My 17-hour ‘spiritual’ flight with the humble Pope Francis



Pope Francis addresses journalists in the flight back to Rome after a six-day visit in Africa on November 30, 2015. Pope Francis travelled to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. AFP | PHOTO 

It was a normal commercial flight, an Airbus A330 operated by Alitalia — Italy’s national airline.
Hardly a version of a papal one, for Pope Francis does not own a personal aircraft. Neither does the Vatican.

The Vatican had chartered the Airbus A330 for the entire African tour — Kenya, Uganda and Central Africa — which covered 12,580 kilometers.

Four of us, three from the Nation Media Group and one from Capital FM, were under strict instructions to ensure that we were at the Fiumicino International Airport in Rome at 4am on Wednesday, November 25.
How we got to the airport was none of the Vatican’s business, just like were the tickets to guarantee you a seat on the papal flight.

We arrived on time and were directed to the Alitalia counter, checked in and that’s when it finally dawned on us that this was no ordinary flight.

We were ushered in VIP style, but of course we had to undergo the security checks like everybody else, thanks to terror threats and an inflow of refugees into Europe from ISIS-affected countries.

At the boarding area, we joined a team of 66 journalists, most of whom were veterans in covering the Pope.
Ten minutes to 7am, our team leader, Bruni Matteo, arrived and took a roll call.

“I have to account for all of you on the plane when we leave until we come back,” he said.

One thing, though. Once you board the papal flight in Rome, you cannot be allowed to disembark at any stop on the way.

We boarded at 7.15am. Inside, it was just like a normal plane. There were no conference rooms, no hotline phones or sophistication associated with VIP planes.

It was divided in three zones — first, business and economy class.

Pope Francis sat in the First Class, all by himself and one or two aides.

Aboard were 100 passengers among them Cardinal Secretary of State Peitro Parolin, the second man in command to the Pope.

Others were cardinals, bishops, priests, members of the Vatican Press Office, the Holy See security staff and the Swiss Guards. Most of the journalists were in Economy Class.

The pilot went through the security details and the plane took off towards Napoli, into the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, Sudan and finally Nairobi.

The flight route is well itemized, with towns it will overfly, the specific times and distances, in the trip’s pamphlet and so was the climate, the population, the area size of the countries on the tour.

Except for the four the four Kenyans on the flight, the rest of the passengers had carried strong mosquito repellents.

Pope Francis was handed one by a journalist. It was a smooth flight, perhaps because Pope Francis was on board as the plane hit its altitude.

After refreshments, there was an air of sudden excitement as it was announced the Pope was about to walk by to greet each one of us!

What a chance! What a day! At 9.45am (11.45am Kenya time), Fr Federico Lombardi, the Pope’s spokesman, came up with his boss in tow.

Mr Domenico Gasbarri, the Vatican official in charge of planning papal visits was next to the Pope.
There stood the pontiff, the successor to St Paul whose handshake meant everything spiritual.

He was calm, humble and smiled as Fr Lombardi said: “We are almost entering Egypt’s sky and the Pope is about to say hello to each of you.”

He also told us the spiritual preparations which Pope Francis undertook before embarking on the five-day journey, including “going to pray at Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, what he does before a trip.”

Pope Francis took the microphone and in English said: “I greet all of you for your presence and your work on this trip. I am happy to go to Kenya, Uganda and Central Africa Republic. I want to wish all of you and this trip spiritual and material blessings. Now I want to greet everyone.”

He then started moving around, shaking hands with every reporter and blessing any item one presented.

That was when one of the reporters asked him: “Are you not worried about insecurity because where you are going there are people targeting Christians?”

A quick thought and a calm reply came. “There are good people and bad people. I am only worried about mosquitoes. Have you carried mosquito repellents?”

Yours truly had a pair of rosaries and two pens—the tools of my trade—which the Pope blessed after shaking my hand, and whispered: “Pray for me”. A moment enough to treasure and remember for days for it was unnerving, humbling and a great spiritual sensation.

He walked back to his seat, as journalists, filled with excitement, got down to work. One could hardly tell the 4.5 hours flight time between Egypt and Nairobi where the plane touched down at 4.45pm. On disembarking,  those of us who had been accredited to cover the State House event boarded a bus and headed there.

There were no security checks. Neither did we go through Immigration. Later that evening, we found our luggage in our rooms at the Villa Rosa Kempinski Hotel where we spent two nights.

On Friday, November 27, we flew to Uganda. Entebbe International Airport presented a different ball game.
Uganda security officers found it hard to relax security procedures for us.

They demanded passports which we didn’t have. How were they to admit us into Uganda?

That was when what I had suspected all along became clear—that Mr Matteo also doubled as a security person.

His face hardened up and he confronted the Immigration officials. He was in charge of the team and none was a threat. “Here we go,” he motioned us past the Immigration desk to the security checks and straight to Entebbe State House.

Central Africa Republic (CAR) was a walk-through, given the effects of the civil war between Muslims and Christians since 2013. As part of the Pope’s entourage, security was tight with the airport closed to all other flights.