Vestments and V-twins combine in the Eternal City
Author John Scott Lewinski Illustration Peter Oumanski
ROME – The marble statues and arched walls of St. Peter’s Square tremble as Pope Francis approaches the edge of Vatican City—the point where the Holy See abuts the streets of Rome. As the Pontiff raises a hand, smiling beatifically in the morning summer sun, the roaring and rumbling cease. Peace has been restored.
Even in Rome, a city that has seen its share of historic occasions over the years, this encounter rates as a stand-out moment. It is, for one thing, the first recorded instance of a Pope blessing a gathering of motorcycles—a legion of Harley-Davidsons, to be precise, which have been ridden here today by a rabble of hirsute, leather-clad bikers.
The event is part of Harley-Davidson’s celebrations of its 110th anniversary, which the Milwaukee-based company has marked with a series of global motorcycle rallies—from New Zealand to Germany, South Africa to Brazil, China to Australia. About 30,000 bikes have thundered into Rome for the intercontinental run’s conclusion—which, if nothing else, must represent the highest concentration of tattooed forearms the Eternal City has ever seen.
The Gathering of the Harleys takes place over the course of a weekend. On Saturday, the bikes scream from the Port of Rome to the Colosseum and along the Forum, but the climax is reserved for Sunday and High Mass. As the bikers mingle on Ponte Sant’Angelo with monks, nuns and neatly attired locals, tourists go into overdrive with their smartphones and digicams. The bikers, for their part, adopt mock-menacing poses, which delights the crowd even further.
The spectacle shifts into high gear during the mass, as the bikers rev their V-twin engines approvingly every time Francis makes a salient point—making for the single most unique (and least clearly heard) homily in Vatican history. The blessing itself is brief, but that doesn’t matter to the motley bunch who’ve gathered to receive it.
“He’s a great spiritual leader and the biggest celebrity in the world,” says a beaming Bill Davidson, the great-grandson of company co-founder William Davidson. “We’re honored to receive his blessing—and he can come for a ride any time.”