The Vatican is a fascinating little place, and “little” can only be used to describe its acreage. Though it’s called “Vatican City,” it is actually its own sovereign country with its own post office, laws, and mint, where it prints its own currency called Vatican lira.
While the City’s borders boast just over 100 acres of land and just under 1,000 citizens, it is often called the richest country in the world. But how does a country that doesn’t produce or export any trade goods have a gross domestic product (GDP) in the hundreds of millions?
Its economy is truly unique and can’t be analyzed in the usual way. The Vatican’s worth (aside from the metaphysical) comes from several sources, and some of these sources can’t be quantified. Donations from its catholic followers all over the globe, originally called “Peter’s Pence” back in the 8th century, are the most obvious source of revenue, along with corporate donors and government grants. Tourists who visit the Vatican (about 20,000 per day) also contribute to the coffers in massive amounts since Vatican City is one of the world’s most popular attractions. Their stamps are, apparently, immensely popular. Of course, it owns properties all over the world, which are assets in themselves.
The seat of the Roman Catholic Church has had centuries to perfect its investment portfolio. The halls of the Vatican are also home to artifacts, works of art, historic relics and texts, and golden interior decorating that are literally priceless because they will never be sold. Who can put a monetary value on the Sistine Chapel?
So what does this add up to? It’s hard to say. Mum tends to be the word from the Institute for the Works of Religion, a.k.a. Vatican Bank. According to Georgetown University, the average American Catholic donates about $10 a week. Multiply that by the roughly 85 million Catholics in the USA alone, and you get $850 million. That’s donations alone. In a week.
What does the Pope spend it on? Well, the Basilica of St. Peter doesn’t maintain itself. Glibness aside, the Vatican spends its millions on the infrastructure and maintenance of all of its countless global properties and institutions, the staff of same (and their insurance, pensions, and occasional scandals), the Pope’s travels, worldwide humanitarian missions and many, many charities, which all adds up to a hefty, mysterious sum.
Whether we can put a price tag on the Holy See’s realm or not, because the country takes up less than a square mile, it is most definitively the richest country of its size with the highest GDP per capita by far.
Backed up by centuries of accumulated wealth and splendor, it’s no surprise that Catholic priests are not required to take a vow of poverty. Why live in poverty when you can live like a king? But despite the availability of unlimited comforts, many do choose to live frugally, including the current Pope.
For his first papal visit, what vehicle did Pope Francis choose to greet the masses instead of the Mercedes popemobile? A used Fiat. How did he get back to his hotel? He took the bus.