Backstory: On the beat at 38,000 feet - traveling with Pope Francis

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - To some, traveling with Pope Francis might seem like a heavenly assignment - until you mention the 3 a.m. wake-up calls and the 21-hour days.

Reuters correspondent Philip Pullella asks Pope Francis a question on the plane flying from Tokyo to Rome on November 26 at the end of his trip to Thailand and Japan. Picture taken November 26, 2019. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

One such day came last month during his trip to Japan, when a chartered media flight took the papal press corps from Tokyo to Nagasaki to Hiroshima and then back to Tokyo.

It started with breakfast at 4 a.m. in a makeshift cafeteria in a hotel ballroom (the restaurant had not opened), and ended when we returned to the hotel at 11:30 p.m. (the restaurant had closed).

Having done nearly 140 trips with three popes since 1982, I took it in my sleepy stride and started writing the day’s first story on the bus to the airport.

There is no dedicated “Vatican One” papal plane. The 82-year-old leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics uses chartered flights and most of the time press and pope fly together.

Back in the 1980s, we bashed away on our typewriters and puffed away on our cigarettes. When we flew Alitalia, the crew used to give us 10 packs each.

Today, the plane is smoke-free and there is no clickety clack. The VAMPS - the Vatican Accredited Media Personnel, who wear that acronym in large letters on accreditation badges around our necks - take the back.

Right at the beginning of each foreign mission, after reaching cruising altitude, Francis walks through our section to greet each journalist.

The outbound chats are supposed to be informal, with hard questions kept for the news conference on the final flight home to Rome.

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Francis is easy-going. He loves to laugh and talk about everyday things. Our conversations have become more informal since I interviewed him for two hours in 2018 at the Vatican.


We have chatted about his health and he has joked about my “rivalry” with another veteran “VAMP” - Mexican reporter Valentina Alazraki. She is the “doyen” of the traveling press corps, with three more years under her belt, and I am the “dean”.

In his interaction with the media, Francis is similar to Pope John Paul, who reigned from 1978 to his death in 2005.

John Paul also greeted each reporter, whereas former Pope Benedict made a group greeting from the front of our section.

The freewheeling news conferences on the homeward flight is the highlight. It usually lasts an hour.

Benedict’s spokesman used to insist on knowing the questions beforehand. He then chose them and read them to the pope.

Francis, like John Paul, applies no such restrictions on questions and compliments reporters who ask tough ones.

Returning from Japan, I asked about the Vatican’s latest financial scandal. He said its discovery showed that new internal controls were working.

It was on the way back from his first trip to Brazil in 2013 that Francis uttered the now famous phrase “Who am I to judge?,” referring to homosexual Catholics struggling to live under the Church’s edicts.

Not all Vatican officials are happy with his freewheeling style. According to a Vatican source, one official once told the pope “I pray for you every day but particularly before a news conference.”

Francis, the source said, was not amused.

Editing by Andrew Heavens