Papal glad-handing has been put on hold since Pope John Paul II was shot in May 1981 riding openly through St. Peter's Square -- much as Francis did Tuesday.
by Eric J. Lyman
ROME – During the past week, Francis has inspired admiration for his humble demeanor and instinctive connection with Catholics. But for his security detail, he's been a headache.
Francis has sought out impromptu contact with the public at every opportunity. He greeted members of the press corps and even a seeing-eye dog at an encounter on Saturday. He waded into a crowd after celebrating Mass on Sunday.
On Tuesday, he spent 17 minutes driving around St. Peter's Square in an open-air vehicle stopping to kiss infants or bless people.
"There's no doubt that each time he does something like that the risks for him are increased," said Massimo Blanco, president of Italy's National Association of Public and Private Security Experts.
"It's much harder to protect someone who follows his own script and who loves public contact than it is someone who stays behind the barriers and keeps a certain distance," Blanco said.
Papal glad-handing had been put on hold since Pope John Paul II was shot in May 1981 riding through St. Peter's Square much the way Francis did Tuesday. John Paul was shot four times at point-blank range by Turkish militant Mehmet Ali Agca. He survived, but the attempt changed the Roman Catholic Church profoundly.
"There has always been papal security, but the shooting of John Paul was a wake-up call in many ways," said Alistair Sear, a church historian. "Security became a top priority."
At least three other papal assassination plots were uncovered in various stages since the one targeting John Paul, including one that emerged in 2012 when a Vatican report written in German warned of a "Mordkomplott" (a death plot) against the pope.
Vatican officials will not discuss the topic on the record. But outside security experts say that Vatican security has improved dramatically. The pope's security details are among the best trained in the world, employing new technologies ranging from video surveillance to databases of potential suspects, security experts say.
Still, Blanco said, Francis appears to be a challenge to his security team.
"Experts can brief the official they must protect and make certain recommendations," Blanco said. "But if he wants to stop suddenly and bless someone or kiss a baby, well, he's the pope and they cannot stop him. They have to adjust and make sure he's as safe as possible when he does what he wants to do."
USA Today del 20 marzo 2013