Holy Smokes

How Do You Protect a Pope Who Doesn’t Want to Be Protected?

The humble pontiff is determined to mingle with the people. Will the Vatican push back?


When Pope Francis’s motorcade took a wrong turn on his inaugural drive through Rio de Janeiro earlier this week, crowds rushed the car to get a glimpse of the popular pontiff. Francis seemed unfazed, rolling down his back-seat window and even reaching out for babies to kiss through his open car window.

But church officials are increasingly concerned that what endears him to a public hungry for an accessible leader could put him in serious danger. “I love him, and I don’t want another conclave,” Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, who is part of the Vatican delegation on the pope’s first trip to Latin America to celebrate World Youth Day, told reporters in Rio on Tuesday. “We just finished one, so we don’t need him to be hurt at all.”

The pope’s safety is a growing concern among Vatican officials trying to manage a spontaneous pontiff on his first major trip abroad. On Tuesday such concern forced organizers to quickly whisk Francis into a standby helicopter to avoid a mob of social-justice protesters—angry that money was being spent to protect the pontiff—who had gathered right where the papal entourage was set to pass. But it wasn’t an easy task to get the pope to agree to the diversion. The pope had insisted he drive through the crowd to “hear the voices of concern,” according to journalists traveling with him.

When the demonstrators burned an effigy tied to a lamppost, however, security officials weighed in and overruled the pontiff, insisting he reach the Guanabara Palace by air instead. And it was just as well; the protests quickly heated up. Six people were detained, and four had to be taken to the hospital as police sprayed tear gas and rubber bullets to fight back the anxious mob.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi brushed off the incident. “His secretary was afraid, but the pope wasn’t,” he told reporters at a briefing after the pope’s car was rushed. “We have full confidence in the authorities. Today was the first experience, a learning experience, and we will see what happens in the next few days.”

The rest of the papal visit will likely be even more challenging. Francis has insisted he ride through the crowds in an open-air popemobile instead of hiding behind a bulletproof bubble like his predecessors did. But Brazilian security officials have vetoed some of his plans. On Wednesday he is now expected to travel through Aparecida to visit a hospital and then give mass in the basilica in a closed car, not switching to the open popemobile halfway through as previously planned. Father Lombardi told reporters that the change was made to avoid a situation where the motorcade had to stop to allow the pope to switch vehicles, saying it was meant to “simplify the pope’s movements,” not curtail them. Around 2,000 Brazilian security officials will be present to secure the scene as the pope moves through.

The pope will then celebrate mass on Copacabana Beach, an event expected to draw more than a million faithful. On Thursday the pope will greet visitors from an open balcony in the village, where he will venerate the Virgin of Aparecida, Brazil’s patron saint. More than 200,000 people are expected to attend the blessing. Days before the pope’s arrival, a rogue homemade bomb was found in a lavatory near the sanctuary during a sweep of the area.

The greatest security risk to the pontiff yet may come Friday, when he will perform the “way of the cross” procession on foot through heavy crowds. Then, over the weekend, he will lead a massive celebration including a Saturday vigil and Sunday mass in an open field in suburban Rio.

Kicking off the weeklong celebrations, the pope seemed to welcome the security challenge as part and parcel of pontifical work. “I have learned that, to gain access to the Brazilian people, it is necessary to pass through its great heart, so let me knock gently on this door,” he said after the so-called motorcade incident. No doubt his security detail is hoping that whoever answers that door is friendly.