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Pope on Wheels: The Symbolism of Papal Transport

The PopeMover has come to symbolize the Holy Father's grave health and looming death.

Last Saturday, when Pope Benedict XVI welcomed 22 new cardinals into the Catholic fold, concerns for the aging leader's health overshadowed the ceremony in many media accounts. Instead of making the traditional walk down the central aisle of Saint Peter's Basilica, the pope was pushed on a wheeled platform to the church altar, occasionally releasing his grip on the handrail to wave to the crowd.

Representatives from the Vatican claim that the pope's use of the platform is in no way indicative of poor health. “The purpose is exclusively to alleviate the efforts of the Holy Father, as already happens with his use of the Popemobile during entrance processions in outdoor ceremonies and in St. Peter's Square,” Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a written statement. Yet recent reports claim that the pope opted for the platform due to his worsening arthritis symptoms.

Now widely referred to as the PopeMover, the platform is designed to look like an appendage of St. Peter’s Basilica—its brass hand railings and carpeted stairs echo the splendor of the famous cathedral. But Pope Benedict’s appearance on the platform conjures painful memories for the faithful, who remember how it was created for the previous pope, John Paul II, who was gravely ill for the final several years of his reign. So for many devout Catholics, the mobile platform has come to symbolize looming death, an image inseparable from the memory of a pope whose Parkinson’s disease rendered him publicly mute and almost completely inactive.

The business of mobilizing the pope began in 1981, when Pope John Paul II was shot by a gunman from 15 feet away while greeting worshipers in St. Peter's Square. The pope survived, but the incident prompted church officials to devise a new method of ensuring the Holy Father's safety while in public. Ever since, instead of walking through crowds or sitting in an open-top limousine, the pope stands and waves to his followers from a giant bulletproof glass box on the back of a specially designed SUV. Almost immediately, the media dubbed this vehicle the Popemobile.

Today, the pope's fleet is impressive, if unusual. The Popemobile has evolved to a gleaming white hybrid SUV. Fiat, the Italian automotive company, has supplied the Vatican with a tractor that pulls the pope's 17-ton mobile stage into place for his weekly public ceremonies.

In 2009, during the Vatican’s annual Christmas mass, a woman with a history of mental illness jumped a barrier and lunged toward Pope Benedict as he processed down the aisle to the altar. Though the Pope was unharmed in the attack, the incident sparked a debate over the security measures taken to protect the pontiff. Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, an American Catholic priest and popular Internet personality, suggested it was time to bring back the sedia gestatoria, a mobile papal throne that is carried on the shoulders of several male attendants. The sedia was a traditional form of public transport for the Pope that was used regularly until 1978, when Pope John Paul II rejected it in favor of remaining on his feet, closer to the people. Zuhlsdorf’s sentiments were echoed across several sites, with Catholic bloggers generally agreeing that the sedia would keep the Pope out of harm’s way. Yet Pope Benedict has followed his predecessor's lead in opting for the mobile platform, a more humble form of transport.

As the PopeMover returns to the church, some Catholics fear a media frenzy will stoke fear over the pontiff's health, taking focus away from the positive effects of his reign. Other followers approve of the platform, as it elevates the Pope and makes him more visible to the faithful. Yet for those who hoped to briefly interact with Pope Benedict through a passing handshake or a kiss on a baby’s forehead, the platform signals the end of an opportunity and perhaps the waning of the Pope’s days.

Though he was chosen as a kind of interim pope to bridge the gap between the 30-year reign of Pope John Paul II and the next pontiff, Pope Benedict still represents the voice of an entire religion, one that followers hope remains strong for as long as possible. Every choice made by the Vatican—from the Pope’s transportation to the color of his robes—is closely analyzed by devout followers.

The mobile platform is just one way in which religion has evolved to meet contemporary challenges, yet it means the world to many religious Catholic who must rely solely upon such symbols to gauge the health of their leader. Mobilizing the pope isn’t just a matter of logistics or safety; it’s a coded message sent out to the entire world.

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