Car rushes Vatican gate, is fired on by gendarmes; driver apprehended after reaching courtyard

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Pope Francis pauses during his weekly general audience in the St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

ROME (AP) — A car driven by someone with apparent psychiatric problems rushed through a Vatican gate Thursday evening and sped past Swiss Guards into a palace courtyard before the driver was apprehended by police, the Holy See said.

Vatican gendarmes fired a shot at the speeding car’s front tires after it rushed the gate, but the vehicle managed to continue on its way, the Vatican press office said in a statement late Thursday.

Once the car reached the San Damaso Courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, the driver got out and was immediately arrested by Vatican gendarmes. The Vatican said the driver was about 40 years old and was in a “serious state of psychophysical alteration." He was being held in the Vatican barracks.

It wasn't clear if Pope Francis was anywhere near the incident, which occurred after 8 p.m. at the Santa Anna gate, one of the main entrances to the Vatican City State in the heart of Rome.

Francis lives on the other side of Vatican City at the Santa Marta hotel, where at that hour he would normally be having dinner and retiring to his room. The Vatican statement said that as soon as the gendarmes sounded the alarm of an incursion, the main gate blocking access to the piazza in front of Francis' hotel was shut.

The incident was a rare incursion into the city state, much of which is off limits to the general public, especially at night.

While visitors can access St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums during business hours, and people with doctors’ prescriptions can go to the Vatican pharmacy, permission is required to get into other buildings in the enclave.

The Apostolic Palace, which houses the papal apartments, key reception rooms, the Vatican archives and offices, is guarded around the clock by Swiss Guards and gendarmes who man various checkpoints.

It's not the first time that someone with apparent psychiatric problems caused a disturbance at the Vatican. During a 2009 Christmas Eve Mass, a woman jumped the barricade of St. Peter's Basilica and tried to attack Pope Benedict XVI. He was not harmed, though a cardinal walking in the procession broke his hip in the ruckus.