John Paul II was the only pope to have owned a car during his papacy. I refer not to the famed Popemobile, which, in any case, is not a single vehicle but a generic name for many vehicles that have borne over the years the real nameplates of Land Rover, Peugeot, GMC, Mercedes Benz, and others. Regardless of manufacturer, all Popemobiles have been suitably grand conveyances, with full wood-and-leather interiors, state-of-the-art communications, armor plating, and, in some cases, a stand-up “room” in the rear. The most recent iteration is a modified G500 from Mercedes.
But the car registered for 21 years in the name of Karol Jozef Wojtyla of Krakow, Poland, and Vatican City, was a far more modest machine: a sky-blue 1975 Ford Escort GL with a 1.1 liter engine, 4-speed manual gearbox, wind-up windows, and no radio, purchased when Wojtyla was Archbishop, then Cardinal, of Krakow. (I find irresistible the image of him in the Ford showroom–one of the few, then, in Communist Poland. “Good mileage?” he asks the salesman. “Reliable?”) During his remaining time at Krakow he drove it back and forth to Zakopane, the ski resort in the Tatra Mountains, where he went to ski and hike in the woods.
In 1978 Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, and the little Ford was part of the entourage that went with him to Rome. It served him well, and for a long time. By 1996, when he asked an international auction house to sell the car for charity, he had put nearly 100,000 kilometers (60K+ miles) on the clock, many of them around Rome. Before his health declined, he allegedly drove, dressed as a humble priest, to remote places such as the hiking trails and woods of the Appenines, where he could find peace and quiet. Was he ever stopped for speeding? Not likely, in that car. Was he ever recognized by other drivers, say at a red light? (“Dio, it’s…no, no…look, it IS, isn’t it…!?”). Quite possibly; he would, it was rumored, sneak out and drive around Rome at night. He was a deeply contemplative man, for whom the immense crowds he always drew may well have been another penance. No doubt he needed the solitude–of the mountains, and of his little Escort.
Soon after he died, in 2005, the car was auctioned off for nearly $700,000, complete with a medal of St. Maria Goretti, a small box of wooden matches, a box of candy, spare fuses, and a Pope-blessed rosary hanging from the rear-view mirror.
The current pope, Benedict XVI, a concert-level pianist and the author of more than 20 books, may be one of the most intellectually accomplished of all pontiffs, but he is also a sufficiently worldly man to enjoy the material perks of the papacy. He wears a Patek Philippe watch, designer sunglasses, and Prada shoes; and on behalf of the Vatican motor pool he recently took delivery, with obvious pleasure, of an ebony Volvo SC90 SUV with a six-speed automatic transmission and 311-horsepower V8 engine, plus all state-of-the-art safety gadgets.
The car was delivered to the Pope in the Vatican last June 28th, with a short ceremony featuring, no doubt, some world-class groveling on the part of the guys from Volvo Italia who, it must be said, know how to milk an event for maximum PR. With evident pleasure, the Vicar of Christ climbed aboard the SUV and, like a car-crazy little boy at an auto show, tested out the interior (taupe leather, walnut dash) for comfort and practicality and the zoom factor.
The enthusiasm shown by His Holiness for his new SUV is understandable; the SC90 is a fine, elegant machine. But his German compatriots were miffed that he chose a Swedish vehicle, not a German one. After all, during his former life as Josef Cardinal Ratzinger, his wheels were unimpeachably Germanic: a metallic grey 1999 VW Golf with an odometer reading of 75,000 km (47,000 miles) when it went up for auction on E-bay in 2005.
Unlike John Paul, Benedict seems not to have put in much time behind the wheel. In pre-papacy days he hardly needed to, since he’d lived for years in a comfortable apartment in Rome’s Borgio district, only minutes’ walk from the office. Most of the miles on the VW were racked up by his secretary on errands to and from Germany, or by its subsequent owner. Still, the car retained enough of an odor of sanctity for Golden Palace casino, of Austin, TX, to pay $244,000 for it.
Which sum, although not negligible, is smaller than the $350,000 fetched at auction in Padua last October by a 1959 Mercedes-Benz 190 that once belonged to none other than Padre Pio (1887-1968), the unworldly Capuchin monk who, it is said, bore the stigmata for fifty years and who, in 2002, was canonized by John Paul II as St. Pio of Pietrelcina (his native town in the southern province of Apulia). This most spiritual of monks, sworn to poverty, mendicant of God, enemy and exorcist of Satan, was about the least likely Mercedes owner imaginable; but it’s not as if he went down to the local Benz dealer to kick the tires. The car was a gift from a family in gratitude for a miracle he’d allegedly performed.
Whether Pio had any appreciation for his ride is unknown. What is certain is that the saint drove his 190 even less than Pope Benedict drove his Golf. Pio may have been a surreptitious nighttime driver, like John Paul, but in daylight he was seen behind the wheel of the Merc only once. The car, as a result, is a gem: immaculate inside, with only 50K miles on the clock, a moonroof, and a (Capuchinesque) color scheme of two-tone brown and cream–and no rust, of course, after a lifetime in the dry and sunny South.
Reporting on the auction, the Italian newspaper Il Gazzettino proclaimed the sale of an old car for more than ten times its true market value to be the saint’s latest miracle.
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