Although papal history dates from the first millennium AD—and really takes off after the fall of the ancient Roman Empire—
has not always been the one and only center for Catholicism, as an age of multiple popes, and thus papal states, characterized and defined a good portion of the late Middle Ages. And only after a stint with greater statehood did the papacy’s domain get geographically reduced to the size and scope of the city-state that it is today—and it is at this point of political reduction that the official history of Vatican City truly begins.
The Holy See and Vatican City are the same place, the papal nation being the smallest official country recognized by the UN. When Italy unified in 1870, the papacy was displeased with the fledgling pan-Italian laws that stripped it of most its land and secular power. Refusing to recognize this worldly legality, it was not until 1929 that the papacy acquiesced to its newer, tinier autonomy.
The most important event to take place in Vatican City thus far into its existence has probably been the promulgation of a set of policies in 1962 under Pope John XXIII during what was called the Ecumenical Council Vatican II. This clerical assembly permitted a great transfer of power from the pope to local bishops and loosened the Latin of the liturgy, giving over much sacred text to various international vernaculars.
After the administration of Pope Paul VI and the quick, 34-day rule of Pope John Paul I, came the first non-Italian pope since the Renaissance period and the first Polish pontiff, Karol Joseph Cardinal Wojtyla, who took the name Pope John Paul II.
In 1985, John Paul II approved a new church-state treaty re-affirming the Vatican’s independence while ending Catholicism’s reign as Italy’s official religion—another concession to ever-increasing turn-of-the-century trends towards everything secular.
A little over a year ago, John Paul II died and was succeeded by Joseph Alois Cardinal Ratzinger, who took the papal name Benedict XVI and is now current Pope and leader of the Catholic Church.