Pope's visit

William Scholes: It's not every day you chat to the Pope on the papal plane

Religious affairs correspondent William Scholes was among a group of journalists who travelled with the pope on his flights to and from Dublin and throughout his two days of engagements in Ireland. In the first of two reports, he gives a unique insight into what a papal visit actually involves and spending time in the company of Francis.

Pope Francis arrives at Dublin International Airport at the start of his visit to Ireland. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

IT is not every day that you get to meet the Pope.

For me, Saturday was that day; we were introduced to each other, we shook hands and, as you do - you know, when you're flying with Pope Francis to Ireland - had a bit of a chat.

I'll come back to that conversation in tomorrow's report - though I still can't believe he said he prefers southern Tayto cheese and onion crisps to the Tandragee variety - but the personal encounter with Francis was far from the only reason Saturday was an unusual day.

Friday and Sunday were special too, though 'day' is a hopelessly inadequate word, at least if your days normally have beginnings and ends and times for sleeping and eating.

It was a privilege to represent The Irish News on the papal flight, as the Vatican press corps embedded with the Pope when he travels is known. But, because I followed his itinerary, it was also a pilgrimage through a tunnel of fatigue.

Forget food, drink and sleep - you're fuelled by adrenaline, anxiety, excitement and a sense of pinch-me-is-this-really-happening.

But back to Saturday, where apart from meeting Pope Francis, sublime repeatedly met surreal: sweeping through Dublin with Garda motorcycle outriders carving a path through the traffic for our coach; seeing Nathan Carter and Daniel O'Donnell swap war stories in a Croke Park dressing room; having a ringside seat for that full-tilt, rearrange-your-internal-organs-with-its-intensity Riverdance performance at the Festival of Families; getting a close look at the Popemobile; the camaraderie of a group of journalists on a shared mission.

There was also what appeared to be a burlesque troupe in our hotel, though I am led to believe this isn't a feature of all papal flights.

After all that, and more, it felt fitting that four of the Irish contingent went for burgers in Eddie Rocket's on O'Connell Street.

By that stage - around 11pm - I was so hungry that I could have devoured Eddie Rocket himself; a Ferrero Rocher on the Alitalia plane which brought us to Ireland was the last thing I had eaten, and that had been at 9.30am.

The day had started with the alarm going off before 4am, or 3am if you were tucked up in bed in Ireland.

This was even bleaker than it sounds. I had only managed to scrape a few hours' sleep after digging my way through the avalanche of information that had drifted my way at the Vatican on Friday.

The adventure had started before that, on Thursday, when I flew from Dublin to Fiumicino airport in a sweltering Rome.

With an eye on the logistics, I had booked a hotel 'within easy walking distance' of the terminal.

I got there eventually, a shimmering vision of perspiration in 30C heat, after taking the scenic route via several floors of a multi-storey car park courtesy of a misleading sign at a crucial point in the hike.

"It happens all the time," smiled the hotel receptionist as I mopped my brow and she swiped my credit card.

Friday started early. The Vatican had said the process of collecting accreditation and tickets would begin at 10am.

In my determination to be on time, I managed to arrive at Via della Conciliazione well before that.

I found a man in uniform - not hard in the environs of the Vatican - and asked if he knew whether the press office was open.

He didn't, which was no use. I mention him only because he was an almost perfect replica in miniature of President Michael D Higgins - if, that is, President Michael D Higgins had been steeped in creosote for an entire pontificate. The resemblance was uncanny.

With a little time to kill, I found myself cast in the role of St Peter's Square photographer. People would give me their phone and ask me to take their photograph, with the Basilica in the background.

This was a chance to gauge opinions from punters about the Pope's visit to Ireland.

They all wondered why I had come to Rome when the Pope was going to visit the place where I had just come from; the expressions of bewilderment on their faces will live with me. None of them had heard of Northern Ireland or appreciated the significance that it was left off Francis's schedule.

The press office duly opened at the allotted time, and with accreditation confirmed I headed to another location to collect the plane ticket from a building staffed by many Andrea Pirlo lookalikes; the Irish journalists, meanwhile, were easily spotted because of their brow-mopping.

The full scale of the logistical challenge that a papal visit represents began to become apparent during a press briefing to the Irish media that afternoon.

The whole operation has as many moving parts as a Swiss watch. If one part doesn't move in unison with the others, then the whole thing won't work properly.

It was our grave responsibility, along with the other 70 or so media on the papal flight, to keep to a timetable.

To call it a timetable is to seriously undersell the booklet we were given, which was filled with many pages of colour-coded print, minute-by-minute instructions and a system of abbreviations.

With no hint of irony, given that we were about to embark on an 'apostolic voyage' with the leader of the Catholic Church, we were told that this A5 booklet was to be our bible for the next few days.

It all sounded a bit overwhelming. We mopped our brows again, but not because of the heat this time.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we would discover the reality of travelling with Papa Francesco.

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