtone: Barry Whites Cant Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe.

Pushed to name the biggest change since Francis was elected, Cestis answer is surprisingly pragmatic: its his work-life balance. Unlike Benedicts retired driver, who was always here, every day, every holiday, Cesti works a six-hour shift. The Holy Father wouldnt want it. He is the first to say, Why arent you resting today?

Workers
A team of 80 workers maintain the Vaticans treasures. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

It is a five-minute walk from Cestis carport to the lavish apostolic palace, past the fire engines where the firemen still lean on the bonnet. This is where Benedict lived as pope, and where Francis holds meetings. Sun pours through the windows, making latticed shadows on the wall. The galleried walkways glimmer with the clean, faint fragrance of undisturbed air. At the clip of approaching footsteps, a Swiss guard materialises around a corner. He cant talk on duty, he says (and this afternoon he is captaining FC Guardia in a match against a Gypsy team), but he promises to meet tomorrow.

***

In the Sala Regia, a vast antechamber to the Sistine Chapel, workers are packing portraits of 19th-century popes into removal crates after an exhibition. Just off this room is the apostolic sacristy where Father Pavel Benedik, a taciturn Slovakian priest, is fiddling with his smartphone. He is the custodian here, and calm prevails. In an hour, the phone rings once. The room is lined with polished wardrobes, a hive of numbered wooden doors in which every item has its place, and every place has a label. Vestments are stowed by size (Pope Francis takes a 3, the most popular) and the drawers are taped with old-fashioned embossed strips: X IL PAPA [for the pope], VIMPE STOLE [shawls, stoles].

Helping Father Pavel is Father Jesus Polentino, 30, from Venezuela. He was ordained just as Benedict resigned, so for him the election of an Argentinian pope felt particularly auspicious. The first Latin American pope, he says. They went to the end of the world to find him. That means that even we, who are from the end of the world, can arrive at the heart of this church.

Pope
He is a volcano! This dynamism no one expected this. Not even him, says Father Federico Lombardi. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

Or maybe the heart, its centre, is moving outwards? Only the style changes a bit, Father Pavel says. He withdraws a bent cross crosier from a nearby cupboard and lays it next to the original on which it was modelled. This crucifix-topped staff fell into disuse under Benedict, but it has been revived, to the distaste of some Catholics, who find its depiction of Jesuss suffering too brutal. Almost the same, Father Pavel says, looking at the two. And they are, only the Christ in Franciss version has even thinner legs. Suffering is not something from which he shies away.

A reformer

At 6pm, it is rush hour in the Vatican. Cars file along the road behind the palace of the governatorato, a sort of mayoral building opposite which Franciss crest has been clipped out of box hedging; maybe it was planted before he made his wishes clear. Nuns unload shopping trolleys into their car boots by the supermarket, and a crowd gathers at the pharmacy where a promotional stand offers samples of Avne skincare. Outside the Swiss Guard barracks, the air is thick with sweat and deodorant. The young soldiers who guard the pope have just finished a football match.

Just beyond the Vatican gates, Father Federico Lombardi, 73, shows the way to his office, up marble stairs, through a room stacked floor-to-ceiling with boxes of paper and ink. For 10 years until this summer, he served as the popes spokesperson (though he rejects that title, because the pope can speak for himself), working with John Paul II, Benedict and the current pope.

What has Francis been like? He is a volcano! Lombardi says, settling into his swivel chair. This dynamism no one expected this. Not even him! He is very creative, he has lots of initiatives.

These have included choosing to launch the popes holy year of mercy at Bangui cathedral in Central African Republic, rather than Rome. Then there were the 11 Syrian migrants he brought back to Rome from Lesbos in April. Not to mention the free-form press conferences, the reinvigorated synod of bishops, which is devolving power to the regions, and the council of cardinal advisers tasked with reforming the curia. Twelve times in an hour, Lombardi describes Francis as dynamic but would he say the pontiff is a reformer?

