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Shadowing Pope Francis

| Thursday, October 1, 2015

Our nation’s capital routinely accommodates visiting heads of state, therefore establishing an expertise for extraordinary security measures. The government designated the highest priority level as “a national special security event” during President Bill Clinton’s tenure. With Pope Francis’ visit, we attained the 50th such designation, 25 of which have been held in Washington. As such, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), specifically the U.S. Secret Service, led the security efforts to protect the pontiff throughout his stay in the United States.

While collaborating with the Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State (police) and Pontifical Swiss Guard (military), DHS coordinated with and sought manpower from multiple American federal agencies, the National Guard, state and local law enforcement organizations. The security footprint reached from a joint command center well beyond the pope’s actual physical location. Duties ranged from surveillance operations through visible as well as undercover and hidden tactical personnel. Many, including me, worked or volunteered extended overtime hours to protect the American public and Pope Francis during his visit.

Such intricate security planning by two nations separated by the Atlantic Ocean depends upon a vast collection of personnel. One slightly obvious security man, best known for his handing of children to the Pope while riding in the Pope Mobile processions, was Dr. Domenico Giani, the personal bodyguard of the pope and Inspector General of the Vatican. Appearing just off the Pope’s side while walking the transit routes, Giani led the pontifical police and security team during the United States visit. In March, he also formally recognized that the terrorist group ISIS poses a real threat to Pope Francis and the Vatican.

Giani’s value as a diplomat, knowing the Pope’s desires, was as important as his tactical training to protect the pontiff. He assuredly was party to the Pope’s every planned and spontaneous moves, including one kept from the media on Thursday afternoon. Officials arranged to sneak the defiant same-sex marriage Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, by car into the Vatican Embassy to privately meet with the Pope. Spending nearly a week in jail for disobeying a federal court order, Davis has become the face of a nationwide controversy about government employees and private businesses attempting to refuse same-sex couples based on personal religious beliefs. Giani deftly managed that covert transportation effort.

Much has also been noted of the colorfully-dressed Swiss Guard stationed around the Vatican gates, but little has been said to describe them when they travel abroad dressed in modern attire. Founded as the Vatican’s official mercenary force for Pope Julius II in the 16th century, the Swiss fighters had a long history proving themselves as the original fierce elite Special Forces team. Their original absolute devotion to the Holy Roman Empire — sacrificing their lives to protect the pope from ransacking armies — remains today as they primarily protect the Vatican City grounds and the College of Cardinals during papal transitions.

The Swiss Guard’s arsenal is as modern as any foreign presidential protection unit, including the United States. While their armory contains primitive weapons like a spiked club used centuries ago or manual bolt-action rifles, they carry the modern Sig Sauer P220 semi-automatic pistol, which is similar to the American Navy SEAL Team Six P226. They also deploy deep concealment Glock 19 pistols. An extraordinarily interesting and detailed description of Vatican security operations entitled, “The Pope Has A Small But Deadly Army Of Elite Warriors Protecting Him,” is posted on the website Foxtrot Alpha.

Yet heavily armed personnel cannot alone assure the success of protecting such a highly visible and overwhelming participatory public. Many volunteers and persons unaffiliated with law enforcement agencies were needed to assist as escorts, ushers and gatekeepers. Washington as well as the later venues of Philadelphia and New York City required charitable volunteers to assist in processing the security measures. Unfortunately, terrorists utilize any means to infiltrate perimeters, so strict screening led to public indignation as the Philly.com website posted a photograph of a nun with arms outstretched while a hand wand scanned over her. However, ask any survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing if they would have preferred better screening of backpacks and persons on that fateful day.

In Washington, many of my fellow Eucharistic ministers, lectors and ushers volunteered from my home parish, St. Matthew’s Cathedral. While my Archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl and Rector Monsignor Jameson escorted Pope Francis through the ceremonies, ordinary faces seen each week at mass littered the background. The same was true at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception during mass later that day. Together, volunteers served our patron servant.

For me, I declined an opportunity to escort the cardinals’ motorcade. As a blue and gold Notre Dame graduate, crimson red is not my color. I declined an opportunity to attend ceremonies on the White House lawn. I chose rather to wear casual clothes along the pope’s route from the White House parade back to St. Matthew’s Cathedral where I could video the pontiff from three feet away. I additionally chose to stand at the Catholic University on a grassy knoll positioned nearly the farthest from the mass altar amongst the most ordinary in attendance. A 15-second video and communion seemed the perfect reward.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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