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What’s it like on the papal plane?

PAPIEŻ FRANCISZEK Z MŁODYMI
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Aleteia’s correspondent gives his impressions

When the head of the Catholic Church leaves Italy, he’s always accompanied by a group of about 70 journalists from around the world. This gives the press the opportunity to follow the apostolic journey closer to the pope, and to see events from his perspective.

The destination for the 26th papal trip abroad was the Panama World Youth Day. Since it would be — quite naturally — inappropriate to make Pope Francis wait, journalists are summoned to the airport in Rome four hours before the scheduled departure time: for this flight, around 5 am. Indeed, this is a constant: In order to follow along on an apostolic journey, you have to get up (very) early and wait a long time.

Fortunately, the traffic to get to the airport is almost nonexistent at that hour, so you can at least expect a quick commute. Once you’ve checked in your luggage, it’s time to pass the security checks — which are systematic, even though it’s the pope’s flight — and to find the other journalists. Despite the early hour, it’s always a moment marked by a certain euphoria, and by the joy of meeting each other and living these events together.

At exactly 8:20 am, it’s time to board. The hostess checks your boarding pass, and holds on to it, along with your passport. Is it to be sure that it will not be lost, or to prevent the journalist from taking off in the middle of the trip? In any case, the journalist will only be able to pick it up when boarding for the flight back to Rome at the end of the trip. In exchange, you get an accreditation badge issued by the local organizers of the visit. Thanks to this ID, it’s easy to move around in the places the Sovereign Pontiff will visit.

Fifteen minutes later, the journalists are all on board. The cameramen take the opportunity to mount their devices on tripods, and radio journalists, to connect their recorders. Meanwhile, flight attendants distribute a flight plan and a menu. Around 9:30 am, Pope Francis boards the plane. His arrival is very discreet, and journalists only learn of it when they feel the airplane start to move.

“Your Holiness, dear members of the papal household, dear journalists, …” The captain greets his passengers and reports that he is ready to leave. While the screens broadcast the usual safety instructions, the plane taxis onto the runway. Soon, it’s in the air. The pope is on his way to Panama.

Memories of a deceased journalist

When the pope is on board, airlines like to offer their best service. Just a half hour after the flight begins, a rich breakfast is served. It’s swallowed quickly, because the current head of the Church likes to greet the journalists soon after takeoff. Meanwhile, a Vatican official is doing sound tests. “Testing, one, two, testing, testing.”

There is movement in the cabin, and the curtains separating the different classes open. At 11 am, Pope Francis appears. As usual, he thanks the journalists for their work. But while he would traditionally explain in a few words the meaning of his trip, this time the Sovereign Pontiff prefers to recall the memory of a recently deceased journalist, Russian news agency TASS’s veteran Vatican correspondent. Visibly sad, the head of the Catholic Church invites the journalists to observe a moment of silence with him. After a few moments, he leads an Our Father, and the assembly follows along.

St. Peter’s Successor gives back the microphone, and embarks on his journey of greeting the 70 journalists. Gifts, prayers, selfies, quick exchanges of words: Each one has prepared for this moment. It must be said that it’s rare to be able to talk freely with the Sovereign Pontiff! All enjoy this freedom, of course, but the words of the pope are listened to attentively, as when he says he will visit Japan “in November.” Or, when he jokingly replies that he is “not sure of being alive in February” 2020. In total, this tour lasts nearly an hour.

These statements are far from unimportant. The journalists agree among themselves on a one-hour delay before publishing the remarks. Indeed, more than competition, there is a cordial atmosphere of cooperation among the press on board. They decide that these remarks can be published starting at 1 pm, Rome time. Each one then gets busy writing his articles and sending the information to his colleagues back at the office. Unfortunately, the weak WiFi connection on the plane falters under the influx of connections. We need to try over and over again to send out the news.

After that is done, our work is not yet over. We must take advantage of the long hours remaining on the flight to prepare future articles, which will be published as the WYD unfolds. It’s also an opportunity to get to know the other journalists, especially those from Panama; this is probably the only trip they’ll take with the pope in their career.

Soon, a lunch far above the usual airline standards is served. Meanwhile, some are still fighting with the WiFi to send news that has already gone around the world… In the meantime, the words of Pope Francis regarding his trip to Japan have already been tempered by the Vatican: the trip is only “being studied.” An entirely symbolic semi-denial, all aboard agree.

Reports from the papal plane

As papal as it may be, our journey from Rome to Panama is no less long than anyone else’s. While some watch a movie on their personal screen, others try to sleep for a few minutes. Still others go to the back of the plane, where drinks, sandwiches and sweets await them. Journalists have the same joke about papal trips as politicians on campaign: You must seize every available opportunity to sleep, eat, and go to the bathroom. Although the flight is long, once we arrive, it will be an uninterrupted race until our return to Rome.

After this break, the activity resumes. TV reporters start to record a report on the plane. Facing their cameramen, they go up the aisles of the plane and recite their text, all smiles. One, two, three takes… Shooting at 30,000 feet above sea level is a challenge that requires repeated attempts. Others do not have the chance to have a cameraman to film them, and are content to use their smartphone, held at the end of a selfie stick.

Less than two hours from the arrival at Panama airport, and we’re at it again: the flight attendants bring a third – and last! – meal. The airline modestly qualifies it as a snack, but it’s a real dinner… While we’re savoring this last meal, we’re already preparing for arrival in Panama. Some put one last touch on their articles, while others prepare their camera equipment. The plane flies over the famous canal, and after nearly 12 and a half hours of flight, it touches down on Panamanian soil. The 26th apostolic journey of Pope Francis can begin.

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