The Christmas Eve attack on Pope Benedict XVI — by the same person who attempted an attack last Christmas — shocked the Vatican into a review of its security procedures.
Several weeks after the incident, the pope met and forgave Susanna Maiolo, 25, the Swiss-Italian woman with a history of psychiatric problems who leaped into the aisle at him as he processed in for Christmas Mass. The 82-year-old pontiff was unhurt, but Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87, was hospitalized with a broken hip because of the attack.
And the Vatican introduced some immediate precautions, like moving back crowd barriers by several feet.
Our Sunday Visitor interviewed David Alvarez, author of “Spies in the Vatican: Espionage & Intrigue from Napoleon to the Holocaust” (University of Kansas Press, $34.95), about what security precautions the pope takes. Alvarez is professor of politics at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga, Calif.
Our Sunday Visitor: This recent attack was odd. What other attacks have popes suffered in recent history?
David Alvarez: In November 1970, Pope Paul VI was attacked at the Manila, Philippines, airport by a deranged Bolivian painter.
In February 1981, while [Pope] John Paul II was visiting Pakistan, a bomb seems to have exploded before the pope reached Karachi Stadium, where he was to say Mass. I say “seems” because complete information is lacking, but the explosion is accepted by most who follow these things.
Of course, there is the shooting of John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square in May 1981. And in May 1982, a knife-wielding Spanish priest, ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, attacked Pope John Paul II during a visit to Fátima.
OSV: When we think of protection of the pope, we think of the Swiss Guard. What protection does he have in addition to them?
Alvarez: Many of the precautions are invisible to the public, but that is also true for the security around other world leaders, such as the president of the United States.
Inside the Vatican the pope is protected by the Swiss Guard and the Gendarmeria Vaticana (the police force of Vatican City). Both are professional services, and officers are trained in protective services. Selected Swiss Guards and Vatican gendarmes are sent to “executive protection” training programs. The Gendarmeria also has a specially trained anti-terrorist unit and a bomb squad.
Human security is complemented by technology. In recent years, the Vatican has invested significantly in security technology, such as surveillance cameras that are all over the place.
OSV: Do Roman or Italian police help?
Alvarez: In St. Peter’s Square, and when the Holy Father travels around Italy, the Vatican’s own security is reinforced by Italian security personnel. The Polizia di Stato in Italy has a special unit of some 150 personnel assigned to Vatican protective services, although they do not deploy directly inside the Vatican, which, after all, is foreign territory.
The Vatican police have liaison relations with Interpol and various police and intelligence services of other countries, and these connections serve the protective function by allowing the Vatican to tap into watch lists of suspected persons or suspicious movements.
OSV: Are they the ones we see with the pope who aren’t dressed in Swiss Guard regalia?
Alvarez: The Swiss Guards and Vatican gendarmes who provide the close-in protection for the pope during audiences, ceremonies and trips are in plain clothes. Both the Swiss Guard and Gendarmeria are uniformed services, but the personal security personnel work in civilian clothes. The guys in dark suits you see walking alongside of and behind the popemobile are Swiss Guards and Vatican gendarmes. The Swiss Guards always cover the right side of the walking or riding pope and the gendarmes always protect the left side.
OSV: The pope’s next big trip is to Great Britain. Will he take the whole array of protection with him?
Alvarez: When the pope travels outside of Italy he is accompanied by a small team of Swiss Guards and Vatican gendarmes. They provide immediate, close-in security. The bulk of security during foreign visits is provided by the host country’s police and security services.
OSV: Does the Vatican do intelligence work to monitor threats?
Alvarez: The Vatican does not have a formal intelligence organization, although it occasionally receives intelligence briefings from the intelligence services of other governments.
So the Vatican has protection, but not intelligence.
OSV: Did you read, or watch, “Angels and Demons”? “The Da Vinci Code” sequel focused on Vatican security forces. How accurate was that aspect of it?
Alvarez: I saw the movie. I was glad to see Swiss Guards portrayed in their dark blue “exercise” uniforms, which they wear when not on daytime public guard display. Most people believe that the only uniform the Swiss have is the colorful, striped uniform the tourists see at the Bronze Door or at papal audiences.
I also appreciated that the movie at least acknowledged that there was a Vatican police service.
Everything else was pretty absurd, and it would be hard to identify the most silly. Having visited the Swiss Guard barracks, I found the portrayal of the offices and “headquarters” of the Guard commandant particularly hilarious.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
Papal enemies (sidebar)
John O. Koehler is a former Army counterintelligence officer who reported for The Associated Press for 40 years, chiefly from Europe. He also wrote “Spies in the Vatican: The Soviet Union’s War Against the Catholic Church” (Pegasus, $26.95).
The book details how spies penetrated the Vatican — in one case by bugging a statue. He recently spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about why people would want to attack the pope.
Our Sunday Visitor: What recent enemies of the pope wanted him dead?
John O. Koehler: The significant attack on a pope was, of course, the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, which, as I describe in the book, was engineered by the Soviet regime.
OSV: Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi tried to make the case that Pope John Paul II conspired with Ronald Reagan against the Soviets — but that was overstated. The Soviets didn’t think something like that was true, did they?
Koehler: Bernstein and Politi were off-base in saying President Reagan and Pope John Paul II had “literally conspired” to overthrow Soviet communism. A conspiracy is an agreement between at least two persons to commit a “criminal” act.
OSV: Nowadays, who wants to attack the pope?
Koehler: According to Italian security sources, the major threat against the pope now comes from Muslim terrorists. A number of threats have been made, some as far back as 2008, by al-Qaida, after Pope Benedict cited a medieval Byzantine emperor as calling Islam “inhuman and evil.”