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The Pope, His Black Fiat And The Symbolism Behind It

Pope Francis leaves St. Patrick's Cathedral in a Fiat 500L in New York City on Thursday.
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Pope Francis leaves St. Patrick's Cathedral in a Fiat 500L in New York City on Thursday.

Pennsylvania Avenue was beginning to buzz. The pope was about to finish his speech to Congress, and crowds of people started lining the street to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.

So far, Pope Francis has become the first pontiff to speak before a joint meeting of Congress. He's also the first pope to canonize a saint on U.S. soil.

But the thing that everybody is talking about is that he's definitely the first pope to ride around town in a little tiny car.

Bill Newbrough, 51, and his co-workers stood on the sidewalk. They were talking about the car.

This is Washington, after all, and this motorcade is slightly different from the ones they've seen before. Newbrough remembered that Mikhail Gorbachev's limo in the '80s was so big that it could only make turns along the main avenues.

"[The Fiat] could make circles in one lane, here," he said. "I mean that Fiat — everybody is talking about that Fiat."

Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said he loves that little car.

"It looks like a clown car when they all get in it. But it's just such a perfect metaphor for his message," he said.

It's important to note, he said, that Pope Francis took a vow of poverty when he became a Jesuit priest. Once he became a bishop, he no longer had to abide by that vow, but it still seems very important to him, said Schneck.

For example, when Francis became a cardinal in Argentina, he still used the subway. When he became pope, he shunned a Vatican driver and rode a bus back to the Vatican hotel.

Last September, a priest from northern Italygave the pope a 1984 Renault 4, which Francis uses to drive himself around the Vatican.

In a retrospective of 215 years of popemobiles, The Washington Post notes that after the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II, pope cars became mammoth and bulletproof.

But Francis reverted to the Fiat and to a specialized Jeep with open sides.

In an interview with the Spanish daily La Vanguardia, he said that a "sardine can" like that didn't let him connect with people.

"It's true that anything could happen," he told the daily. "But let's face it: At my age, I don't have much to lose."

Schneck says it also speaks to Francis' message of humility.

"He's calling us as Catholics to come to the margins," he said. "That is, to look at our lives and think about our spirituality from the perspective of those people who are most disenfranchised."

Alejandro Cañadas, a professor of economics at Mount St. Mary's University, who has known the pope since his days in Argentina, said the little car doesn't surprise him.

Just look at the name, he said. The word "fiat" appears in the Bible.

It appears in Luke 1:38 after the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive and give birth to Jesus. Mary responds, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word."

In Latin, fiat translates roughly into "let it be done," and for Catholics that line has become known as Mary's fiat.

"I think for the pope, fiat is what he tries to do with his life," Cañadas said. "He tries to imitate the Virgin Mary, trying to do the will of God all the time. And the only way to do that is to be humble and to become poor with the poor in the way that he can do it."

Back on Pennsylvania Avenue, helicopters heralded the imminent arrival of the pope's motorcade.

Quickly and without warning, more than a dozen motorcycles rumbled through. A few black SUVs followed. And then, quietly, unassumingly, and nestled between them, a black fiat emerged.

The sun was shining. The windows were down. And Pope Francis waved from his little car.

Cheryl Flynn, who was waiting alongside Newbrough, was overcome.

"He was right there," she said, with a huge smile. "I felt like I could almost touch him. It was an amazing experience."

Newbrough cut in.

"What you are seeing is the personal encounter that he's been talking about during this entire trip," he said. "He touched you and everyone here."

Paula Martin, 71, was crying. The car, she said, is who he is. Look at the crucifix he wears, she said.

"It has no emeralds, no pearls. It's very simple," she said. "But that is he. Because he's a simple man."

Martin, Flynn and Newbrough stumbled away, and under some shade, they gawked at the pictures and videos they had taken on their cellphones.

Shortly thereafter, another motorcade was announced by black SUVs blaring their sirens. Following right behind was an armored limousine carrying Vice President Biden.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.