Thousands, perhaps millions, of people followed the movements of Pope Francis during his six-day visit to the U.S. hanging on every word he uttered and, not surprisingly, the black Fiat 500L that often ferried him from event to event.
The compact car is a marked departure from vehicles used by past leaders of the Roman Catholic church, who have used a variety of high-priced luxury vehicles from Mercedes and other makers to go from place to place.
However, the 500L, which costs less than $30,000 fully loaded, appears to mirror the pontiff’s image of a man who still attempts to honor his pledge to live a life of poverty he took as a priest in Argentina more than 30 years ago.
That modesty has permeated his life since then. When he became a cardinal, he continued to take the subway and when he was named pope he eschewed the large papal apartment for a smaller, more humble abode and took the bus around Vatican city rather than use a driver and a high-priced luxury car. More than two years ago, Francis instructed Catholic priests to drive modest cars.
”It hurts me when I see a priest or nun with the latest-model car,” he said. ”You can’t do this. A car is necessary to do a lot of work, but, please, choose a more humble one. If you like the fancy one, just think about how many children are dying of hunger in the world.”
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The gestures seem to be resonating with folks. Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, told NBCnews.com 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, adding the vehicles are a powerful message about 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.”
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While the Pope’s use of the small car in the U.S. hasn’t gone unnoticed in the U.S. and around the globe, Fiat Chrysler may enjoy a nice little side effect from the effort: a bump in sales. The maker has struggled to get the Fiat 500 line-up to the sales levels it expected.
“People are calling to ask about the popemobile,” Giuseppe Salvitti, a saleperson at Manhattan’s Fiat dealership told The Guardian newspaper.
Powered by a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a six-speed transmission, 17-inch wheels, the L averages about 25 mpg, and is more than peppy enough to cart the Pope around while often wedged among much larger, more powerful SUVs and full-size limousines.
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Sales of the 500L are down 19% through August, and the 500 line-up overall – 500, 500L and 500X – is down 12% year-to-date. However, a little free advertising such has having one of the world’s most powerful and visible religious leaders tooling around in your vehicle can’t hurt.