ROME, Italy — When in 1994 President Bill Clinton went to pay a visit to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, he met first with a group of elegantly dressed old men. They greeted the leader of the free world in one of the "anticamere" — ante-chambers — of the Apostolic Palace, wearing black coat-tails and ornate golden collars with a heraldic emblem.

Veteran Vatican correspondents recall that Clinton, unsure of whom he was facing, nevertheless started talking politely with the members of the group. The conversation went on for nearly 10 minutes before his aides were able to intervene and remind him that he had more pressing meetings on schedule.

The men Clinton met were members of one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet, known as the Gentlemen of His Holiness — or the Pope's Gentlemen.

The latest list of their ranks, published in 2009, sets their number worldwide at 147. Most of them (114) are Italians, and they come from Roman families considered to be among the noblest and most ancient — the Torlonia, the Corsini, the Borghese. These families have been serving popes for centuries, previously going under the name Secret Chamberlains of the Sword and Cape. Their task, originally, was to attend the pope's meals together with other select Monsignors and Chapelains, forming the so-called Papal Family.

But such a relic from the centuries when the papacy was a monarchy which actually ruled over most of central Italy seemed anachronistic at the time of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s. And so Pope Paul VI decided to reform the Papal Family and turned the Secret Chamberlains in the more soberly named Papal Gentlemen.

Their duties today mostly consist of escorting diplomats and dignitaries during audiences with the pope or official ceremonies at the Vatican. Called upon by the prefecture of the Papal Household, they must come to Rome and be ready for service for two weeks every year. They also have to carry the pope's bier at his funeral.

Paul VI's reform also opened the Gentlemen's ranks, stating that beyond nobility, everyone who had distinguished himself “for the good of souls and the glory of the name of the Lord” could be called to join the exclusive club.

In fact, it has been mostly donors and businessmen with close ties to the Holy See or to some key cardinal to receive the honor — bestowed with an hand-written "biglietto" from the Vatican Secretariat of State — together with laymen who served the Catholic Church for decades.

One of them is 79-year-old Mario Agnes, who became a Gentleman in 2007 after editing for 25 years the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. “It's a gift, an act of kindness the Holy Father wanted to do toward me,” he said about the appointment, shying away from giving to much importance to it.

Still, some who have received the honor have used it to boast about their special connection to the Vatican and the pope himself — just as they were involved in some less-than-transparent affairs. At a time when the papacy is already shaken by sex-abuse scandal, they have brought some unwanted publicity to the church.

The most recent case is that of Angelo Balducci, Papal Gentleman since 1985.

Although jailed in February, he is still at the center of a sprawling corruption investigation involving state procurement agencies and the organization of "major events," such as the Italy-hosted G8 summit of 2009 in earthquake-stricken L'Aquila. More embarrassingly, a wiretap showed that he had enlisted a Vatican chorister to procure male prostitutes for him, including at least one seminarian.

Balducci is not the first Papal Gentleman to end up in jail. In 1989, Italian police arrested businessman Umberto Ortolani, who had been involved with the P2 secret masonic lodge that, according to Italian judges, aimed to subvert democracy in the country, and was also involved in other shady business activities.

One such shady affair is the bankruptcy of the Banco Ambrosiano, which led to the mysterious suicide of banker Roberto Calvi in London in 1982 and which involves the Vatican Bank, the IOR.

A Gentleman since 1963, Ortolani is, to date, the only person to have been "canceled" from the exclusive list. (Balducci is still a member.)

Other Papal Gentlemen have raised eyebrows, including the Lichtenstein-born financier Herbert Batliner, who invented the “family foundations” system used by wealthy European families to avoid taxation on their rich estates. He donated hundreds of thousand of euros for the restoration of ancient organs in the Sistine Chapel and in Regensburg, Germany. In 2006, he met Pope Benedict XVI there while under investigation for tax-evasion charges amounting to 250 million euros ($324.66 million), thanks to a special safe-conduct granted by German prosecutors.

Politically, it can be safely said that Gentlemen tend to align with the right: Gianni Letta, Silvio Berlusconi's right-hand man and chief negotiator, received the "biglietto" in 2005.

Another Gentleman, Italo-Argentinian senator and former ambassador to the Vatican Esteban Caselli, has emerged apparently unscathed from many trials and investigations on both sides of the Atlantic, and has now announced he will run for president of Argentina in 2011. His newly founded party is named "Pueblo de la Libertad" — People of Freedom — just like Silvio Berlusconi's party in Italy.

When asked about Papal Gentlemen and their selection, Luigi Accattoli, who covered the Vatican for decades for Italy's leading daily, Corriere della Sera, jokingly said that, on this topic, he “dares to give an advice to pope Benedict”: now, he said, would be a good time to “get rid of all the antiques, coat-tails and golden crosses” and finally bring to completion what Paul VI had started, canceling Papal Gentlemen for good.

But this is hardly going to happen, Vatican sources said. After all, they recall, it is Benedict XVI that, in an audience to Papal Gentlemen in 2006, reassuringly told them that “to continue forward, the boat of Peter needs many hidden hands who, together with others who are more visible, contribute to its keeping a straightward course.”

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