Carrying the Keys to the Church's Treasures

Interview With Papal Sacristan Father Pavol Benedik

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By Mariana Šarpatakyová

ROME, MAY 22, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The daily tasks of Augustinian Father Pavol Benedik bring him into contact with some of the Church's most precious treasures: the Sistine Chapel is a common part of his routine, as are the rich vestments and jeweled chalices used to honor Our Lord throughout history.

The Slovakian priest has been the papal sacristan since 2006 -- a task that brings him into frequent contact with the Church's living treasures as well: the Successor of Peter and other prominent Churchmen.

ZENIT spoke with Father Benedik about his work.

ZENIT: Father, you work in a very important position: You are the sacristan for the Holy Father. You are also an Augustinian priest. Why was your monastic order entrusted with this interesting and noble service?

Father Benedik: More or less since the 13th or the 14th century, the big monastic orders have been doing something special for the Holy See. For ages, Dominicans have been papal theologians, Capuchins have been preachers, and around the year 1400 and up until 1600, we Augustinians worked in the sacristy. Part of our service back then was also the Holy Father's library. Later, the administration of the library and the sacristy split and our order got the sacristy. So, this is a long religious tradition for us. We take care of the sacred items -- items that belong to the Holy Father -- and the papal chapels in the Vatican.

Until 1992, the person in my post was always a bishop. After that, it began to be one of our brothers. Personally, I have been performing this service since 2006. This is our task, in cooperation with the master of papal celebrations, Archbishop Piero Marini.

ZENIT: We are sitting in your office next to the Sistine Chapel. Surrounding us are wooden wardrobes. What is inside? Are there just things from the current Pope?

Father Benedik: There are many things, some of which are older. Many items, however, disappeared with Napoleon Bonaparte, as he took and destroyed many of the treasures: tiaras, chalices, etc. He knew that when the war ended it would be necessary -- in the context of international military agreements -- to give them back. So he melted chalices and other very important and historical things. Of the four tiaras that he stole, not even one was saved. The only thing that was saved is the emerald from Julius II's tiara, which Napoleon placed in a new tiara that he gave to Pius VII. We also have chalices from the 14th century. Most of the things are from the times of Pope Leo XIII and Pius IX. There are chasubles, copes and papal copes.

ZENIT: When do you see the Holy Father? What are your personal meetings with him like?

Father Benedik: We meet mainly in the public Masses, in the liturgy. We prepare everything he needs: vestments, vessels, everything. Before Holy Mass starts, he remains silent and in prayer, without a word. He does not talk, because there is no reason to talk.

ZENIT: Does he call you beforehand regarding what exactly you have to prepare for the Mass?

Father Benedik: We prepare everything in cooperation with Archbishop Marini. We have never had any problems, although many times the archbishop has said that what he does has been consulted on with the third floor [where the Pope lives].

ZENIT Benedict XVI also celebrates private Masses. Where does this happen and in what language?

Father Benedik: Private Masses are always celebrated in the papal apartments -- in his chapel. He celebrates them every morning with his secretaries, together with the sisters from the Memores Domini community.

Then there are the so-called semipublic Masses -- when more people come, but the chapel is not so large. For reasons of capacity, they are in the Redemptoris Mater chapel, or in the Pauline chapel. The celebration is usually in Latin and readings are in Italian.

ZENIT: Does the Pope use vestments and vessels that his predecessors have used? Does he receive gifts of this type of thing for use in the liturgy?

Father Benedik: Of course he uses things from previous Popes. For example, on Jan. 1, he used Paul VI's liturgical vestment. He also uses items from the 18th and 19th century. This is not unusual.

Immediately after his election, he only used things from John Paul II because he didn't have his own. He only had his cardinal's miter, where the cardinal’s insignia had been changed to the papal one.

If you are asking about the possibility of giving the Pope vestments as a gift, of course this is possible and even very important. Or other gifts, too, depending on who wants to make the donation. These gifts are a sign of respect. Most of the items that we take care of have been donated: chalices, and other items given to Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII. All these were generally donated.

ZENIT: What is the procedure when someone would like to donate a gift to the Pope? Where should he go?

Father Benedik: If someone wants to do this, he should write to the prefecture of the Pontifical Household or to the Liturgical Celebrations office. The gift is given during the audiences. It is just necessary to give a notification in advance.

ZENIT: Does Benedict XVI have just one person or company that makes his liturgical vestments and shoes?

Father Benedik: No, there is not just one. And I don't think that would be proper -- to support a monopoly. If someone donates something to us, that is another matter, but if we order something, I see no reason to use just one company. Also price matters. We choose the best options.

ZENIT: What do you enjoy most in your service? Can you recount some particularly interesting experience?

Father Benedik: It's hard to choose just one. I am glad that the work I am doing satisfies me. It brings me spiritual enjoyment and satisfaction. I would never have thought that I could come here. My superior-general sent me here: He asked me if I would like to come and I agreed (smiling).

I am also in contact with the Holy Father. He is very humble and attentive. I can not say he has had any special requests. He vests himself in humility and silence, and this is also an intense spiritual experience.

Besides, I meet people with very great spiritual capacities too. This morning, for example, I was at Father Raniero Cantalamessa's address [the preacher of the Pontifical Household].

ZENIT: In your work, you regularly walk through the Sistine Chapel. Is this just a normal room for you by now?

Father Benedik: Sometimes it is very difficult to even get through the chapel -- it becomes full of people. But it often happens to me that I discover new things there, or people ask me about certain things. Sometimes it seems that I go through, but I'm not a tourist there. And sometimes I really don’t have time because of work. I like to be there when the chapel is closed to the public. Looking, meditating, to think about things that need silence. In the books, a person can find a lot of information, but for me being there is also a catechesis.

I had a unique opportunity last year in August. The walls of the chapel were being cleaned: The work began in the evening and finished during the night. I had the opportunity to see the paintings from close up, being raised up by a platform. For example, "The Last Judgement": From a distance it is something else than from a close-up look. It was a very beautiful experience for me.

ZENIT: You carry many keys. Which one is irreplaceable? What treasures can you reach with them?

Father Benedik: There would be two very important ones: The one for the sacristy, where the Holy Father's things are. And the second very important one is for the papal treasury, where old vestments, precious chalices and monstrances are stored. There is, for example, the chalice from 1854 from the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. Next to this is a crystal chalice, which Pope Paul VI brought to the treasure. And there is also the ciborium and sardine lid that was used by Czech Cardinal Josef Beran during his Masses in prison.

ZENIT: Could we say that this lid is the most curious thing in the collections that you manage?

Father Benedik: It is interesting, because next to the chalice from 1854, which is decorated with diamonds and gold, is what appears at first to be an ordinary cup, with a sardine lid. But both of them are important for the Church.