RIO DE JANEIRO — Since taking the helm of the world's biggest church in March, Pope Francis has waded into massive crowds with minimal protection to hug children and wash the feet of the faithful. He has surrounded himself with everyday worshippers at every turn, winning acclaim that he's breaking down barriers between the Vatican and the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Yet for Brazilian security officials charged with protecting the 76-year-old pontiff with the common touch, his seven-day visit this week is an uncommon security challenge.
In his first international trip as pope, Francis has built much of his schedule in the world's biggest Catholic country around high-profile events that send him straight into unpredictable, potentially chaotic environments — without the protection of the bulletproof popemobile used by his two predecessors.
On Thursday, the pope will visit a tiny chapel founded in 1971 in the Varginha slum, one of Rio's more than 1,000 hillside shantytowns. Many such slums cower under the control of dangerous drug gangs or deadly militias made up mostly of former and current police and firefighters. Police invaded Varginha in January to clear out traffickers, but the gangs remain a shadowy presence there.
The next day, Francis will hit Copacabana beach to walk the Stations of the Cross among an expected 1 million young Catholics gathered for World Youth Day festivities. Vatican officials have said he'll travel to the beach past thousands of devotees in an open-topped vehicle, a plan that would put the thousands of police and soldiers dispatched to protect the pope on high alert and require more plainclothes security.
Brazil's justice and defense ministers, along with a top army commander, urged the pope to use an armored popemobile instead, but the Vatican has responded that Francis likes to jump in and out of his vehicle to greet the faithful, which wouldn't be possible in the more protected vehicle.