Pope Francis Ditched the Old Popemobile for an Important Reason

The car is a status symbol—even for leaders of the Catholic Church. Ever since Mercedes-Benz gave Pope Pius XII a converted limousine for his travel in the 1930s, motorized vehicles have been a defining feature of the papacy, and the type of car that the pope uses has been thought to send a message.

That's why it was a big deal when Pope Francis, who is visiting the U.S. for the first time this week, toured D.C. in a Fiat and Jeep Wrangler. In contrast to the luxury cars of his predecessors—including Pope Benedict XVI, who rode around in a modified Mercedes-Benz M-Class—Francis has opted for simpler means of transportation throughout his papal tenure.

Pope Benedict XVI passing the White House in 2008.


Pope Francis visiting the White House this week.

At home in Vatican City, Francis uses a 2008 Ford Focus and has also been known to drive himself around town in a 1984 Renault 4 that an Italian priest gifted him. And here in America, he has traveled in a Fiat as well as a modified Jeep Wrangler, both humble choices for Francis, who has cast himself as the people's pope. The symbolic message that these vehicles send resonates even louder in the U.S., where cars have always been a strong indicator of social class.

Not only does Francis' Jeep Wrangler reflect his sense of modesty and humility but the Fiat that he arrived in at the White House has also been interpreted as a statement about environmentalism in a country that has a particular affection for showy, oversized vehicles.

"The choice of vehicle may also have reflected Pope Francis's commitment to environmental stewardship," the Guardian reported. "The politically savvy Vatican would surely have wanted to avoid the pope being seen in a gas guzzler."

It isn't just the car that distinguishes Francis from popes of the past. He has also rejected other trappings of the papacy, choosing to sleep in a small, Vatican guesthouse rather than an apartment in the Apostolic Palace, for example, and ended the practice of wearing the red leather papal shoes, which Pope Benedict XVI fancied. The simplified popemobile is just one of the many ways that the religious leader has attempted to distinguish himself from the excesses of the papacy.