The Pope, the “sedia” and security – a security consultant’s view

Here on WDTPRS we had a POLL about whether or not the sedia gestatoria should be revived for the sake of the security of the person of the Roman Pontiff, at least in the Basilica of St. Peter.

The results:

    *  Yes
      1190 69% of all votes
    * No
      539 31% of all votes

Total Votes: 1729

People posted interesting comments with arguments for and against the revival of the sedia.

I find today on the site of the UK’s best Catholic weekly, The Catholic Herald, that there is an article arguing in favor of the revival of the sedia gestatoria for the sake of security.  The writer is a security consultant.

My emphases and comments and with my edits:

The sedia gestatoria would protect the Pope
Security expert Dominic Scarborough urges the Vatican to draw on tradition to prevent a repeat of the Midnight Mass attack on Benedict XVI

8 January 2010


One only has to look at old black and white footage of pontiffs prior to Paul VI to see how popes always used to enter the basilica being carried shoulder high in the sedia gestatoria. Not only that, but there was always a throng of people around the chair, not only the actual bearers but numerous chamberlains and nobility and a large number of guards: Swiss Guards, uniformed Gendarmes, the Palatine Guard and Noble Guard. These comprised the old papal court which Pope Paul VI abolished and which formed a kind of buffer zone between the Pope and the crowds, no doubt as much a practical defence measure as a piece of ceremony. [That was one of my own arguments in favor.]

The use of the sedia continued until very recently and many are unaware that the last pope to use the sedia was actually Pope John Paul I. While the abolition of this ancient form of transport may have since been considered appropriate in the context of the late 20th century and the need to democratise the appearance of papal ceremonies, [This was part of an argument used by those against the revival.] the reality has left the Pope an isolated and vulnerable figure separated from the deacons ahead and the MCs behind, one who appears all too often like the figure in the Third Secret of Fatima: a victim walking alone simply waiting to be attacked.

While there are bound to be some who would see the return of the sedia as yet another example of this Pope "turning the clock back", [specious] in fact not only would it save an elderly man’s tired legs but it would allow more of the crowd to see him. [A classic argument in favor.] Most importantly, it would actually insulate him from the kind of physical assault we saw at Christmas by virtue of the mob of people surrounding it (who could these days be swelled by Swiss Guards and the gendarme officers in suitably formal garb) to work alongside the suited officers at the perimeter.

Naturally, the risk of attack from a gunman or explosive device would still be present and indeed potentially magnified by the sedia [Some against raised this.] but the use of X-ray machines at the entrance to the basilica and physical searches of congregants should by now be mandatory at such events to confront these risks which are no more heightened by the Pope presiding at Mass from an elevated platform, as he does, than from being carried in a chair. [Exactly.]

It was being reported earlier in the year on several Catholic blogs that the Vatican was actively considering a return for the sedia gestatoria for ceremonies in St Peter’s, more because of the Pope’s age than as a protection against attack. Perhaps the latest incident will persuade them that what tradition hands down frequently has a practical origin beyond merely the visually impressive spectacle that to sceptical modern eyes it had appeared to have become.

Dominic Scarborough is a regular commentator in the press and internet on Catholic affairs. His company, Proteus Risk, advises companies on security issues


For the record, I am in favor of the use of the sedia gestatoria, not for any sort of triumphalism, but rather because a) it is really hard to see the Pope when he enters in the Basilica and b) it would create a buffer zone of strong and well-prepared men around him.

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  1. Dr. Eric says:

    I was originally against the Sedia with the fear that it could be toppled. But after seeing the many photographs with previous Popes and the throngs of guards and able bodied men to protect the Holy Father in the “procession” I am now for the Sedia. I say bring it on. The Holy Father will be easier for everyone to see (well, except those nearest the aisles) and will be protected by large group of strong men.

  2. pseudomodo says:

    Oh great….

    Now all that madwoman has to do is jump the barrier and yank down one of the sedia carriers in the same way she yanked down the holy father. B16 will hit the terrazzo and may not get up at all! [Nooo…. more than two guys carried the chair. And there was quite a group lined up along side them.]

    I wonder if you can get a DOT rated safety mitre and elbow pads not to mention some episcopal equivalents to hockey gear? With all that loose fitting V2 vestements you should be able to hide some padding underneath. It’s a long way down from that chair.

    Perhaps Gammerelli can come up with some padded Kevlar trad wear to go with it.

    No, WAIT!

    Remember in Frank Herberts DUNE (1984 version) where the third stage guild navigator is rolled into the throne room of Emperor Shadam IV suspended in a tank filled with spice gas? That would be cool!

  3. Dr. Eric says:

    Read the article and look at the old pictures, there are at least 30 men surrounding the Sedia. My count is over 40 men counting those in intimidating military garb.

  4. Bryan says:

    Solution to knocking down one of the carriers? BIG carriers. Preferably those of the Swiss Guard, in mufti, who’ve gone to the advanced *ahem* training. Surrounded by a phalanx of bishops, priests, deacons, and such.

