Though it’s rarely revered with such intensity, the popemobile is the object of quite a lot of curiosity and delight for what’s essentially a souped-up car. It’s the pope’s all-white, glass-encased equivalent of “the beast,” the American presidential limousine. And almost anyone who has ever seen a pope in the past four decades has seen him through the popemobile’s bulletproof glass windows.
But it was only recently that the pope began traveling around by armored vehicle. Until 1978, he conducted most papal processions from the silk-covered seat of the sedia gestatoria (literally, “chair for carrying”). Likely borrowed from the elegant litters of the consuls of ancient Rome — who, for all their pagan beliefs, certainly knew how to get around in style — the sedia was basically a glorified portable throne: a canopied armchair braced on two long rods, which was hoisted on the shoulders of 12 footman clad in papal red and flanked by two large feathered fans.
The sedia remained the preferred papal mode of transport until the mid-20th century, when the richly decorated litter began to seem a little antiquated. When Pope John XXIII — now Saint John — was elected in 1958, journalist Robert Blair Kaiser said that the ceremony looked like “something [“the Ten Commandments" director] Cecil B. DeMille could have staged.”
“The Pope … was carried undulantly along on the sedia gestatoria by nobles in outrageous red knickers and capes, surrounded by half a hundred young men in blue and orange bloomers, iron breastplates and lace ruffles, and a score of other cartoon characters out of O. Soglow,” wrote Kaiser, Vatican reporter for Time.
It seemed “a bit ridiculous,” he said, for a Vatican seeking revitalization to open with such baroque extravagance.
Perhaps John felt the same, because he eschewed the sedia for much of his papacy. Instead, he opted to get around on his own two feet — often in the dead of night — a tendency that earned him the gently mocking nickname “Johnny Walker,” according to the Catholic News Agency.
His successor, Paul VI, also disliked the sedia; its swaying motion tended to make him feel seasick, according to French Vatican correspondent Caroline Pigozzi. But he was unable to convince other Vatican officials to ditch the ceremonial chair. It was John Paul I who had it consigned to a museum during his short term, and John Paul II did away with the tradition entirely after he was elected in 1978.
Once modern popes decided against the 2,000-year-old mode of transportation favored by their predecessors, their transportation options became suddenly much more high-tech. The Vatican had been accumulating a fleet of cars since 1930, when Daimler-Benz, the German car manufacturer that makes Mercedes, gifted Pope Pius XI a large, black limousine.
The pontiff was much enamored of the vehicle, according to a history in the Mercedes-Benz archives. After a one-hour drive through the Vatican gardens, he declared it a “masterpiece of modern engineering.” Perhaps sensing the value of a papal endorsement, the company continued giving cars to the Vatican for the next several decades.
The term “popemobile” came from the Irish press, when John Paul II visited the country in 1979. Ford had built him a special car for the occasion — a yellow van with a glass trailer and outdoor platform from which the popular pope waved at the assembled crowds. The whole contraption was more reminiscent of a parade float than anything else, and it moved at roughly the same pace as one.
But the “popemobile” as we know it now — big, bulky and bulletproof — was born out of horror. In 1981, while riding through St. Peter’s Square in his open-air Fiat jeep, John Paul II was shot by a Turkish gunman who was a member of a militant right-wing group. The pope lost six pints of blood and took several months to recover. When he returned to the Vatican, a new kind of car was waiting for him: his open white jeep was now encased in bulletproof glass on all four sides and outfitted with an armored exterior.
The popemobile evolved over the years, as Vatican engineers came up with better and more comfortable models. The cars used in Europe were usually produced by Mercedes, but for his trans-oceanic trips the pope would ride in a locally-made vehicle. In the same way we use the term “Air Force One” to describe any plane in which the president is flying, “popemobile” came to describe whatever car the pope happened to be riding in that day.
But the moniker was applied much to John Paul II’s consternation. In 2002, the popular pontiff begged reporters to stop using the term “popemobile,” according to Newsweek. He thought it sounded “undignified.” But at that point it was too late — the name stuck.
Pope Benedict XVI’s popemobile was slickest of all. The hulking Mercedes resembled a pickup truck, but where the truck bed would have been there was instead an elaborate, six-foot glass-encased area in which Benedict could perch. His white leather seat was controlled by a hydraulic lift that the pope could raise or lower to make himself more visible, according to the Telegraph, and a built-in oxygen supply kept the air from getting stale. The car also boasted a stereo and air conditioning to keep the pope cool (and to keep the windows from fogging up), and, in a nod to Benedict’s environmentalism, it was a hybrid.
There were no designs or insignias on the all-white vehicle identifying it as the pope’s, with the exception of a Vatican license plate reading “SCVI 1” — and the fact that no one else in the world was riding around in a vehicle like it.
But Pope Francis, who has called the traditional popemobile “a sardine can,” has opted for something closer to an oversized golf cart, with a clear shield in front and open sides.
“It’s true that anything could happen,” he told the Italian newspaper La Vanguardia, according to Radio Vatican. “But let’s face it, at my age I don’t have much to lose.”
Francis arrives in Washington from Cuba on Tuesday, and he’ll be parading around near the White House Ellipse the following morning. For fans of the pope — and the popemobile — it’ll be the best opportunity to see both.