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The Pope’s Librarian

Forget Dan Brown—The Vatican’s head librarian and archivist, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, opens up about his daily routine By William Butts William Butts founded Main Street Fine Books & Manuscripts in Galena, Illinois, with his wife Yolanda in 1991. He’s been book review editor for Manuscripts for more than twenty years.

Editor’s Note: our fall quarterly contains a feature story about the Vatican Apostolic Library and the Vatican Secret Archives, based on a wide-ranging discussion with its head librarian and head archivist, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès. What follows is more from William Butts’ exclusive interview with him.

During a recent interview, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, head librarian of the Vatican Library and head archivist of the Vatican Secret Archives, discussed where these two distinguished institutions are headed under his leadership. Credit: Julian W. Garcia

Before digging into the nitty-gritty of what Archbishop Bruguès has undertaken—wrangling the Vatican Library into the twenty-first century—I asked the seventy-four-year-old French-born Dominican monsignor how he got into that hot seat in the first place, and whether being the 47th librarian of a library dating back to 1501 and the 41st archivist of an archive dating back to 1609 weighs heavily on him.

As with every question, Bruguès paused and reflected before answering, like the seasoned academic he is. “Before coming here, Pope Benedict XVI named me as the Secretary for the Congregation for Catholic Education, so the relationship between me and Pope Benedict (and Cardinal Ratzinger before) is of a long date. We have been relating for more than twenty years, because we were on the International Theological Commission. For me, when I was named to that congregation, my work was pretty easy because I had been a professor at universities in France and Switzerland for more than thirty years.”

Archbishop Bruguès shows off miscellaneous treasures housed in his spacious office. Credit: Julian W. Garcia

“When my mandate as secretary ended, the pope’s secretary asked me: ‘We have two free spots—in the library or the congregation for family.’ The answer was very easy: ‘None of them. I don’t like either of them.’ After a couple months Pope Benedict called me and said, ‘If you don’t choose either of these places I will choose it for you.’ Before his election Pope Benedict actually would have longed to be the librarian and archivist here, and so since then he was elected pope and couldn’t, he wanted to realize his own dream through me.”

“But he didn’t say anything about the content of this dream. My main effort has been to try to find out what the dream of Pope Benedict was and to realize it in time…. this responsibility has not been a heavy responsibility for me.” Apparently Bruguès has not only reconciled himself to his position but learned that his bookish nature makes him well-suited to the task, and he handles pressure with ease. He sounds like a happy man who loves what he does.

As for the nuts and bolts of his daily routine, Bruguès appears to thrive on challenge and variety. “For me, as I come to work, it’s really kind of like it’s a feast in the sense that it’s a very passionate work and so I like that.”

A statue of St. Hippolytus, a third-century piece unearthed just outside Rome in the sixteenth century, welcomes visitors to the Vatican Library. Credit: Julian W. Garcia

He elaborated, “In the morning I work here and it’s a regular office. I get a lot of correspondence and sometimes it’s a mountain of letters. In the morning I work in doing the correspondence but also in meeting many people. Morning is for appointments mainly, and then in the afternoon I usually come back here for meeting groups to show around the library and to explain what the library is about. The library and also the archives…. In order not to create any jealousy I do one day at the library and one day at the archives…. It’s administrative work, naturally, but also it’s very much a work of personal contact, of relationships.”

Bruguès also represents the public face of the Vatican Library and Secret Archives. When dignitaries visit the Vatican and are given a behind-the-scenes tour of the library and archives, as Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, did recently, it’s often Bruguès who plays host. He also travels quite a bit. “I travel at least once a month for a week for the library,” he noted. “When I travel I usually go after an invitation from a government or cultural institutions—any kind of public place and other places or institutional associations that are preparing for an exhibit, for example. The library participates each year in from twelve to nineteen international exhibits. So even though the library might seem a static place with a static work, actually my life is very dynamic as I’m traveling all over the world.”

William Butts founded Main Street Fine Books & Manuscripts in Galena, Illinois, with his wife Yolanda in 1991. He’s been book review editor for Manuscripts for more than twenty years.