Motorcycles and Meetings in Rome

Home of Journey, Stages and Transformations

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[To the tune of «My Favorite Things»]

Pilgrims arrayed in their bright yellow sashes

Harleys ablaze sporting chromium flashes

Pope Francis waits with his fisherman’s ring

This is why Rome is my favorite thing…

Talk about caput mundi. The international meeting commemorating the papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae merged with the 110th anniversary of Harley Davidson motorcycles and the beginning of summer vacation to bring an estimated 200,000 people to St. Peter’s Square this week to join Pope Francis in celebrating life, love and two-wheeled motoring under God’s loving and watchful eye.

Perhaps it was the roar of the motorcycles or the song of the pilgrims, but the drums and disco of the gay pride march taking place over by the Colosseum the day before seemed but a faint background buzz by comparison. The parade, with its «tens of thousands» according to one French news outlet, (the organizers claim 100,000,) was compared by one onlooker to the «Gauls who sacked Rome back in 390(ish) BC … but this earlier sacking probably wasn’t nearly as fun, fabulous, OR stylish.» And this by a supporter of the movement!

What is interesting is how Rome embraces all of these realities – the praying pilgrims battling for the sanctity of life gathered around the obelisk that witnessed St. Peter’s death for the Gospel, the flamboyant exhibition of man, women and myriad combinations of the two, demanding the right to pleasure and promiscuity dancing around the Colosseum and at the feet of Nero’s Golden House — Rome’s two most famous buildings dedicated to public and private self-gratification.

Between the two came the motorcyclists, an unexpected bridge between the two sides of the Tiber. The bikes, each custom crafted, proclaim originality and self-expression, and these grand cruisers embody the dream of freedom on the open road. The colors, decorations and details are often as extravagant as any of the feathers or sequins posing in the gay pride march along the Fori Imperiali. 

Yet the bikers do believe in great institutions and tradition, and as Harley reaches its 110th year, its appreciation for tradition seems to grow. Among the American riders, there is a great sense of love of country — the «Ride of the Patriot» honors the soldiers who risk their lives for their country. In 2011, Harley organized flag displays and memorial parades to remember the lives lost during the attacks of Sept. 11.

As Harley Davidson has grown older and has drawn together people from every continent, it has learned about defining its message in a universal way. Perhaps it is this challenge that made Rome, the Vatican and the papacy so intriguing for the 100,000 Harley owners who came to Rome this weekend. As they grow and age, and as they stack up miles on life’s highway, the message of pilgrimage has more resonance than it would have in the early years of a young, anti-establishment movement. Now Harley is an establishment and perhaps they came to see the Pope because no one updates an old message with a new look better than the Catholic Church.

All in all, this weekend seemed like a metaphor for conversion. Those who define themselves by how they find pleasure dancing in the shadows of the amphitheater of death and those who have come to celebrate life embraced by the «arms» of St. Peter’s Square. One can imagine oneself as one of these bikers, each with our own scars and trimmings that make up our persons, as raw instinct and desire give way to the search for a path and a goal.

Pope Francis, in his inimitable way, addressed this point during his homily last Sunday, saying that «power and pleasure,» among other things, lead to God being «replaced by fleeting human idols which offer the intoxication of a flash of freedom, but in the end bring new forms of slavery and death.»

Instead of sackers and saints or the tired vision of polar opposites, the city took on its true dynamic, that of a journey, of stages and transformations. Our heterogeneous revelers this weekend revealed a city in motion stretched out along the great open road of life.

* * *

On the move

Harley came bearing gifts. Representatives of the Wisconsin-based manufacturer brought two white Harleys for the Papal garages, two for the Gendarmerie (the Vatican police service) and one white motorcycle for the Vatican Museums. 

Of course the bikes came with due paraphernalia; Pope Francis was also given a black leather Harley vest with an eagle spreading its wings along the back. I suspect that if they had brought it in white with two keys and a mitre, our adventurous pope would have tried it on.

Pope Francis seemed at home among the Harley crowd. He walked among the bikes blessing the riders and paused to offer a special blessing to a disabled boy in Harley garb, perched on a motorcycle. Although his preferred mode of transportation was the subway for speed and efficiency, in a 2010 interview he explained that he liked to take the bus to see the world pass by. Perhaps a Harley and the wide open spaces isn’t such an odd fit after all.

The 2013 motto for the Harley line is «Live life on your own terms.» While no pope could fully ascribe to such a credo, Pope Francis appears to follow it at least in part. He has been shaking things up by wading into crowds, choosing to stay in the Casa Santa Marta, and celebrating Holy Thursday in a juvenile prison. 

The centaurs (as the Italians call motorcyclists), on the other hand, were delighted to be so warmly greeted by the Pope. «Just because we are bikers, doesn’t mean we aren’t Catholic,» said one.

Indeed the archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, is a familiar figure in his diocese astride his 1,800 cc Harley Street Glide. He acknowledges the riskiness of motorcycle riding – motorcyclists are 35 times more likely to experience a deadly accident on the road than those in passenger cars – and points out that «bikers are people that are accustomed to praying because if you’re going to ride a motorcycle, you should know how to pray.»

One of the Harley Davidsons will end up in the Carriage Pavilion of the Vatican Museums alongside numerous other papal conveyances.

Founded by Pope Paul VI in 1967, this collection contains carriages, sedia gestatoria, pope mobiles, sedans and a Volkswagen beetle. The popecycle, as it was dubbed by some, with find a home in a collection that includes a conational in the Detroit-made Graham Paige 1929 sedan and steering wheel from a Formula One Ferrari. 

The array of conveyances served to remind the visitor of a pope on the move. Although the grand processions through the city that occasioned the construction of the giant gala carriage from 1826 in gold and red velvet are now restricted to the Corpus Domini and the Immaculate Conception, the papacy has a tradition of movement.

The station churches, an integral part of Rome’s Lenten devotion record where the pope «stopped» to pray with his flock. Some popes were forced to travel, imprisoned or exiled from their homes. Blessed Pope John Paul, the pilgrim Pope, travelled 698,000 miles or 28 times around the Earth. Despite the stubborn contemporary longing to see the Church as something static, or even mired, it is not. Although rooted in tradition and the Gospel, the Church encourages her faithful to spread our wings to fly. Perhaps there is an aerie where the eagle of John the Evangelist and the symbol of Harley Davidson meet.

— — —

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, «The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached at

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Elizabeth Lev

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