Pope Francis 4 on the papal flight from Rome, Italy to Quito, Ecuador on July 5, 2015_Credit Alan Holdren_EWTN 7-5-15

“What is the Pope doing now?” That’s a question often thought, asked aloud, pondered as we go about our business of covering Vatican news.

Covering the papal trip to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay this week, we’ll ask that question dozens of times with varying inflections and emotions.

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Today, day one of eight we’ll be spending in his close company, that question will be our primary concern.

This morning as I woke up and threw the last of my clothes and gear in bags to head to the airport, I asked it. It was 4:30 in the morning. It’s possible he was already up and praying. In a way, I hoped he was still sleeping. He’ll need all the energy his 78-year old body can muster this week.

As the sun came up and we journalists arrived to Rome’s Fiumicino airport and got checked in, each of us with our ever-present VAMP (Vatican Accredited Media Personnel) credentials, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had made it on time, with everything necessary in hand. No small victory in Rome where nothing ever goes as planned.

Check in

What was the Pope doing then? He was possibly putting his breviary, some other reading and some prayer cards in the black briefcase he carries on trips. He may also have thrown his electric razor in the bag to keep stubble to a minimum throughout the day.

As we waited to board and eventually boarded, (we found out later) he was meeting with 10 homeless people who call the area around the Vatican home. He may have also been saying goodbye to the folks at the Santa Marta residence he calls home in the Vatican. Saying “arrivederci” to the young Swiss Guard that stands watch outside his room at night. Waving to the hotel staff as he breezed out the door towards the car.

We’re a strange lot to see, grown men and women tweeting pictures of the in-flight menu to the world with hashtags like #PopeLatAm and anything else we think may catch someone’s attention. Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp, Facebook. You name it, we’re probably on it. In the early stages, we’re often the ones most “retweeting,” “favoriting” and “liking” each other’s posts. They’ll eventually catch on as people get word that the Pope is on the move.

We’re fishing for something newsworthy, something to draw a bit of a following for our agencies as just 70 or so journalists, videographers, photographers and radio personnel accredited for the flight. Many of us already know each other from the Vatican beat. There are others who have come from Latin America to follow the Pope on this historic visit to their lands.

By the time word arrives to us that the Pope has boarded the airplane, we’ve documented the Airbus 330 in every way known to man. New technologies even make their debut. The Periscope app is becoming a favorite. Through it, we can beam a livestream out to the world and you can write us comments, critiques and questions.

A classic shot sent out on social media is of the papal coat of arms Alitalia has embossed on the cloth covering our seatbacks. I post it quickly to Instagram with a couple of filters. New this flight: Pope Francis’ coat of arms is also now on our pillows.

Papal seat cushion

But why do we do all this? Why all this effort? Because everyone wants to know what the Pope is doing!

Just knowing he’s on the plane sends us all into prep mode. At some point early in the flight, he’ll come back and greet us news people. Regardless of how far off that might be, his being on the same aircraft puts us in “Pope mode.”

To quell the anticipation, the Holy See Press Office director, Fr. Federico Lombardi comes back to give us an update. The Holy Father will come back and greet us after breakfast, which will be shortly after take-off.

 

Ahh, still some time for a last tweet about the Jesuit presence on the airplane.

What doesn’t fit in a 140-character tweet is that besides the Pope himself, the other three Jesuits are closely tied to him. There’s the head of Vatican Radio’s Spanish section, Fr. Guillermo Ortiz. He spent his novitiate under Fr. Bergoglio’s supervision. Fr Antonio Spadaro directs the Rome-based Jesuit review called ‘La Civilta Cattolica.’ He was first journalist to interview Pope Francis after his election. Then, there’s Fr. Lombardi himself who serves as the director of the Holy See Press Office. He’ll be the face to the media for daily news conferences along the way.

What’s the Pope’s doing now? He was probably greeting the pilots, Alitalia staff and members of his entourage. Most of us would have been here hours before he arrived. He and his entourage board in the front of the plane and we board using the stairs at the back. The same will be true throughout the trip. It’s not usually the case on international flights, but we’ll be using the same plane for every leg of the journey.

Then, a last message to my wife and kids, take-off and an end to communication outside the airplane. Up to today, there’s no wifi on a papal flight. Rarely do we have the possibility of making a phone call to the outside. Somehow, it’s a relief. 13 hours without cell or internet contact. That’s rare today.

Breakfast, then trays are cleared. Pope Francis arrives and takes the microphone. For the first time today, we no longer have to ask ourselves what the Pope is doing.

He thanks us for our work. He says he knows it’s not easy.

Pope Francis 4 on the papal flight from Rome, Italy to Quito, Ecuador on July 5, 2015_Credit Alan Holdren_EWTN 7-5-15

We all know that his job’s not easy either and we’re probably all thinking about the fact that he’s 78. At least half of us are half his age and these trips wipe us out. We’ll be going non-stop for eight days. He may choose to fill the moments where there’s nothing official on the schedule with informal encounters.

Another common question through the week will be “How does he it?” and “Does he ever rest?”

In an interview recently, he said he sleeps six hours a night and needs an hour nap after lunch. Hard telling if he gets that much on trips.

After greeting us as a group, he makes his way through the cabin saying hello to each of us individually. Notes in envelopes are passed to him and he, in turn, gives them to an aide. Photos, rosaries, individuals are blessed. At one point, he pulls an envelope out of his own pocket and gives it to a Portuguese journalist.

Pope greets journalists

I showed him photos of my grandparents. I promised my Gran that, if possible, I’d ask for a prayer for her. He also took a look at the picture of Grandma and Grandpa, my dad’s parents, on my cellphone. He bowed his head and said a prayer at seeing both photos. That really meant a lot.

A friend’s dad who shares the Pope’s love for opera gave me a note to give to the Holy Father. Mission accomplished.

The Pope finishes and heads back to his seat. And then there’s a strange calm. It’s over… we each had the extremely rare chance to speak to the Pope. And we have nothing urgent to do with that information.

We’re trapped in a tin can somewhere over the Mediterranean. But somehow, knowing that there’s nothing to do, we can revel in the moment for a second before we get back to our work.

… And then we start interviewing each other.

Stay tuned for more along the way. If you keep following, you may find yourself also asking “What is the Pope doing now?”