The people’s pope presents a challenge for security team

Pope Francis shook hands and mingled with the masses at the Vatican gate after his first Mass as pontiff.
Pope Francis shook hands and mingled with the masses at the Vatican gate after his first Mass as pontiff.

VATICAN CITY — Forgive Pope Francis’s security team for looking a bit nervous.

One pope was shot in St. Peter’s Square while riding in an open vehicle. Another was tackled by a woman with mental problems in St. Peter’s Basilica. So in the early days of Francis’s pontificate, as the pope delights the flock by wading into crowds and pressing the flesh, it is only natural that chief Vatican cop Domenico Giani seems on edge.

Just consider some of Francis’s acts of papal outreach, which have all made for a refreshing change from the reserved style of his predecessor Benedict XVI, but present a huge headache for a security detail attached to one of the planet’s most high-profile people.


The day after his election, Francis eschewed the Vatican’s armored limousine and traveled through the chaotic streets of Rome in an ordinary car to pick up his things at a downtown hotel.

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At his first Sunday Mass as pontiff, Francis caused a stir by mingling with bystanders at a Vatican gate, shaking hands and even allowing himself to be grabbed by the shoulder, while people jostled to get closer.

Then on inauguration day, Francis stood for nearly 30 minutes in an open vehicle that circled the vast square, kissing babies and at one point jumping out to bless and kiss a disabled man in the crowd.

It is not for nothing that Francis has quickly been dubbed the ‘‘unpredictable’’ pope. And for a bodyguard, unpredictable means trouble.

Giani looked particularly worried by the crowd that gathered after the Sunday Mass. La Stampa newspaper quoted an aide at the scene saying, “Things better get back to normal or we’re in trouble.’’


The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said last week that the Vatican was well aware of Francis’s informal and open style, and that proper security measures would be taken, even if that has not happened immediately.

‘‘There are a lot of nut cases out there,’’ said another Vatican official, who requested anonymity as he is not authorized to discuss security. ‘‘But you can be sure that the security issues are being examined.’’

Francis’s meet-and-greet manner is reminiscent of John Paul II’s open style in his first years as pope. And an iconic event in that earlier papacy brought to light some of the terrifying potential consequences of papal spontaneity. It was 1981, and John Paul had just handed a baby back to her mother as his open jeep drove slowly through a crowded St. Peter’s Square. Shots rang out. The pope crumbled, and bodyguards swarmed around him.

The gunman’s assassination attempt left John Paul severely wounded. While he made a full recovery, an era of light security was over.

Experts say that ditching the motorcade and the security detail can be dangerous in unexpected ways.


‘‘If someone like the pope publishes the fact that he doesn’t have the usual level of security, it only highlights the potential threats,’’ said security expert Richard Aitch, the author of ‘‘Close Protection.’’

In general, Aitch said that any leader’s decision to drop their guard ‘‘creates a security headache’’ — particularly if it becomes a habit.

For the new pope, it may all boil down to balancing legitimate security concerns with his down-to-earth manner and distaste for luxury.

Francis, for example, famously rode the bus to work while archbishop of Buenos Aires. While that casual style will likely stay, don’t expect to meet him in one of the ubiquitous trams that snake through Roman streets.