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The Hectic, Tiring, Exciting Task Of Covering A Papal Tour

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli talks to Pope Francis.
Courtesy of Phil Pullella of Reuters
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli talks to Pope Francis.

Competition to get admitted to the papal trip to Cuba and the U.S. was fierce: Some 140 reporters and photographers applied for the 76 seats available for print, radio and TV journalists. I strategized for much of June on the best way to secure one of them.

On the day the decision was announced, those who were rejected received politely written emails expressing regrets from the Vatican spokesman. Those who were admitted learned of it only by going to the Vatican press room to see the list pinned on the bulletin board.

Even after so many years covering the Vatican, I still am mystified by the reasoning behind some of the rituals of that 2,000-year-old institution.

Chiefs of state and prime ministers travel often. The difference with a traveling pope is that the head of the Roman Catholic Church often draws crowds of tens of thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands.

Organizing a papal trip takes months of complicated logistics. The key man is Alberto Gasbarri, administrative director of Vatican Radio, who does all the advance preparations. He's the distinguished, gray-haired gentleman who often stands by the pope's side.

I've been struck how he always has a serene look — I'd like to know his secret.

Leaders, Logistics And Security

The papal entourage is about 30 people, and includes the pope's number two, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who is the Vatican's Secretary of State, plus a few other cardinals and bishops. There is also the pope's personal doctor and his spokesman.

Then there are members of the Vatican security service and Swiss Guards — in plainclothes — as well a staff person from the Vatican press room.

Throughout the trip, the men have to follow a suit-and-tie dress code. I felt sorry for them in the muggy heat in Cuba.

There is one great perk of papal travel: None of us have to deal with passport control and picking up baggage. The Vatican handlers take care of all that. But that ends on the last leg of the trip. When I land in Rome on Sunday, I'll have to go through passport control and pick up my luggage on my own. The papal bubble will burst and turn into a pumpkin.

The only memento will be a cloth headrest with the papal seal and the Alitalia logo.

A Challenging Assignment

The schedule during the trip is grueling — distribution of paper copies of the pope's embargoed speeches can be as early as 4:15 a.m., and the window of opportunity is only 10 minutes. I have averaged 3 hours of sleep per night since the trip started.

Outbound, we flew Alitalia. It's a plane chartered by the Vatican and it is not called Shepherd One, as it has been dubbed on American TV. The airline is now accustomed to papal travel and provides a good audio system we can all plug into and record the pope when he comes to speak to the reporters. And even though we're sitting in economy, the media pack gets to eat business-class food.

We will be flying back to Rome on American Airlines and there is already some concern among the reporters whether the audio system will be up to par — after all, the final press conference on board the plane is considered a crucial story. It was on his return from his trip to Brazil in 2013 that, speaking about gays, the pope uttered, "Who am I to judge?" — one of the most memorable remarks of his papacy.

Questions And Connections

When it's time to ask questions, reporters break into groups by language — Italian, English, French, Spanish and German. After some skirmishing, heated arguments and cultural clashes, the groups decide together what questions to ask and who should ask them.

On the way from Cuba to the U.S., the English speakers wanted a new face, and asked me to pose the question. It was about the pope's encounter with Fidel Castro.

Francis is interested in meeting the media. On our flight from Rome to Havana, he came back to economy and was introduced to each of us, one by one.

When it was my turn, I shook hands with the pope and told him we have something in common — both our parents were Italian and had to leave Fascist Italy. His went to Argentina, mine to the United States.

He smiled and told me his family almost didn't make it. They were supposed to set sail on the SS Principessa Mafalda, which later sank off the coast of Brazil, killing hundreds.

But for some reason Pope Francis' family crossed the Atlantic on a later ship. Nine years after that, in 1936, Jorge Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires.

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Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.