Over the last week, there was an unfamiliar sight in Washington, D.C., New York City, and now, Philadelphia: a gleaming black Fiat, flanked by police vehicles, rolling through the city streets. If it weren't for the armed security personnel, you wouldn't believe that one of the most powerful figures in the world was resting in the tiny backseat. That world figure, of course, is Pope Francis, who's been rolling — in the Fiat, of course — around Philadelphia on for the final leg of his historic papal visit to the United States.
Although most talk about his politics, spectators can't help but comment on the little Fiat zipping the leader of the Roman Catholic Church around East Coast cities. An unlikely trendsetter, Francis has had his sartorial choices picked apart over the last two years. Francis eschewed lavish red-leather shoes — worn by his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI — for the simple black pair he wore as a cardinal in Argentina. He does not wear the red cape typical of most popes, but chooses to remain in an ordinary white cassock unless he's presiding over Mass. But it's the choice of vehicle — Fiat 500L — that is perhaps the most unusual about the pontiff, who has a strong populist appeal worldwide.
There is, of course, a ton of symbolism tied to Francis' little Fiat. Considering Francis' devotion to protecting the environment and curbing the effects of climate change, it would seem a bit odd if he drove around town in a gas-guzzling SUV or limousine — and the Fiat gets great gas mileage.
But the character of the Fiat also seems to fit for Francis' personality — popular but not flashy, trendy yet modest. Any other car — a massive SUV, a stretch limo, or a pricey Mercedes-Benz — would strike a false note among Francis' followers.
It's not just the Fiat 500 that's a dramatic departure from his papal predecessors; Francis has also redefined the Popemobile. Following the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II, the Popemobile — that big white vehicle used for papal parades — was refitted with bulletproof glass, creating a literal shield between the pope and the people. Both John Paul II and Benedict rode through the streets in that bulletproof bubble.
In 2014, Francis said enough with the glass bubble, which he likened to a "sardine can." Francis now uses an open-side Popemobile, which places him in direct contact with the people. His current Popemobile is a Jeep — a much cheaper version than Benedict's brand-new Mercedes-Benz. John Paul II also used a Mercedes-Benz as his Popemobile.
Yet Francis, who took a vow a poverty as a Jesuit and continued to live that way long after he was made bishop, is used to having the cheaper versions of papal tradition. In fact, he prefers it that way. In 2013, Francis received a used 1984 Renault 4 as a gift from an Italian priest. The Vatican said the pontiff uses the manual-shift car to drive himself around Vatican grounds. It doesn't help him blend in with his surroundings too much, though — the Renault is in Francis's signature color, papal white.