Pope Francis tries a traditional Mexican sombrero hat received as a gift from a Mexican journalist on February 12, 2016, aboard a plane from Rome to Havana (AFP / pool / Alessandro Di Meo)

Aboard the papal plane, fun and games abound

Vatican City, March 3, 2016 - At the beginning of each trip aboard the papal plane, Jorge Mario Bergoglio greets every single journalist onboard. He spends a little time with each, shaking every hand warmly. He hugs those he knows personally. Many pose for selfies, others present him with little gifts. Bergoglio, better known as Pope Francis, looks at cellphone photos of kids’ birthday parties, watches grandkids singing songs on tablets. 

Francis is patient and kind. When some request a prayer, he asks for the person’s name and promises to pray for him or her.

Things have changed aboard the papal plane: The atmosphere is now decidedly less uptight, and, at times, can get downright playful. We could chalk it down to the Francis effect. Or perhaps that even the strictest and most serious vaticanologists need some R&R after long and intense days as part of the papal cavalry.

The Pope receives a cross as a gift from Bolivian journalist Cecilia Dorado Nava on board a flight to Quito on July 5, 2015 (AFP / Vicenzo Pinto)

On this flight from Rome to Mexico, Pope Francis lets one journalist shine his shoes. To pay for his first communion robes as a child, the journalist had to shine shoes in the street. With this gesture, he wants to thank the pope for all he does for the poor, for people from the streets.

Some journalists think that this closeness with Pope Francis sometimes goes too far – that the line between journalism and religion has blurred. But they nevertheless welcome the relationship.

On some occasions, we’ll happen to celebrate someone’s birthday with the pope onboard the plane. We’ll bring in a cake and the pope will applaud along with everybody else. He never seems to be bored or bothered by it.

Pope Francis welcomes the journalists on board a flight to Ecuador on July 5, 2015 (AFP / Vicenzo Pinto)

On the way back from Mexico, there is a party for Alberto Gasbarri. It’s his last trip. The man is an institution: forever at the pope’s right-hand, Gasbarri has organized 30 years’ worth of trips. He was there for Jean Paul II, Benoit XVI, and now Francis.

Numerous veterans of the Vatican press corps pay their tributes, and the pope adds one of his own: “Many thanks. He has given me countless good advice! He does have one flaw: He doesn’t really know how to calculate in kilometers!”

At the beginning of his papacy, Francis wasn’t always this comfortable. On his very first trip, for the World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in July 2013, he said he feared journalists and felt like “Daniel in the lions’ den.” But on the return trip, he realized that these lions did not bite. Since then, he hasn’t stopped praising the “hard work of journalists,” highlighting how important it is that they accurately report his words and the work he does in matters of peace and reconciliation.

Pope Francis' helicopter lands at the Victor Manuel Reyna stadium in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas state, Mexico on February 15, 2016 (AFP / Omar Torres)

“Thank you very much for your work,” he says often. “Do what you can! Thank you very much, thank you.”

Sometimes, he confides in us, as if speaking to close friends. After leaving Rome at dawn because we had to stop at Havana airport for several extra hours to witness an intense history-making meeting between the pope and Patriach Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Pope Francis admits to fatigue. “Now, 23 km on the open popemobile awaits,” he says with a tired smile, just before we land in Mexico, referring to the journey between the airport and our destination.

Jesuit authority

The traditional press conferences Pope Francis holds with the press corps aboard the plane on his return trips are also unconventional. In marked contrast to his predecessor, Benoit XVI, Pope Francis doesn’t know journalists’ questions in advance. He lets them ask him anything, preferring to be frank without losing his Jesuit authority.

Pope Francis arrives at Kololo airstrip in Kampala, on November 28, 2015 (AFP / Giuseppe Cacace)

On the return flight, a journalist asks the pope whether he dreams in Spanish or Italian. Pope Francis, the grandchild of Italian immigrants born in Argentina, responds: “In Esperanto!”

He tells her of his dream to visit China. Not always cautious, he says that U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump “is not Christian” if he wants to build a wall on the border between Mexico and the United States. Ever the Jesuit, Pope Francis immediately clarifies and says he gives Trump “the benefit of the doubt” in case Trump’s words were wrongly reported.

But the pope’s statement is sure to become headline news worldwide, just as in January 2015, when, on his return from the Philippines, he said that Catholics were not called on to breed “like rabbits.” On that trip, he also said that it would be normal for someone who insulted his mother to expect “a punch.”

A journalist takes pictures of the Pope on a plane to Quito on July 5, 2015 (AFP / Vicenzo Pinto)

For journalists, trips with Francis offer regular moments for laughter and great humor. On landing at the airport in Kampala on a November trip to Uganda, for example, some journalists, lured by the traditional dances, also started dancing on their side.

A pillow fight on the Pope's flight

There are others times when the papal press corps, due to fatigue, has completely let go: After a visit to Morelia, a town north of Mexico City, when a pillow fight unexpectedly broke out aboard as we left Mexico.

The day has been a long one: up at 4 a.m., arrival by plane, bus transfers to the destination, long waits in press rooms with unreliable wifi, stops at two packed stadiums near galleries with thundering throngs… And we’re not finished: back at the hotel, we’ll have to wait for the day’s detailed report by Father Federico Lombardi, the Jesuit priest who acts as the pope’s spokesman. The day will again end too late for me to grab a drink with my colleagues!

Pope Francis jokes with journalists on a plane to Rio de Janeiro on July 22, 2013 (AFP / ANSA / Luca Zennaro - pool)

The plane waits for the arrival of the pope on the tarmac of the tiny airport in Morelia, the overhead bag compartments full of little presents the pope has received over the course of the day. A multicolor sombrero and a cross of Christ in a crude Sulpician style add a touch of Fellini to the whole.

A colleague makes some of us laugh with a photo he took of the very serious Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the second in line at the Vatican to Pope Francis, hugging a huge mascot – a priest dressed as a giant teddy bear – during a ceremony for hundreds of children in Morelia’s cathedral.

Add to this scene a shot of tequila swallowed in one gulp and happy hour begins: one pillow flies through the air. And then another. During a minute, the little cushions that flight attendants give out to passengers fly at noses and blindside the heads of one and all. Like high-schoolers, Vatican’s finest, men and women, engage in a pillow fight.

Domenico Giani, the Inspector General of the Vatican’s police and security force, arrives. A pillow hits him on his bald head. Undeterred, he picks it up. This man who is under daily pressure by his boss to engage directly with the people, launches it back, smiling.

Jean-Louis de La Vaissiere is the Vatican correspondent for AFP. This post was translated from French by Solange Uwimana in Paris (read the original version here).

Pope Francis boards his return flight to Rome at Ciudad Juarez airport on February 17, 2016 (AFP / Ronaldo Schemidt)
Jean-Louis de La Vaissière