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.
Of course, since we’re traveling in an Airbus with roughly 160 spaces—camera crew in the outer rows and journalists in the middle one, where there are four seats—I have adequate time to confirm details for which Francis has become famous while he circulates from one aisle to another, making his final pass through the cabin and approaching where I’m seated. He is so close that I can almost touch his white cassock, his ordinary priest’s ring, delight in his black “slum priest” shoes—like what he wore when walking the slums of Buenos Aires—focus on the austere pectoral cross which has an image of Christ with sheep over his shoulders. It is not the usual “crucifix,” representing the torture of the man on the cross but rather a living Jesus, working and serving the poor, the defenseless.
A greeting to begin the journey
Shortly before the greeting of the journalists commences, Father Lombardi takes the microphone to offer some brief information to the pontiff about the media accompanying him, with 76 professionals from numerous countries among whom “for the first time a Cuban journalist is traveling.” Next to the pope and his spokesman, also standing, is Antonio Gasbarri, a figure familiar to Vaticanologists because he is always close beside Francis. Lombardi passes the microphone to Bergoglio, who opens with a “Good morning, I wish you a pleasant journey, great work. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that this is the longest I’ve done, much longer than the Brazil one.”
The trip to Rio de Janeiro, in 2013, was the second of Bergoglio’s pontificate, which now with this makes 10—he considers this route beginning in Havana and ending in Philadelphia to be a single one. It was in Brazil, the only Latin American country aside from Cuba to receive visits from three popes in the past 17 years, that he refused to use the armored Popemobile. Elisabetta Piqué, a correspondent for La Nación who traveled on this flight, has a fascinating book about the pope, Pope Francis: Life and Revolution, which inspired a recently released film. It recounts how she asked Domenico Giani, the inspector general of the Corpo della Gendarmeria of Vatican City, if Francis would at least wear a bulletproof vest. He replied with this: “You’re crazy! Do you want me to get fired?” The Supreme Pontiff explained his reasons against the armor: “If I go to visit a family I want to see, am I going to go in a glass box? I want to go to embrace.”
But that is another story. Now, on flight AZ4000 which departed from Fiumicino, the pope speaks to us in Italian and begins in a rather amusing manner: “Ah, they have work!” and smiles. “I appreciate very, very, very much the work you do and will do,” and latches onto one of Lombardi’s words in particular: “peace.” “I believe that today the world is in need of peace. There are wars, immigrants fleeing, this migratory flight comes from the wars, fleeing death, seeking to live,” he says.
He confesses that today he was moved when setting out from the Vatican. When he passed through the Saint Anne’s Gate, one of the two families taken in by that church was waiting for him: “Syrian refugees…. In them you saw the face of pain…” He takes a long pause and returns to the previous phrase: “The word peace… I appreciate all that you do in your work to build bridges… Small bridges, small. But one small bridge, another, another, another, form the great bridge of peace.”
He concludes his greeting with a “pleasant journey, great work” and the plea now familiar in his speeches and homilies: “Pray for me.” Later, after he has finished greeting each journalist, he takes back the microphone. He has forgotten something: “One of you has pointed this out to me: It is right that I say here my salutation to so many of your colleagues who in this moment are working and will work in offices, in their own homes, for this trip. To them as well, my salutations and gratitude.”
His attention to the press did not end there. A while later the flight attendant passes by each seat with a tray. He hands out tiny portions of some Argentine empañadas that had been given to Bergoglio and he has decided to share them with the reporters.
Let’s be normal
It’s twelve hours of seemingly endless flight from Rome to Havana that the journalists “kill” coming up with stories, when we have spare time to write and have read the telegrams that the pope sent to the presidents of the countries the plane is flying over several times, as well as the speech he will present upon landing in Havana. We have received the messages in advance under the press embargo law of the Sala Stampa (the Holy See Press Office), which is not exactly a press blockade, a distinction that allows me to explain to my fellow airplane passengers the use of these same words in reference to the barrier that the United States still imposes against Cuba and which is the principle obstacle to achieving the normalization of relations. An embargo is temporary; but if it lasts 54 years, that is a blockade.
The conversation turns to the photos of Francis I’ve seen, taken on other tours, as he boards the Alitalia airplane with his carry-on luggage, like any of us. I ask if anyone saw him embark with his small black leather bag. “We have to be normal!” an Italian colleague responds without containing his laughter. This same phrase is what Francis blurted out to a Vaticanologist who wanted to know what the pontiff had carried with him, given that until March of 2013 no pope had ever carried anything up the stairs, much less luggage.
“It’s not the key for the atomic bomb,” Francis said with irony at the time. The briefcase contains a prayer book, his personal agenda, and a text by Saint Therese of Lisieux—those who have read the pope’s encyclical Laudato si’ will remember why he adores this saint, who prompted this striking reflection: “A world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms.” In addition to those three items, the pontiff carries in his bag a perfectly ordinary razor.
And yes, they confirm for me, the pope himself brought his carry-on luggage on board, but we’re already going to our posts, because in a few minutes the plane will land in José Martí International Airport, where Raúl is waiting for him. Then the journalistic madness will truly begin.