ROME Sept. 11, 2013 -- Pope Francis is enjoying being pope but what he doesn't like are the restrictions to his movement and having to be escorted everywhere.
Last Saturday he saw the perfect opportunity to regain a bit of his lost freedom and enjoy a joy ride in the Vatican when he took possession of a nearly 30-year old Renault 4 which had just been given to him and drove off happily in the Vatican "as if it were the most normal thing in the world."
The car was given to the pope by the Rev. Renzo Zocca, a 69-year-old Italian parish priest.
"The security personnel next to me were very concerned because they understood that from now on he would be tooling around the Vatican in my car," Zocca told the Italian Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana. "I left some snow chains in the trunk. You never know," he told the police who looked rather concerned as they watched the pope drive off.
Zocca had arrived at the Vatican, as arranged, with his old car on a tow truck together with a busload of a hundred pilgrims from the parish of Santa Lucia di Pescantina in Verona in northern Italy to donate his much-loved car to the pontiff. It was the afternoon shortly before the pope's prayer vigil for peace was scheduled to start in St. Peter's Square with over 100,000 people attending. The white four-door classic 1984 Renault with its 800 cc. 30-horse power engine, French stick shift that comes out from the dashboard and deck-chair-style seats has clocked 186,000 miles. It was fully checked and readied by a mechanic who accompanied the priest to Rome for the occasion.
The priest had written to the pope earlier this summer saying he wanted to meet him to tell him about the work he had done in the rough, working-class neighborhoods of Verona for the past 25 years and that he wanted to give the pope his old car which had taken him to visit the poor and the needy.
In response, the priest received a papal call on his cell phone at the beginning of August and they spent a half hour talking about the priest's work. Zocca said the pope had initially been unsure about the gift suggesting that it would be best if he gave it to the poor, but the priest had insisted that his much-loved car had already given much to the poor over the years and he wanted it to go to the pope as a "testimony" of the work he had done in it.
Once Francis had been reassured the priest had another car, the pope flicked through his diary for the perfect day for the car hand-over.
Zocca brought the car to the front of the pope's residence in the Vatican and the pope gave the priest a big hug. "Let's go," the pope said when Zocca told him that half of the people who had accompanied him were stuck outside the Vatican gates because of security. Zocca drove with the pope in the passenger seat and the mechanic and priest's assistant in the back seat.
"Go slow, we're in the Vatican," shouted the mechanic excitedly even though they weren't going more than 18 mph.
"I can't tell you how thrilled my parishioners were when they saw the Renault 4 arrive and the pope get out of it!," said Zocca. After all had been greeted and thanked, the priest handed the pope the car keys.
"Write me again," the pope said cheerfully as he hopped into the Renault for his turn at the wheel.
Pope Francis has impressed many since his election earlier this year with his humble and direct style. On election he quickly stressed his desire for "a poor church for the poor" and refused many of the trappings that went with being pope, preferring a simpler, less-ostentatious style. He continues to live in the Vatican Santa Marta guest house rather than in the papal apartments and has abandoned the use of limos and motorcades to be closer to the people.
Early in his papacy he went to inspect the Vatican car pool and has insisted on using a poorer more utilitarian car when he is travelling inside or on trips outside of the Vatican: a Ford Fiesta in Rome and a Fiat Idea on his first foreign trip to Brazil in July.
In July, Pope Francis told young priests and nuns that it pained him to see priests driving flashy cars, and said that having the latest model of smartphone or car was not the root of happiness.
"A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world," he said.
Teaching by example may be having its results. Rumors are circulating in the Vatican that some Vatican clerics have already cashed in their fancy BMW's for a more somber and cheaper model car.
Pope Francis left the Vatican on Tuesday in a compact Ford Focus and travelled to the Jesuit refugee center and soup kitchen in the center of Rome where he met with refugees.
A Roman in the crowd waiting to see the pope in the street commented, "I felt scared for him when I saw him. He just appeared out of the Ford Fiesta like a normal person with no escort or fanfare...we are used to seeing the last popes move about Rome with a motorcade, not like this."