Rome-Havana— “Your Holiness, thank you for the loving message you addressed to my nation,” was what I came up with to say to him when he passed by my seat, while he greeted, one by one, the journalists who accompanied him on the flight to Havana. His smile came swiftly: “Cuba is a nation that I love very much,” he replied.
I was referring, of course, to the video message of Pope Francis broadcast by Televisión Cubana, on the eve of this Alitalia flight that took off on Saturday with “Vatican punctuality”—at 10:15 local time; 4:15, in Cuba—from the international airport Fiumicino, in Rome. Not half an hour had elapsed before Jorge Bergoglio peered through the door of the Airbus A330 that separated the front area from the section where the reporters were crowded together. The pope walked in a “u” through the aisles of the plane, pausing with every step to greet and exchange words with the special correspondents.
Next to me, the representative from The Philadelphia Inquirer, David O’Reilly, handed him a white skullcap, which the pope put on momentarily, instead of his own, “to give me energy,” and then returned it to its owner. Francis joked, gave his blessing, and even took photos with the reporters, relaxed and affectionate. Several colleagues gave him gifts and letters of their own or from others, and the representative from Univisión was even bolder and gave him the Emmy statuette he’d won for his television coverage of the conclave in March of 2013, which resulted in the election of Bergoglio.
Escorting the head of the Vatican State, his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, occasionally passed the security team rosaries, crosses, and letters, while, one step behind, Mateo Bruni, the person in charge of logistics and the “priest of the Vatican press,” was entrusted with identifying and introducing the pontiff to each reporter. This is a ritual of traveling with Francis that I’m fascinated to discover, but a veteran colleague in these affairs informs me that this was not always so.
When Pope Paul VI traveled to Jordan and Israel in January of 1964, he became the first pontiff to take a plane. The correspondent from The Boston Globe, John Allen Jr.—one of the most important Vaticanologists in the world and a fount of knowledge—attests that one year later, Paul VI visited New York, which means that the United States debut of Francis coincides with the 50th anniversary of the first visit by a pope to the United States.
Since then, the popes have had their own ways of relating to the journalists who travel with them. In the early years of his papacy, Saint John Paul II spoke with reporters in groups, according to language. When illness started to overtake him, he would call the correspondents to his seat at the front of the plane, one by one, and each could have a minute to greet him. With Benedict XVI, press conferences were held at the beginning of the flight. Francis has adopted the custom of wandering the aisles of the plane and answering questions when he finishes the visit to a country. So we should have two exchanges with the pope: on the trip from Santiago de Cuba to Washington, and the one from Philadelphia to Rome, on the 28th of September.