Action Alert!

papal security: a few practical suggestions

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 28, 2009

Security is not nearly as tight at the Vatican as it is at the White House. I think most Catholics—certainly including the most recent Roman Pontiffs—prefer things that way. St. Peter’s is a church, not a fortress; the faithful must be allowed to enter for religious ceremonies. And if the Holy Father could no longer mingle with his children, something precious would have been lost.

Still, the frightening incident on Christmas Eve, in which a woman managed to grab Pope Benedict and pull him off balance, should force a serious re-examination of papal security. We cannot preserve the Pope from all risks, but surely we can do better. A few suggestions:

First, we can all take the incident as a reminder to pray earnestly for the Pope’s health and welfare. Remember that Pope John Paul II credited Our Lady of Fatima—not some high-tech security device—for preserving his life in the May 1981 assassination attempt. The Vatican’s best defenses are supernatural; we can help to mobilize them.

Next, the Vatican can tighten existing security procedures—and this can be done easily, without turning the Holy See into armed enclave. As John Allen notes, the cordon of security surrounding Pope Benedict is notoriously porous. Some common-sense precautions are needed. Vatican officials have belatedly realized as much, Allen reports:

In the wake of this latest incident, in other words, there may be a growing consensus in the Vatican that the security membrane around the pope needs to become at least a little bit thicker.

Third, the officials already charged with security should be expected to do their jobs properly. There are more than enough Swiss Guards, gendarmes, ushers, papal chamberlains, and Gentlemen of His Holiness present for every ceremony at which the Holy Father presides. They should be busy. Many of the Pope’s attendants fulfill roles that have been passed down for generations, as part of the Vatican’s rich tradition. But those jobs were not always considered purely ceremonial; they were instituted for a purpose. Now they can have a purpose once again.

Susanna Maiolo, who jumped over the barricade toward the Pope on Christmas Eve, was not a complete unknown. She had done exactly the same thing a year earlier, on the same Christmas day. She was even dressed the same way: in a bright red sweater! Her name should have been on a “watch list.” Why didn’t Vatican gendarmes recognize her when she came through the security gates at St. Peter’s basilica? Why did no alert guard pick her out in the congregation, edging toward the barrier as the procession began? Would it be too much to ask that next Christmas Eve, Vatican security officials should know what Susanna Maiolo is doing?

The Secret Service keeps files on any people who are believed to present a threat to the security of the President, and makes a point of knowing where those people are when the President is making a public appearance. Yes, there is work involved in maintaining such a list. But again, the Vatican has plenty of officials theoretically involved in providing security. One is reminded of the answer Blessed John XXIII gave, when he was asked how many people work at the Vatican: “about half of them.”

Finally, to make it easier for guards to scan the congregation, some semblance of order should be returned to the ceremonies held in the Vatican basilica. As things stand, when the Pope passes by, scores of people surge toward the crowd-control barriers— jostling, jumping, standing on chairs, waving for attention, leaning over each other in hopes of a close look at the Pontiff. It’s not only an undignified scene, but also a prescription for trouble. Security officials cannot hope to spot a single mischief-maker in that chaos.

How could we convince the faithful to behave properly, and thus increase the Pope’s safety as well as the dignity of the ceremony? There is a simple solution: Make it possible for people to see the Pope even if they are not in the front row. Like those papal chamberlains, the sedia gestatoria served a useful purpose. It's time to bring it back into service. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mclom - Dec. 30, 2009 2:58 PM ET USA

    I think your opinion about the sedia gestatoria is brilliant! Now, will somone with influence please, please tell those who can organize it back into being?

  • Posted by: DJM749 - Dec. 30, 2009 1:27 AM ET USA

    Actually--it sounds nonsensical; as the crimes did not happen in the Vatican, the appropriate agent for prosecution of those priests and bishops are the governments of the nations the crimes occurred in. And as to the woman in question--she committed assault and battery on Benedict XVI. Even the Pope deserves Justice.

  • Posted by: BANICAjerry - Dec. 29, 2009 8:51 PM ET USA

    Put up your SWORD, Peter. The "security" we're supposed to rely on is "Eternal", not the type that Ceasar needs. What contrast, the manger in Bethlehem and the simplicity of ST.Peters Basillica.

  • Posted by: Biscjim - Dec. 29, 2009 5:38 PM ET USA

    The sedia gestatoria could be the perfect practical solution, restoring a beautiful Catholic tradition at the same time.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 29, 2009 4:24 PM ET USA

    Well this may sound rude but it needs reflection. Why press charges against someone who tried in the open to tackle an 80's something leader when that institution did not press charges to less old priests and bishops who in private did molest or covered up wrongdoings against very young children put under their counsel? This is one of those times when we are in fact obliged by our past and this is the reason for the need for a total cure of that past for if not it becomes a prison for all.