Why the Long Lines to Enter the Vatican?

If you’re visiting the Vatican anytime soon, be prepared for a long wait to get into St. Peter’s basilica.

As the summer season draws near, thousands of pilgrims and tourists are already forming lines that stretch not only right around Bernini’s colonnade but sometimes double back on themselves. Visitors can be waiting up to two hours to enter. 

Old Roman hands will tell you it never used to be like this. Just over a decade ago, there were no security barriers, just a cursory check you were carrying no weapons and a quickly moving line.

Now security is naturally tighter, Pope Francis is very popular, and so a longer wait is understandable. But does the line have to be this long?

One main reason for the wait is that despite having several airport-like security gates at the entrance to the basilica, the Vatican just mans one. This of course slows down security, meaning many visitors are forced to queue up for hours when they could be seeing many of the other sights.

Some say this is a scam and the line is purposely long so tour companies can offer unsuspecting tourists the chance to skip the line for a high fee, but I’ve not heard anything concrete to suggest this is true. More likely is that the Vatican isn't investing in enough security. Only six police officers are assigned to patrol St. Peter's Square, and usually on average only three or four of them are on duty at any one time. 

To add to the inconvenience, some unlucky visitors' must queue under scorching hot skies. Then after the long wait, they are told — just as they’re about to enter the basilica — that they are inappropriately dressed and cannot go in.

All of this could be easily avoided. Some possible remedies might be:

  • man the other security gates;
  • provide signs at places along the line on appropriate dress;
  • sell clothing accessories that would make their dress acceptable such as shawls or long skirts, and used afterwards as a souvenir;
  • provide water and perhaps set up portable lavatories for those waiting.

The Vatican mostly does an excellent job handling large crowds and staging major events, which is why this seems out of the ordinary. Also it should be said that, being free of charge, the Vatican is under no obligation to improve this system.

But it’s something they would do well to resolve before the Jubilee Year of Mercy — and so avoid the charge of being merciless towards pilgrims. A greater security presence is also needed in view of Islamist threats, probably best done quietly, without instilling fear into visitors. 

And if the line cannot be reduced, why not have priests and religious evangelizing visitors as they wait? Or, especially during the Year of Mercy, set up temporary confession booths where the faithful can confess?

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.