Lets say he has given a strong impetus to putting us on the road, no? When he speaks about the church going out, he means a church that is not inside the walls defending itself, not self-referential, Lombardi replies, cupping his hands as if to enclose a tiny city. That definitely is a sense he has given us. The church on the road and, in this sense, I accept the definition of reformer.

Nuns
Sisters iron ceremonial robes. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

You can almost feel the volcano cool as Lombardi speaks, though such circumspection comes with the territory. There is what one might call a turf war going on, Austen Ivereigh, author of Pope Francis: The Great Reformer, explains. The different departments have their own fiefdom. Thats what he is setting out to change. Nine communication teams have become one. This month, the Vatican ministries of family, laity and life, which have always overlapped, will merge. Others will follow. Ivereigh calls this the biggest redesign of the curia in 30 years. Its radical in the sense that Francis is introducing collegiality, which is allowing the local church to have a much greater say. The reordered Vatican will be a slimmer, more focused structure.

Crucially, there will be financial reform. Last December, the Vatican appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers as its external auditor. But in April the audit was suspended; the Vatican has since announced that its own Office of the Auditor General, created by Pope Francis, will conduct the audit with PwC in an assisting role.

Lombardi waves away these subjects as very particular arguments. I am not sure its worth going into them. The suspension of the deal with Pricewater he trails off, apparently having forgotten the name. If you do a contract for three years, that costs 3m, that looks at all the central institutions it can happen that you need to correct the odd thing.

He thinks Franciss reforms have had partial results. Certain things are already seeing positive results, but others are still a little in train.

How difficult is it to bring about change? Exactly like in all the organisations of the world. I have been here 25 years. I know how things are done and why they are done. If someone comes along and says, Now we are changing everything, I say, Look, perhaps you havent yet understood what we do and why we do it. Perhaps I make one or two objections. Is this resistance because I dont want to change anything, or is it because I simply want to make you understand what we have done and why?

Florists
Florists at work. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

The swivel chair is in a state of agitation now, and Lombardis shoulders rise and fall in frustration. I have always found it very simplistic, the way the world is divided between those who want to make things better and those who resist, because they want to conserve their power. If anyone says this about the Vatican, they are saying an idiocy. Perhaps in 3,000 people, you will have three or four who will say, I lose my power!, and lots of others who will say, No, lets discuss what we want to change. There should be a discussion.

These ones here, when they came, he says, casting around for the name of another, previous consultant. It was very interesting for me: McKinsey. We worked with much friendship and serenity. But at the start, he says, dropping his voice, they knew absolutely nothing. They didnt know about shortwave radio! They had not the least idea, while we had worked on it for 80 years. Do you understand? Its great to draw up new plans. But there is also a dialogue to be had. He laughs. I had the impression I taught them more than they did me.

As director of communications for an outspoken pope, one imagines Lombardis job became tougher with Pope Francis. But, no, he says, it was harder under John Paul II. For the last five or six years, he was in a chair and didnt say a word. And Benedict was also less concrete in his communication, so it was more challenging. Pope Francis, meanwhile, has a great gift for speaking directly. He says these things, catchy phrases, which are less than 140 characters, so they naturally fit on Twitter. In this type of communication, Francis is ideal. Its as if he were made for the purpose.

The sky is darkening through Lombardis office window. Instead of going about with complete indifference, feeling the church is out of step with the times, he adds, Francis has made it closer, more present, with all the suffering and difficulty that humanity experiences today.

Fran-cis-co! Fran-cis-co!

In St Peters Square, crowds have gathered, chatting, chanting, singing a cappella. Soon Pope Francis will descend the steps and faithful hands will grasp the air around him. Renzo Cestis mother will be watching on TV. A murmur rises. An elderly man is pushing a wheelchair; his son, Carmelo, who lost speech and movement after a stroke, sits with a white cap on his lap. He hopes that Pope Francis will wear it. People shout, Carmelo! Over here! They know that where a wheelchair is parked, Francis will come.

