What is it Like… To Work at the Vatican?

Madeline Cohen ’15 is a senior computer science major at Villanova University. She lived in Italy for six months in 2017, during which time she held an internship with the Department of Telecommunications at the Vatican City State.

My main job was to create a website for the Vatican City’s pharmacy, which didn’t have one before I got there, just a single web page. The pharmacy is huge; they sell products from all over the world. Since the Vatican is its own country, you can buy things there that you can’t get anywhere else. About 2,000 people per day shop there. In addition to the website I also helped to create an appointment-booking system. Before, it was like a deli where you take a number, but with so many visitors they needed a better system.

I learned pretty quickly that, in addition to not speaking any English, my boss didn’t have a clear goal or design for the site—it was more like, “go and create something and we’ll give you advice.” It was intimidating. I did some research to see what other pharmacy sites were doing and created a design off of that. I showed him a mock up and he didn’t like it at all. Eventually I created a design he liked but I still had to develop the content, which took a lot of time because I had to research everything—from the pharmacy’s inventory and hours of operation to its history. It was one of those projects where it was just me and my creative abilities, I didn’t really have anyone helping me. It came together nicely but it was written in English, and they asked if I could translate it into French, Spanish, and Italian, which I was able to do thanks to my language classes at USM.

I was raised Catholic, and Villanova is very Catholic, so I felt I was well informed going there. But working at the Vatican, I learned so much about the history of Catholicism. I went to a special Ash Wednesday mass just for Vatican employees in Saint Peter’s Basilica. I had never gone before because there was always such a long line to get in. But on that day, the whole basilica was empty except for maybe 50 people, mostly cardinals. It was incredible. Words cannot explain how special it felt to work in the Vatican every day, to literally be in one of the most historic places in the world.

Madeline Cohen ’15 on…

On Villanova’s relationship with the Vatican

Villanova has had an internship program at the Vatican since 2003. They’re the only school that sends kids there. It started out with just computer science majors, and then they added communications majors in 2008. Communications majors help run the Pope’s social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter. Villanova students were the first people to tweet for the Pope. They also serve as a “think tank” for the Vatican, which can get its ideas from a younger generation and hear what’s new in the communication realm. The reason why they brought Villanova students over is because we have so much knowledge on technology trends and what will build engagement. It’s very cool that they were open to modernizing in that way.

On working through the language barrier

On my first day of work I had a meeting with my boss, who quickly discovered that I didn’t know how to speak Italian. I had studied Italian for two weeks before the internship started, but other than that I knew nothing. And no one in my office spoke English. My boss told me, “By the end of your first month here, I want you to know how to speak Italian so we can communicate. Too much gets lost in translation.” So in addition to working on my project, I had to learn Italian.

On living in Italy

My commute to work was an hour each way in rush hour on a packed subway. Surrounding the Vatican are guides who hassle the tourists, trying to get them to buy their tours. So every day I’d get people coming up to me, trying to sell me stuff, thinking that I was a tourist. Finally I got so sick of it that I said, “I’m not a tourist, I work here!” After that, they stopped bothering me. 

But even at the Vatican they thought I was a tourist. I was constantly asked by the Swiss guards and security, “What are you doing here? Where do you work?” Even with my badge they’d ask me where I was going and what I was doing. I’d see all these nuns and Italians passing me, but everyone was worried about this American girl with a backpack.

On going behind the scenes at the Vatican

When my parents visited we were able to get tours of the museum and go underneath the basilica to St. Peter’s tomb. One of my coworkers took us on a three-and-a-half-hour tour of the Vatican gardens, where we got to see where Pope John Paul II lived, including his backyard. I got to see where the radio station is, all these cool grottos, and an American garden they have. It was crazy to think that they have all these beautiful grounds; it was definitely cool. One of my coworkers who used to live in Vatican City said he had memories of playing football in the Vatican’s gardens. Being in the Vatican felt like being in Disneyworld because everything was manicured to a tee. Rome is a very dirty city, but the Vatican was pristine.

On the Pope

I never got to meet the Pope personally but I worked in the same office as the Pope. On my first day, the Pope was there giving a speech called the papal audience, which he did every Wednesday. I couldn’t get to where I needed to go because it was barricaded, so they told me go through the back of St. Peter’s Basilica. But there were snipers on the roof and it was very chaotic. It was always chaotic, but when he had his papal audience it was even worse. But he’d always be doing a lot of cool stuff, like one day he was meeting the president of Turkey, and they also had the World Youth Forum there and he was able to talk to a bunch of young Catholics, and someone I knew got to speak to him.

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