VATICAN CITY — The news that a Virginia couple managed to infiltrate a state dinner at the White House raised a question: Does the Vatican ever have to deal with gate-crashers?
The answer is yes — but remarkably rarely.
Every week the pope meets and greets hundreds of people in VIP lines in public and private audiences, and he frequently distributes Communion to a selection of individuals at papal liturgies.
Participants usually go through ID checks before they’re allowed near the pontiff, but if a group is large enough it’s possible for outsiders to slip in. In these bigger groups, the Vatican relies in part on the expert and watchful eyes of the papal gentlemen, a corps of experienced ushers who quietly and discreetly bounce anyone who shouldn’t be there.
Vatican gate-crashers have sometimes included imposters who dress up in ecclesiastical garb so they can be closer to the pope. Massimo Sansolini, a retired papal usher, once recounted in a book how he could recognize false nuns, priests and even bishops who tried to get into the prima fila receiving line during general audiences under Pope John Paul II.
The screening system is not failsafe, however. In 1997, a man posing as Mexico’s ambassador to the Holy See embarrassed Vatican officials by sneaking into a general audience and personally introducing his family to the pope.
In 1988, police arrested an arson suspect in Rome and found in his room a scrapbook of newspaper photographs showing him with a number of clerical personalities: walking in procession directly behind Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp, overlooking Italian Cardinal Achille Silvestrini at his investiture, and kneeling as he kissed Pope John Paul II’s ring.
The man had a knack for ingratiating himself with authorities at ceremonial events, often showing up in special uniforms. Officials said they found his “curial demeanor” convincing.