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Saturday, February 16, 2013 3:23 AM

The news has been filled this week with the shocking announcement of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Shocking in that it has been over 600 years since the last time someone stepped down from this most prestigious position. From a layman’s point of view, I believe his actions are nothing less than heroic showing great foresight and understanding of his role in society. I believe that we will see a picture of Pope Benedict on stamps from nations around the world. Although individuals from other countries have on occasion appeared on US Postage Stamps, none of the previous popes have had their image engraved on one of our stamps.

If you recall reading my articles in December concerning the various postage stamps the US has produced concerning religious holidays, you will remember that we discussed some of the controversy surrounding those “religious” stamps. The concept of separation of church and state has removed the entire subject of religion from stamp issues. Other countries of the world have not had this dilemma because many have a designated state religion which some believe erodes religious freedom.
When researching religious images on stamps you will find some of the most beautiful works of art. By that I mean that the stamps are themselves a piece of artwork and that stamp images have included some of the most famous artistic religious images. One that I remember from my childhood involved stamps using the image of Michelangelo’s Pieta. These were issued by Vatican City in 1964 to commemorate the New York World’s Fair exhibit of the original statue. I can remember waiting in lines for long periods of time just to be able to catch a glimpse of this marvelous Renaissance sculpture. Which brings me to mention the postal system that has been found to be one of the world’s most efficient systems and one that is used extensively.

Citizens from around the world do have one thing in common - most spend a good portion of their time complaining about their country’s postal system. The Italian system is no exception. By all reports, people will travel from all over Italy to come to Vatican City to post their mail. Yes much of that mail comes from tourists but business mail and important personal correspondence has been brought hundreds of miles in order to deliberately avoid the Italian post.

The Vatican City system began operations in 1929 just two days after the creation of the Vatican City State on February 11, 1929. Vatican city, the world’s smallest country by both area and population, holds the distinction of processing more mail per capita than any other country in the world — 7,200, compared with about 660 in the United States or 109 in Italy This country encompasses approximately 110 acres with about 800 permanent residents. Reading articles on the internet will reveal that dealing with the Vatican’s postal system can actually be joyful while others when speaking of the Italian system liken it to a form of torture.

When the Vatican produced their first postage stamps the lower denominations showed the image of the papal coat of arms, while higher denominations showed the portrait of Pope Pius XI who was the reigning pope at that time. Hundreds of religious images have appeared on Vatican City stamps and on issues from countries all over the world.

In reviewing the images, it is evident that the Vatican City’s selection process does not include the American requirement that a person other than a former US President, cannot appear on a stamp until at least 10 years have passed since his death. In 1966, in commemoration of the closing of Vatican II, the 21st Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church, one of the stamps issued was of Pope John XXIII.

One interesting fact about the Vatican’s role which we had explained in our former exhibits on the Holocaust and World War II, was that mail was smuggled out of occupied countries by priests and couriers of the Vatican’s mail. Sometimes Jews who were not in captivity were able to communicate with family outside of their country through this system. More information on these topics can be found on the National Postal Museum’s website.


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