Pope takes classic Renault for spin, leaves security in the dust

UPDATE: Photos of the pope’s “new” car

VATICAN CITY — When an Italian priest handed Pope Francis the keys to his classic 30hp Renault 4, the pope got behind the wheel and took off, leaving security squirming behind, knowing full well this would be just the beginning of a pope truly on the move. Even though he shouldn’t be able to reach Ferrari-like speeds with a 300cc engine, it might be tough keeping up when he hits the hills.

“The security personnel next to me were very concerned because they understood that from now on he would be tooling around the Vatican in my car,” the car donor, 69-year-old Father Renzo Zocca, told the Italian Catholic magazine, Famiglia Cristiana. But the priest told the police, not to worry, “I left some snow chains in the trunk. You never know!”

The new addition to the papal fleet — a silver-white four-door 1984 Renault with 186,000 miles on the odometer — happened on Saturday, just a few hours before the Sept. 7 prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square for peace.

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In his July visit to Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis rode in a simple silver Fiat as seen in this photo. Now, the papal vehicle fleet includes a 1984 Renault — a gift from an Italian priest. (CNS photo/Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters).

The pope didn’t get his new wheels on eBay. Father Zocca said he wrote the pope, saying he wanted to meet him, donate his car, and tell him about his ministry: living and working for 25 years in a run-down, working-class neighborhood in Verona — the northern Italian city made famous by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Instead of feuding family rivalries, however, Father Zocca had to face off violent drug pushers who were destroying young people’s lives and leaving the priest death threats. Not even getting stabbed would stop the priest, who said, “I wanted to embody the (Second Vatican) Council in that parish in the outskirts, which has been the center of my life.”

With both parents dead at 35 years old, Father Zocca raised his 14-year-old brother. He revitalized the community and built centers for the poor, disabled and the elderly. He and his brother lived in government housing, and with an apartment on the 9th-floor, “I would joke that I lived in the highest rectory in Italy.”

Then on August 10 at 10:19 a.m., Father Zocca got a call on his cell from the pope. Pope Francis had gotten the priest’s letter and they spent half an hour talking about the priest’s work “in the peripheries,” as the pope has repeatedly called today’s priests to go. Father Zocca reiterated his offer that he had this white Renault in the garage that had been his faithful companion for decades as he drove all over Verona and Italy for his ministry.

The pope was unsure, the priest said, and suggested the priest give it to the poor.

“I answered that this car had already given much to the poor and now it had to go to the pope.” He told the magazine that he wanted to give the pope something that was a testimony to his experience and ministry of going into the outskirts “and what a better gift than my Renault 4?” he said.

When the pope was sure Father Zocca had another car to use, the pope pulled out his appointment book, leafed through the pages and started listing the days and times he would be free in early September. With the appointment set for Sept. 7 at 3 p.m, Father Zocca had his mechanic, Stefano, give the car a tune-up, clean the spark plugs and put air in the tires. The car also runs on methane so “the Vatican won’t have to worry about high gas prices,” the priest said.

On Saturday, the car was loaded on a tow truck with the priest and about 100 townsfolk, including the mechanic, following along on a chartered bus to Rome.

They brought the car to the front of the pope’s residence at Domus Sanctae Marthae where the pope greeted the priest and gave him a big hug. Father Zocca told the pope that he felt bad half of their group was stuck outside the gates because of security concerns, so the pope told him, “Let’s go!”

They hopped in the car with the priest behind the wheel and the pope in the passenger side while the mechanic and the priest’s assistant got in the back. The mechanic warned Father Zocca to “Go slow! We’re in the Vatican” even though they were only going 18 mph.

The pope met the rest of the group and then they headed back inside the Vatican with the car. The pope said he had had a Renault 4 back in the day and that “it had never let him down.”

Before saying goodbye, the pope told Father Zocca, “‘Write me again.’ Then I gave him the keys and he got behind the wheel,” the priest said.

“I watched him drive off in that car as if it were the most normal thing in the world,” he said.

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