The Vatican Bank is housed in a medieval tower that once served as a dungeon. Its lower floors have no windows. To gain admittance you have to leave Italy and go through the gate of the Porta Sant’Anna, be checked by two Swiss Guards, and pass through a two-door security kiosk inset in a plate glass window. Once inside you encounter, by the manned reception desk, a cash machine in the wall. The language which flashes up asking you to insert your cash card is Latin: Insertio scidulam quaeso ut faciundam cognoscas rationem. The semiotics of all this are clear: communication between what is inside this place and the outside world will be made as difficult as possible.
I was there by invitation. The email had come as something of a shock. The bank’s new press officer – it had never before had such a person – wrote to invite me to enter what has been for generations one of the world’s most secretive institutions. And not just to look around. Someone inside the bank had heard that I had begun work on a much-expanded second edition of my biography of Pope Francis. The offer was that officials would talk me through the financial reforms which were just part of the revolution in which the first non-European pope for a millennium was turning the Church of Rome upside-down.
Beyond the reception area, up a short flight of curved stairs, was a cream and brown marble rotunda. Round the edges stood eight highly-polished tellers desks at which representatives of religious orders, wealthy dioceses and Catholic charities deposit funds for onward transmission to pay clergy and build churches, schools and hospitals in the developing world. The official name of the bank is the Instiutio per le Opere di Religione (the Institute for Religious Works), known in Rome as the IOR.