The
The Papal Audience in St Peters Square. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

A cry of Fran-cis-co! Fran-cis-co! breaks from the crowd. The pope is coming. Carmelo is bringing him to us. The pope looks thrilled. He is beaming as if he has been waiting for this. He stoops, eyes crinkled, and clasps Carmelos head so eagerly, his fingers disappear into his thick hair. Spotting the cap, he gives a magicians grin and plucks off his own by a tassel. Ta-da! In its place he puts Carmelos. He presses it down, to make sure that whatever goodness rises from his head will stick to Carmelos cap. He smiles again something is happening and returns the cap; the delight on his face suggests that it is he who has met Carmelo, and not Carmelo who has met the pope. The crowd roars. People wipe their eyes. Carmelo has been hugged and it feels like a hug for all. A new chant breaks out. Car-mel-o! Car-mel-o! The pope climbs into his jeep, black trousers showing through his white robe. Underneath it all, they seem to say, he is just a parish priest.

Speak to those who work with Francis, and the stories of countless acts of consideration mount (though he could send the nuns help with the ironing). Alessio Censoni, the key-keeper, knows that the rumours the pope encouraged women to breastfeed in the Sistine Chapel are true: at Censonis daughters christening, when babies wailed, he turned to the mothers and asked, Cant you hear theyre crying? Feed them tranquilly.

Yes, Ive heard that one, says Filippo Petrignani, who works in the museums rights office. But there are loads. Of him taking a coffee from the vending machine. With coins. Petrignani rattles off the stories like jokes. Last summer: Father, its very hot in Rome. Would you like to go out of the city for a week? And how many people would I have to move to go out of the city? Hmm. Well stay at home. What we save, well give to the poor.

In another anecdote, Pope Francis offers a chair to a Swiss Guard. Thats true, says guard Nico Castelluzzo, today sitting in the visitors mess, just after lunch, his colourful livery peeled to the waist to protect the uniform from spatters from his pasta sauce. It was the same when we did the night shift outside his apartment. He would always ask if wed slept OK. It took a while for him to understand that we were on duty, that we needed to stay awake. He asks us hes a very human person if were hungry, if we want to sit down. On my first night shift, he offered me a biscuit. It tasted good: an Argentinian biscuit.

Christoph
Christoph Graf, the 35th commander of the Pontifical Swiss Guard, is dressed by an assistant as his son plays. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi

According to the Swiss Guards website, beneath Castelluzzos colourful costume is actually a state-of-the-art trained Swiss security professional. So it is surprising to learn that guards are not required to undertake exercise and they have a liberal curfew of 2am (though they are required to shave each day). Castelluzzo passes the solitary hours on duty with a book. I was never a great reader. I started when I joined the Swiss Guards, so Im still trying to work out what I like, he says. Despite the Vaticans disapproval of its author, he has just finished Dan Browns Angels and Demons. Well, he says, its good to know the opposition.

Has Pope Franciss predilection for entering crowds make Castelluzzo worry? Security is more complicated. Pope Francis is very close to the people. But he knows what risk he takes, and he still wants to do it. The Swiss Guards work with the carabinieri, Italys military police. But, Castelluzzo says, if someone wants to do something, they will surely find a way. He shrugs. You need to pray a lot.

From the guards barracks, the road loops around the rear of St Peters to reach the basilicas maintenance division, near the smokers corner and the vending machines. Here, Pietro Zander helps oversee the cleaning and maintenance workers (the job that Renzo Cestis father, grandfather and great-grandfather all did). We continue that which they who came before us started, Zander says. The St Peters Zander knows is not the one most visitors see. There are 22,000 square metres of floor to be cleaned daily. When a shaft of light enters a window, Zander sees threads of wool, hairs, all this microdust. He knows the basilica in its vastness and its particulars. But it is also a home. St Peters house, he says. Like a house, the door is closed with a key.

Pope Francis, whom Zander considers a neighbour, likes to greet the cleaners in the basilica, but there are other examples of crossover between the devotional side of things and what Zander calls contingent necessities. When, for example, John Paul II required a tomb, it was Zanders department that solved the problem of where to put him by moving the remains of Pope Innocent XI because otherwise, he says with a straight face, There was a pedestrian traffic problem. The huge flow [of mourners] would have created jams.

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