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Waiting for the Popemobile

Pope Francis rides through the streets of Asuncion, Paraguay. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images File Photo)

News that Pope Francis will roll through Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York in a poped-out Jeep Wrangler has left many itching to get a glimpse of the vehicle.  

But given monumental security concerns and, according to those closely watching the issue, the Pope’s desire to keep the focus on the people, more info isn’t likely to come until he potentially rolls out of the White House in the latest iteration of the Popemobile. “In every country that he goes to, how he moves around and so forth has become a matter of speculation,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, who said with a chuckle he’s no expert on the pope’s vehicle of choice.  

“The problem is that everybody who knows [about the Popemobile] is probably sworn to secrecy,” Schneck said.  

The security of Il Papamobile, to cite the common Italian, became a major concern after the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981. But Francis' effort to ditch the glass bubbles of recent memory could be leading to ramped-up security and an information lock-down.  

“Just the idea of a Popemobile I think bothers him; I think he’d really like to be wading into the crowd,” Schneck said. “So I think they’re probably keeping it under wraps more than usual because he doesn’t want attention drawn to the vehicle — he wants to be talking about the people he’s encountering.”  

At the Vatican, the pope has been seen going from place to place in the backseat of a modest Ford Focus, in a rejection of the more lavish vehicles that transported his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  

And unlike the Mercedes outfitted with a bulletproof glass box in which his predecessor was typically seen during public appearances, Pope Francis has opted for a convertible Hyundai Santa Fe, according to reports.  

But automakers responsible for recent iterations of the Popemobile have kept info under wraps -- both Fiat Chrysler, which owns Jeep, and Hyundai deferred CQ Roll Call's questions about the pontiff's transportation to the Vatican.  

The Vatican hasn’t yet responded to inquiries from CQ Roll Call about the Popemobile, but a law enforcement official confirmed the make of the Popemobile would be a Jeep.  

Officials didn’t answer questions about where the vehicle will be driven, or confirm whether there is more than one Wrangler in existence.  

But Rocco Palmo, who runs a popular Vatican news website, Whispers in the Loggia , said Thursday he thinks the first glimpse people will get of the Popemobile will be a ride around the Ellipse, “ostensibly when he goes to the White House or leaves from the White House.”  

Palmo also said he has heard there are two Jeeps in Secret Service custody.  

“The one thing we don’t know though, and we’re going to have to wait and see this on Wednesday morning. … We don’t know what kind of changes have been made to outfit [the Popemobile] security-wise. Whether it's glass, bulletproof glass or whatever,” Palmo said. “Because again, by necessity, and given Pope Francis’ preferences, this would have been a very finely negotiated agreement between the feds and the Vatican.”  

For example, Francis was spotted in a Wrangler in Ecuador where the sides of vehicle were glass-free.  

This has allowed him to be closer to people, but has also led to some odd logistics for those riding with the pontiff, as spectators have been known to lob items at the 'mobile as he drives through, according to Palmo.  

“You know one custom that’s come up both in Rome and on Pope Francis’ visits elsewhere… They throw things at him,” Palmo said, such as t-shirts that end up donated to charity. “So [Pope] Francis actually tries to catch the stuff when he sees it coming at him.”  

Palmo said the Pope’s aversion to bulletproof glass has placed increased pressure on security perimeters.  

“Because he won't use armored cars or bulletproof glass himself, it means any perimeter around him has to be strengthened to an exponential degree,” Palmo said.  

All this boils down to another reason to avoid the roads in D.C. next week.