The Popemobile. Via Flickr/Creative Commons.

A Public Transit Pope? Don’t Count On It

The Popemobile. Via Flickr/Creative Commons.

The Popemobile (Canadian edition). Via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Yesterday, the Catholic Church selected a new Pope. Even here in quiet Minnesota, this was noted — the bells of the Basilica of St. Mary, the Cathedral of St. Paul, and the University of St. Thomas were quite notable to locals.

One of the immediate reactions was for news organizations and transportation nerds to call out that the new incumbent to the Seat of St. Peter had frequently taken another seat: That of a bus.


It was also noted that the now-former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio rode the bus back to the hotel being used by the cardinals Wednesday night, along with all the other cardinals.

So, does this somehow make him a new age urbanist pope who will eschew the Popemobile?

Don’t count on it. There are a number of things to consider:

  1. The bus ride on Wednesday night was a chartered bus used to help transport the 115 participating cardinals between the Vatican and their hotel. This wasn’t a mix and mingle with the people of the street, as were this man’s former bus journeys. This was a trip across town with the very people who had just elected him.
  2. It’s actually not completely outside the norm for rostered clergy, priests especially, to give up or make limited use of some of their privileges. For instance, the priests serving as presidents at Notre Dame University and at St. Thomas in Minnesota maintained residences in the dorms, amongst their “flocks,” and frequently dined in the campus dining halls. Sure, they still had the president’s home, but mostly used them for fundraising and other events for which the dorms just were not going to work.
  3. Obamas at 2009 Inaugural

    The Obamas Walking the Inaugural Parade, 2009. Via Flickr/Creative Commons.

    The willingness and ability of an individual to take public transit isn’t just a personal preference, but has additional baggage of role and risk. As Pope Francis I, the man was elected by 115 elderly white men to lead a highly divisive and controversial faith of 1.1 billion adherents worldwide. The rise of the bullet-proof Popemobile in the modern age came about due to assassination attempts (and continued risk) to the Pope.

    While certainly, leaders of representative democracies often mingle among the people — presidential campaigning and the Obama’s inauguration walk up the Pennsylvania Avenue bicycle lane are examples — the rules and setup of how they’re elected is somewhat different, as are the expectations in the role.

    There’s a certain extent to which the ability to get out and walk, or ride a bus or subway, is directly proportional to the willingness of the security team to allow it, and the historical expectation that the person do so. As archbishop, Cardinal Bergoglio could call his own shots. As pope? Not so much.

The new pope comes of an order known for simplicity and embracing poverty, and one known for education and human rights (within the moral restrictions the Catholic Church places on such rights). He himself is an urbanist and a champion of helping people be spiritually and economically successful. But the reality of now being pope is that he’s no longer in charge of an archdiocese, but the leader of the faithful around the world. He is surrounded by tradition and mechanism that has functioned for hundreds of years, and will last past his days in the role. He is unlikely to be able to sell off the art collection and hop a bus from here on out.

At the end of the day, the question is what if the pope were one of us? But he’s not. Theologically, he’s not any more. When you’re theologically the successor to St. Peter, you don’t get to ride the bus anymore. That’s how it goes when you’re Pope.

About Julie Kosbab

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005, and is no longer lonely in that calling. A past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association, she has 2 children and a garage full of bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations, or read her (seldom updated) blog at Ride Boldly!