A report from CNN reveals that the security level for the papal visit to Brazil for World Youth Day has been raised to “high risk”. The change has been made in light of the chaos during the Pope’s motorcade shortly after he arrived in Rio. Crowds thronged the car, reaching into the open window next to the Pope, and stranding the car for a while, Vatican security briefly overwhelmed and the Brazilian police contingents nowhere in sight. In other words, it was a security nightmare. It has been noted here before that from the outset of his reign Francis has been sitting very loose to his security, making officers run to catch up with his un-planned walkabouts, giving them headaches as he allows crowds to touch him, and being in general unpredictable. Apparently the motorcade debacle, with Pope Francis not in a secure popemobile but in a general issue Fiat sedan, was in part brought about by Francis instructing the driver to change course so as not to avoid the crowds.
What the report did not mention was the bomb that was found at the Shrine of our Lady of Aperecida shortly before the Pope was due to visit it. Nor did it mention the riots that broke out in front of the Rio governor’s palace less than an hour after Pope Francis left his official welcome there. No wonder there are grave security fears. Brazil is not the most secure country in the world at the best of times; with a series of riots in recent weeks it is even less so.
Risking sensationalism, it was suggested here early on that Francis might end up an assassin’s victim. Sadly, that still seems more than ever on the cards. If he did instruct his driver to go off course to be near the crowds then it does rather suggest irresponsibility on the Pope’s part. While we might understand his desire to be near the people, he is showing little regard for his hosts who must carry the security can, at great expense. If something were to happen to the Pope, the government would be extremely embarrassed, and the Catholic world deeply distressed.
Now that he is Pope, or Bishop of Rome as he doggedly and exclusively calls himself, he must really come to grips with the fact that he belongs to the whole Church now, not just to the people before which he might physically find himself at any one time. He has a responsibility to the whole Church not just to local crowds. He must not allow the Church to be wounded by a terrorist outrage, nor allow terrorists the PR success (perverse logic though this be) of wounding or killing him. If he wishes to be a martyr, let him realize that it is a luxury he cannot rightly claim. The more he exposes himself to risk the more he exposes those around him – well-wishers, pilgrims, police, government officials, and other clergy. This is not just about him. There is a reason why even a populist pope like John Paul II accommodated himself to the demands of security: papal security is in the interest of all the Church, and, more particularly and directly, a heavy responsibility for any governments which host the papal presence.
I can only wonder if most governments might now be rather more reticent about inviting Pope Francis to visit: his unpredictability would make his presence a security headache from start to finish. Few governments might be willing to risk a papal security disaster.
For now, let us pray for his safety.