    There are 6 carriers. 6 really big men, carrying the Holy Father, are more than a match for a crazed 20-something dissident with ‘mental issues’.

    You can’t eliminate risk. But, you can make it really uncomfortable and problematic for it to happen. Strolling down the center aisle of St. Peter’s surrounded by superannuated clerics (who’ve probably never even gotten a paper cut) or carried in a sturdy sedan chair (bullet proof back, seat, and, perhaps, raised and suitably carved side arms by 6 trained, physically conditioned, and ALERT men?

    It only takes one. Benedict is not JPII, in the flush of relative youth, which is why he could get away with it, and probably preferred to walk the aisle.

  5. Dr. Eric says:

    Check out this picture, there are at least 4 guys brandishing maces surrounding the Sedia.

    Here is a picture of Bl. Pius IX on the Sedia:

    There are also pictures of Pius XI which still have the guards with swords, maces, and halberds surrounding him. No fool would rush a procession like that.

  6. Brian K says:

    Do a Google image search for Sedia Gestatoria. There are typically 12 to 16 men carrying the sedia in those photos. There’s no way one individual is going to topple the sedia when it is carried in this manner.

    The only issue with the sedia would be, as the article pointed out, risk of attack from a gunman or explosive device. The idea that a lone madwoman could topple the sedia needs to be laid to rest.

  7. Nathan says:

    Fascinating. A number of the unique ceremonies of the Traditional Solemn Papal Mass seem to have at least part of their origin in security concerns. For example, two hosts were prepared at the Offertory, and one was consumed by (I think) one of the cardinal-deacons. The chalice was also tasted prior to the Offertory prayers.

    Perhaps we could recommend a high-security fanon?

    In Christ,

  8. Penta says:

    More practically – Why do we not vest the Pope with some Kevlar under the vestments?

    Most of those who *want* to hurt him will use a gun, after all. And while he may place his trust in Our Lady, something about the Father helping those who *help themselves* comes to mind…

  9. mibethda says:

    One need not take down more than one or two of the palafrenieri at the end of one rail of the sedia to destabilize it. As to the Noble Guard in their light cavalry uniforms, complete with leather thigh boots, ceremonial swords and scabbards or the honorary mace bearers with their bulky maces, can anyone seriously believe that they would have been able to react to a quick-charging assailant of our modern sort without displaying all the skill of a member of the Keystone cops? They were, in fact, almost purely ceremonial and of little more practical use than the flabella which also flanked the sedia.

  10. THREEHEARTS says:

    Facetiously and unfortunately he would be easier to shoot too. [You might want to review the article in the top entry for that point.]

  11. Wayne NYC says:

    Sedia si
    omnia in

  12. jdskyles says:

    One little comment on a blog and see what I started? [I suspect other people have written about the sedia.]

  13. ljc says:

    Here is a pic of his Epiphany procession:

    After the Christmas eve thing he is pretty much surrounded by guards and the people are pushed further back. You can imagine it must be pretty difficult for those people to be able to see him.

  14. rhetoric57 says:

    Referring to Penta at 3:45pm:

    Oi veh! Are you suggesting a Kevlar chasuble?

  15. Penta says:

    If need be.

  16. We’ll just get a Vatican airport-like security system(but better) to keep weapons outside the Basillica, then we will not have to worry about guns so much so that we can focus on protecting the Holy Father from being knocked down… that’s where the sedia comes in.

  17. Kerry says:

    But Father, but Father, don’t you mean a “buffer zone of strong, (well armed,) and well-prepared men around him”?

  18. Geoffrey says:

    I still don’t think it’s safe, but for the sake of argument… most of those wonderfully-dressed offices no longer exist. The Noble Guard… gone. The Palatine Guard… gone. What would there be now? Papal Gentlemen, Swiss Guard, and plan-clothes Swiss Guard?

    I remember in Venerable Pope John Paul the Great’s latter years, he processed into St. Peter’s Basilica standing on an ornate non-motorized “seg-way” looking-thing, being pushed by officials. I wonder if there was any discussion in the Vatican to bring back the sedia gestatoria at that time? It seemed like it would have been the perfect time, and “excuse”…

  19. Geoffrey: I think you may be not taking the issue very seriously if you bring in the category of “excuse”, nor if you focus on how people dress.

  20. Daniel Latinus says:

    I remember the last time I saw a Midnight Mass celebrated by John Paul II. He was rolled in on a stand. I wonder if carrying the infirm Pontiff on the Sedia Gestatoria wouldn’t have looked a bit more dignified.

    Blessed John XXIII tried to abolish the Sedia Gestatoria, but popular outcry demanded its retention. The people wanted to see him!

  21. Geoffrey says:

    Fr. Z:

    I take the issue of the safety of the Holy Father very seriously, which is why I am on record in previous comments as being against the return of the sedia gestatoria.

