VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis is forgoing the bulletproof popemobile for his upcoming trip to Brazil for the Catholic Church's youth festival, further evidence that he has no qualms about tweaking the Vatican's security operations for the sake of getting closer to the faithful.
The Vatican said Wednesday that Francis will use the same open-topped car he uses for zooming around St. Peter's Square to move about Rio de Janeiro, where he arrives July 22 for the weeklong World Youth Day fest. He'll use a closed car for longer-distance drives, but the open-topped car for milling about the crowds.
In recent times, popes have always used the protected popemobile, with its raised seat and panoramic, bulletproof windows, for forays outside Rome. Francis, however, ended that tradition when he used an open-topped Fiat during his recent visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Francis has made a point of changing Vatican protocol, especially where it concerns the trappings of the papacy and his ability to connect with ordinary people. He eschewed Vatican security on his first outing as pope when he visited a Roman basilica the day after his election, and he has chosen to live in the Vatican hotel rather than the fancy, enclosed Apostolic Palace, to be with more regular folk.
The Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi announced the change Wednesday during a briefing about the pope's July 22-28 trip, saying it was "clearly" Francis' personal decision to leave the popemobile behind.
"It's in continuity with what he does here," Lombardi said. "He feels good about being in close communication with the environs around him, and this car lets him get on and off."
Lombardi said he didn't know if Brazilian security had had to change course as a result of Francis' decision. The pope's personal security detail will do as they do while he is in St. Peter's, walking alongside the car, he said.
Francis has a busy schedule in Brazil, including a one-day trip to the popular Marian shrine in Aparecida, between Rio and Sao Paolo, a visit with patients at a hospital for the poor and another with juvenile offenders. A highlight will be a walk-through of one of Rio's slums, or favelas, where Francis is expected to stop inside one home and chat with a family, Lombardi said.
He said the Vatican was well aware of the violent protests that swept across Brazil last month, but said he was confident that the protesters didn't have a problem with the pope or the Catholic Church and that the Holy See expects Brazilian authorities will handle the situation well.
"We are going with much serenity," Lombardi said. He added that "The message of the pope is one of solidarity with society and to encourage adequate development for all."
The nationwide protests first targeted transportation fare increases but quickly expanded to a variety of causes including government corruption, high taxes, poor public services and the billions of dollars being spent for next year's World Cup soccer tournament and the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Staging a weeklong youth festival and papal visit doesn't come cheap for local organizers, either. Brazilian media have reported the cost would be around 320 million to 350 million reals ($145 million to $159 million). Lombardi didn't give an estimate but said "the money isn't being thrown out the window to the sea" but is being used to employ people to do work that they otherwise wouldn't have.
"A great majority of Brazilians are Catholic, so one can imagine that they're happy that the pope is coming and will follow the event," he said. "It seems natural that the community commits itself appropriately for such a visit."
It's not clear if the protests will have an effect on attendance at the festival.
Currently, 350,000 young people have signed up for the Rio event, but the number is expected to grow, spokeswoman Carol Castro said in Rio.
In past World Youth Day editions, the number of youths who registered turned out to be a fraction of the total numbers of pilgrims who showed up for the climactic final vigil and Mass with the pope. In Madrid in 2011, for example, some 450,000 youths were registered for World Youth Day but an estimated 1 million were on hand for then-Pope Benedict XVI's vigil. At the 2008 edition in Sydney, 250,000 youths were registered and some 350,000 showed up.
The numbers of overseas youths registering for the event ahead of time, however, seems to be significantly lower than in previous editions: Some 9,500 people from the United States have registered to attend Rio, down from the 29,000 who traveled to the Madrid event and 15,000 who went to Sydney, said Paul Jarzembowski, youth ministry coordinator for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He said the lower numbers fits the pattern of U.S. Catholics to attend the gatherings in greater numbers when they're held in Europe. Cost was an issue, much more than security, he said: The average trip costs each pilgrim an estimated $3,000, he estimated.
The numbers of Italian pilgrims are also down, with some 7,500 making the trip, said Stefano Proietti, from the communications office of the Italian bishop's conference. That compares to the estimated 100,000 who went to Madrid and 16,000 who went to Sydney. Proietti also cited the cost as the main reason for the dip in Italy's numbers.
One group of pilgrims is making a significant showing: young people from Francis' native Argentina. The Buenos Aires archdiocese says 30,000 Argentines will be heading to Rio.
Lombardi said he would wait to see how many show up in the end before commenting. He noted that the main areas for the youths to gather have a capacity of more than 1 million people.