Protecting the Pope: Keeping Him Safe But Open

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Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Benedict XVI is seen next to the statuette of baby Jesus, in foreground, during Christmas Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2009

After the dramatic Christmas Eve mass knockdown of Pope Benedict XVI, authorities are reporting that the 25-year-old woman who jumped a St. Peter's Basilica security barrier meant the pontiff no harm. That Benedict was indeed unscathed, and delivered the traditional "Urbi et Orbi" message "to the city and the world" from the loggia overlooking Saint Peter's Square, was the good news for Christmas Day. But even if Susanna Maiolo, a Swiss-Italian national with a history of psychological problems, only wanted to share her holiday wishes with the Pope, tough questions remain for those responsible for the well-being of the Holy Father, a world leader who requires what may be an unmatched mix of both special protection and universal accessibility.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Benedict cannot carry out his mission if he is shielded from his faithful in a "zero risk" protection scheme. Still, even in praising the quick reaction of the pontiff's personal security detail, Lombardi told The Associated Press officials will nonetheless review the episode and "try to learn from experience."

At the same Christmas Eve service in 2008, Maiolo made a similar dash toward Benedict, stopped short that time by Domenico Giani, who heads the Vatican gendarmes, a private police force responsible for protecting the Pope. Giani, who is always within arm's length of the Pope, also helped wrestle away a mentally disturbed German man in 2007 who'd jumped on the Pope's open jeep he uses to circle St. Peter's Square before and after his weekly Wednesday General Audience.

Maiolo timed her lunge better this time, and managed to grab Benedict's vestments even as she was being tackled by Giani, bringing the 82-year-old Pope down with them in a heap to the marble floor of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening procession of the evening mass. (Benedict had moved what was long the Midnight mass up to 10 p.m.). Caught in the scrum was Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87, of France, who broke his hip, and will require surgery. Commentators in Italy have been asking if there is a general security problem, with the Pope incident following an attack on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi earlier this month by another mentally unstable man in Milan.

The pope is protected by a combination of Swiss Guards, Vatican police and Italian police. Since the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, security has tightened at the Vatican, and all visitors to St. Peter's must past through metal detectors. Still, compared to other mega-visible leaders, including the U.S. President, close access to the Pope, while not guaranteed, is never really rendered impossible either.

While getting close to the Pope during his foreign travels tends to be more difficult, and he waves to the crowds in a bulletproof popemobile, at home in Rome, there is a relatively loose approach to managing the crowds, and the giro among the faithful is done in an open jeep. Tickets to get inside a papal mass can be easily obtained in advance through a Vatican office or some of the foreign embassies to the Holy See. For weekly general audiences, which are held during the winter months inside the Paul VI auditorium, you simply need to show up early and ask Swiss guards at the famous Bronze Door for tickets. The occasional visits that the Pope makes to local dioceses in Rome (where he also serves as the city's bishop) afford an even closer look.

That is, in fact, what he wants. The Pope is neither a movie star pitching his latest feature with an occasional red carpet stroll, nor a political leader pressing just enough flesh to connect with the electorate. His job description is that of pastor, a shepherd, of a flock of 1.1 billion who are called on to see in him the supreme Vicar of Christ who brings to them the definitive word of salvation. He is meant, in other words, to evoke strong feelings of personal attachment. "You can't shield him 100%," said spokesman Lombardi. "Doing so would create a dividing wall between the pontiff and his faithful, something that is unthinkable."

The mix of mass worldwide exposure and the close contact between the Roman Pontiff and his faithful is actually a modern phenomenon, largely put into motion by Paul VI, and multiplied by John Paul II. Both those popes were lucky to survive brazen assassination attempts: a mentally unstable man lunged at Paul with a knife just after his 1970 arrival at the Manila airport; while John Paul was shot and seriously wounded in 1981 by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

Because Thursday's incident took place inside St. Peter's, and the Vatican is an independent city-state, it is up to the Pope whether a criminal investigation will proceed against Maiolo. Both Paul VI and John Paul II made a point of forgiving the men who tried to kill them. And though he didn't mention the incident during his Christmas day ceremony, Benedict is likely to make a point of forgiving what was a much less severe attack. Along with mixing amongst the faithful, forgiveness is part of the job description too.