    I used the phrase “wonderfully-dressed” because I did not have the official terminology at the ready for the officials pictured. The word “excuse” was in quotation marks, as it is a term others, such as the secular media, would use, not myself. My apologies for not being clearer.

  22. ssoldie says:

    Seems the traditional ways were the better, time will tell how many more will be returning to Holy Mother Church. I hope and pray.

  23. Mitchell NY says:

    I am happy to see the article mention that the Pope would be a target on an elevated Altar as on the Sedia because it is a point which I have raised as well in many of my commentaries. Also on the Sedia he is in motion, and everyone knows a moving target his harder to pinpoint. Having the Flabelli perhaps a little closer to the sides of the chair with a slight waving motion would also add to obscuring a clear target. Allowing the Holy Father to go in and out of view. And I agree it is time to put the toppling thing to rest. With 30 or 40 Guards surrounding the chair it simply will not happen. Even if half were only there for the ceremonial they are still bodies blocking the carriers. Give them some credit, even basic human reaction would be to try to stop a person darting for the chair or carriers. The article states very well the reality of the Pope standing and walking alone, so much at risk that the Sedia seems almost a nobrainer at this point. If his safety raises overall from 50% to 70% with the Sedia’s use, then let’s show the Pope our overwhelming support for its’ return. In fact the carriers are on “retain” for use in the Vatican anyway. What are they waiting for? Use them. Let them show their dedication to the Papacy. I have often read how proud they are to have been selected to carry the Holy Father on the Sedia. The reasons to use it are now far outweighing the reasons not to.

  24. David2 says:

    It seems to me that many who argue against the use of the sedia have not even read, much less understood the arguments of the security professional who wrote the Catholic Herald article. The suggestion that a sedia (carried, I believe, by no less than 12 strong adult men) would be easily toppled strikes me as fanciful. Similarly, the idea that it beyond the wit of the Holy See to re-establish ceremonial guards regiments or create new ones seems to be grasping at straws. Likewise, if one can shoot the Holy Father in the sedia, how much easier is it to shoot him at the altar while saying Mass, or on the balcony of St Peter’s while giving an “urbi et orbi” blessing?

    Frankly, I can see a lot of good reasons for re-introducing the sedia (without counting the one in the Irish joke in the original article!). However, those against it seem, for the most part, somehow oblivious to the sensible rebuttals of their somewhat specious arguments.

  25. patrick_f says:

    Perhaps a similar concept but more modernized? My only thought with the Sedia is is becomes VERY visible, though for the record I like the idea. If anything it puts more space…and also sets him apart..which.,..He should be…is the Vicar of Christ…he got elected for a reason…regardless of any liberal arguement to the contrary

  26. Legisperitus says:

    Leave the clock alone and bring back the sedia! :)

  27. One serious objection that has always been a problem with sedan chairs of all kinds — motion sickness.

    However, given the kind of technology used in the “steadicam”, or with other steadying devices like gyroscopes, it seems to me that it ought to be possible to produce a smooth human-carried ride for the Popes. This would be logical and more dignified, as well as safer.

    You would probably have room for a lot of well-engineered steadying device inside the big base of the sedia shown in the pictures. It wouldn’t have to show. The sedia could probably also be made much lighter and stronger, with today’s space age alloys and ceramics.

  28. MAJ Tony says:

    To put things in perspective, Kevlar is not light in bulletproof usages, due to thickness (about 9mm), and just adds to the body temperature rise that’s already going to be high with all the standard vestments on. A standard Level IIIA undercover vest (protects against pistols up to .44 Magnum) will weight about 5 lbs. If you add trauma plates (ceramic) to stop high-powered rifles, add 5-8 lbs per plate for chest plates, and 3-5 for side plates. Before you know it, Sancte Pater is carrying another 25-30 lbs on those old legs.

  29. chcrix says:

    I did read the article completely.

    But I still have an issue with:
    “these risks which are no more heightened by the Pope presiding at Mass from an elevated platform, as he does, than from being carried in a chair”

    I maintain that the statement is not true.

    Rationale: an assassin aiming for the HF in a crowded cathedral is likely to be using a pistol not a rifle. The rifle would be harder to get inside and harder to bring into action.

    A pistol marksman is going to have a much easier time due to proximity in the midst of the crowd as the seat passes than he is going to have with a much longer range shot toward an elevated platform in the sacristy.

    I’m not saying the sedia is not a good idea, just that it is not a no brainer.

    Perhaps the sedia could be redesigned? Who says the poles have to be straight?

  30. gio says:

    Dr. Eric noted that in the past, mace-bearers were also present at processions where the sedia was used. This brings to mind that the original purpose of mace-bearers in all royal courts is crowd control and as aditional bodyguard. They were there to protect the Pope from mobbing and from attacks such as the one that recently happened. I say that if we bring back the sedia and the noble and palatine guards, we should also bring back the mace-bearers. Let them do their original functions, as bouncers for the Pope!

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