Pope Francis blessed thousands of bikers on Sunday when Harley-Davidson riders descended on St. Peter's square at the Vatican for their 110th anniversary, which coincided with an all-day long pro-life event.
The Vatican Radio noted that as many as 1,400 bikers were to be blessed by the Roman Catholic Church leader following the Angelus prayer on Sunday.
The riders were dressed in their trademark leather vests as they gathered around the Vatican, and waited for the pope to drive up in his open-top jeep to greet them and offer his blessings. The event coincided with the Vatican kicking off its "Evangelium Vitae" celebration, a full-day event aimed at defending life by standing up to abortion, murder and euthanasia.
"All too often, people do not choose life, they do not accept the 'Gospel of Life' but let themselves be led by ideologies and ways of thinking that block life, that do not respect life, because they are dictated by selfishness, self-interest, profit, power and pleasure, and not by love, by concern for the good of others," Pope Francis said later to over 200,000 people at Mass.
The Associated Press described the mixing of the Harley riders and their 'outlaw image' with the Vatican Mass and the pro-life message as 'a bit incongruous,' but noted that the Wisconsin-based company gave two white classic motorcycles to the Vatican police earlier in the week.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office, said that there were probably a number of Catholics among the bikers, and added that anyone was welcome to Mass.
"I know great people who have big bikes," Lombardi shared.
One Italian biker, identified as Emmanuele Jaconi, said: "Just because we're motorcyclists doesn't mean we're not Catholics," according to The Guardian. A number of the riders even had flags of Pope Francis with the Vatican colors attached to their bikes, which they drove around Rome.
Not all were positively minded toward the bikers, however, as Reuters noted that consumer association Codacons criticized the pope for giving Harley free publicity.
"Since it was a marketing event, the pontiff would have done well to avoid giving free advertising to a well-known brand, especially considering the damage done to the city and its inhabitants," Codacons said in a statement, referring to the 25-mile Harley-Davidson parade from the city of Ostia to central Rome on Saturday, in which 10 bikes were involved in a serious accident.
During his Evangelium Vitae Day speech, Pope Francis urged people to "say 'Yes' to the God who is love, life and freedom, and who never disappoints," and also warned that "the Living God is 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."
BBC News noted that after the Mass, Pope Francis took time to speak to disabled people in the square, including one rider in Harley clothing.