The Pope’s Autograph

From the synoptic gospels comes the admonition:  “…It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” According to those who have tried, obtaining an in-person autograph of a living pope can be nearly as difficult.

From our experience it is not so much an unwillingness of a pope to grant his autograph; rather, papal minions, often overly protective of the pope’s time and energy, serve as a blockade. I recall a terse-verging-on-stern letter I received in 1961 when I wrote to the late Cardinal Tisserant asking him to intercede to obtain an autograph of the pope. Replied the bearded French academic:  “I understand very well the interest you may have in obtaining the autograph of the pope. It is my duty to defend him: his time and his health. I cannot do what you ask of me.” I can almost hear the swoosh of his scarlet silk ferraiolone (cape) as he signed the letter to this brash teenager.

More recently, a priest-friend was in Rome and attended a papal audience. Edging forward in the line, he raised a baseball in the hope that Pope Francis would sign.  Reproachful aides gave the “don’t even try it sonny” look which the priest courageously ignored. As the pope came closer he nodded and waved for the priest to hand him the baseball.  Score for the brave priest, sorry papal minion.

Over the past 50 years I have seen and held many forms of autograph denials from the Vatican for autographs of the pope, ranging from personalized letters to imprinted cards sending along a facsimile signed image. The language is pretty much the same:  “The Secretariat of State of His Holiness is directed by the Holy Father to acknowledge the receipt of your request for His autograph and, in thanking you for your kind Communication, to advise you that requests of this nature can be granted only on special occasions and at the recommendation of the local ecclesiastical authorities.”

It is fairly common knowledge that heads of state and members of the diplomatic corps can obtain in-person autographs or official signed portraits and apostolic blessings of the pope. Thus, access and status are factors in obtaining an autograph.

There are rare exceptions. A former collector-client wanted the autograph of Pope Francis and set about writing a cardinal close to the pope. Much to his surprise, his letter was returned on the back of which Pope Francis had neatly penned “…please pray for me and the church, Francesco.”

Autographs of contemporary popes — from Pius IX to Francis I — are not, per se, rare although a few may be classified as “uncommon”. Official documents and letters of popes occasionally surface on the market. Recently, we sold a two-page letter of Pope Pius VII to Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies dated 1800 – a rare precursor to the Concordat of 1801 with France and the Holy See. We have sold signed official portraits of John XXIII, Pius XI, Pius XII, Paul VI and John Paul II. One exception to the rule rarity would be an autograph of Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I who reigned for 33 days. We have sold letters of Albani as bishop of Vittorio Veneto and as Patriarch of Venice. We have yet to see an authentic autograph penned as pope.  No doubt a handful exist but they are exceedingly rare and would likely command several thousands of dollars.

Recently, a 1965 letter came our way from the future cardinal Mario Nasalli Rocca di-Corneliano.  At the time, Nasalli Rocca was the master of the papal household. The letter informed the future Cardinal Luigi Poggi that he would be granted an ad limina (a requirement of bishops every five years) audience with the pope. What makes the note interesting was an imprinted statement at the bottom:  “Si prega di non presentare fotografie per ottenere l’autografo di SUA SANTITA.” It was a stern warning that even bishops should not present photographs to the pope for his autograph!

Currently, we have WWII era letters of Monsignor G.B. Montini, (the future Pope Saint Paul VI) then papal substitute secretary of state. We also have a stunning autograph display piece of Pope Saint John XXIII and an oversized apostolic blessing of Pope Pius XI with a huge signature. Finally, we have several papal breve written in the names of popes but, generally, signed by the cardinal secretary of apostolic briefs.

In summation, it is possible to obtain an autograph of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, but less likely it will be the result of an in-person encounter. If you can break your way through the bureaucratic barriers and arrive in the presence of the pope you may stand a chance…assuming you have the nerve.