ROME, NOV. 14, 2002 ( - John Paul II's visit to the Italian Parliament marks the first time a pope has ever been received by both chambers of the Parliament in the presence of all state authorities.

Italy's past history explains why it never invited a pope to address both chambers of Parliament, as well as the enormous interest today's event generated in the country.

The birth of the Italian State in 1870 caused profound tensions with the Vatican. The Papal States were annexed, and the Church was in disagreement with the ideology of some of the leaders of Italian unification.

In 1865, Pope Pius IX wrote Victor Emmanuel II, first king of Italy, describing the difficult situation of the Catholic Church in the country. Out of 229 Episcopal Sees, 108 were vacant. Moreover, 80 bishops, among them 9 cardinals, had been arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison terms or exile.

On July 7, 1866, all juridical recognition was withdrawn from nearly 1100 orders, congregations, and religious communities. Their goods became the property of the state. On Sept. 20, 1870, Italian troops occupied the Papal States. Pius IX shut himself in the Vatican and declared himself a prisoner.

The Pope regarded the seizure of Church property as an historical injustice, and feared that, without temporal sovereignty, he would lose the independence needed to carry out his universal spiritual task. As a result, in 1871 Pope Pius IX pronounced the "Non Expedit," which impeded Catholics from taking an active part in the political life of a unified Italy. Specifically, they were not to vote.

The issue was resolved finally with the signing of the Lateran Pacts of 1929 between the Kingdom of Italy and the Vatican. The pacts reconciled the state and the Catholic Church, and guaranteed the reconstruction of the Papal State, defining the present limits of Vatican City. Both states recognized their mutual sovereignty, and Catholicism was recognized as the state religion of Italy.

In recalling the centenary of the annexation of the Papal States, Pope Paul VI acknowledged that historically the annexation has brought about the "liberation" of the Church from the weight of temporal power.

In 1984, Italy and the Vatican signed a new concordat, stating that Catholicism was no longer the state religion; religious teaching in schools became optional. In addition, a new way was introduced of financing the Church, according to which citizens may allocate to any recognized religion 0.8% of their income taxes.

In his address to the Italian Parliament today, John Paul II acknowledged that relations between Italy and the Catholic Church "has gone through widely different phases and circumstances, subject to the vicissitudes and contradictions of history."

"But at the same time," he continued, "we should recognize that precisely this sometimes turbulent sequence of events has had highly positive results, both for ... the Catholic Church, and for the beloved Italian nation."