Pope's visit

From Rome to Croke Park in 12 hours with Pope Francis

In the second part of his reflections on travelling with Pope Francis for his visit to Ireland, William Scholes boards the papal flight

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

'UNGODLY hour' might not be the correct term when you are about to fly with the Pope, but it well describes the 3.45am alarm call that woke me on Saturday after a couple of hours' restless sleep.

That was a lazy lie-in compared to Sunday. Check-in for the first leg of the papal flight, aboard Alitalia AZ4000 from Rome to Dublin, was scheduled to start at 5am.

The thought of sprinting through Fiumicino with "Could passenger Scholes please report to desk 25 as his flight is ready for departure" filled me with terror, thus the poor quality of my snatched sleep.

With the front of the aircraft reserved for Pope Francis and his delegation, the 74 'Vamps', as the Vatican-accredited media group is called, have to use the back door.

Prayer Force One was a regular Airbus A320. One of the few tell-tales that this flight was a little out of the ordinary was on the seats.

These carried Pope Francis's coat of arms, with its 'miserando atque eligendo' - 'by God's merciful choice' - motto embroidered above the more prosaic Alitalia logo.

Pope Francis's coat of arms embroidered on the cloths on the seats of the Alitalia aircraft which brought him to Ireland

A curtain dividing the cabin was drawn before the Pope boarded. Some of the Vamps had been allocated seating - TV cameramen and some photographers, mainly - close to the curtain so that they could record images of the Pope when he came to speak to us.

During Friday's Vatican briefing we were told that it was traditional for the Pope to address the media during the flight.

He would make a few general remarks, we were told, before talking to each of us individually. This, they said, would be your 'meet the Pope' moment.

There should be no selfies, it was stressed: "The Pope doesn't like them. It's a personal greeting with the Holy Father. Selfies would be a sign of disrespect."

Somewhere 35,000 feet above the Alps, the curtain was opened and Pope Francis emerged, the familiar, open face wearing a smile as he held the microphone.

Pope Francis spoke to all of the journalists on the papal flight

"Thank you for the company and thank you for coming," he said, in Italian.

"This will be my second family celebration - the first was in Philadelphia - I like being with families and I am happy about this trip.

"There is also a second reason that touches my heart a little, because I was in Ireland 38 years ago, in 1980, for three months, to practice some English."

Pope Francis would not be renowned for his fluency or facility in English, and more than one among the party wondered at the proficiency of the English teaching he had received in Dublin.

Still, the Pope seemed to have enjoyed it: "For me, too, this is a beautiful memory. Thank you for your work."

After this, he did indeed meet everyone. He was introduced to each journalist, spending a few minutes with them one-by-one.

There was a lovely informality to this, and I was impressed that he took the time to do it - remember, there were more than 70 of us.

The Popemobile parked outside St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in Dublin

To those journalists who follow him regularly, there was obvious affection as he inquired after sick relatives or prayed for some private situation they mentioned to him.

Others gave him Rosary beads to bless. He asked an Argentinean journalist what the newspapers back home were writing about these days.

BBC journalist Martin Bashir showed the Pope a photograph on his phone of his daughter and her husband. He had learned just before boarding the plane that they were expecting a baby; the Pope virtually blessed the couple and the pregnancy.

I was sat towards the back of the plane with some of the agency photographers, who travelled with a Currys warehouse of high-end kit, and RTE's Europe correspondent, Tony 'the Brexitpedia' Connolly.

Eventually it was my turn. What do you say to the Pope? As we shook hands, my mind went to how a consistent Francis theme is the periphery - he talks about being the man from the 'ends of the earth', and always challenges the Church to look after those on the edges of society, such as refugees, the homeless and prisoners.

So I told him that I, too, was a "man from the periphery", in this case Northern Ireland. Many Irish people were glad he was visiting, I said, but there was also disappointment that he was not coming to the north, which risked becoming even more peripheral because of Brexit.

People, both Catholic and Protestant, hoped he would visit in the future as an act of solidarity and encouragement, I said.

A little more was said - he knew about Northern Ireland - and before releasing my hand he tightened his grip and looked me straight in the eye: "Pray for me."

It was a short, personal encounter but it also means the Irish News has this year had more one-on-one time with the Pope than with Arlene Foster or Leo Varadkar.

Prayer turned out to be pretty useful throughout the trip, not least because there wasn't much sustenance from food and sleep.

Being a 'Vamp' meant getting close to the Pope on other occasions during the weekend, and it also meant witnessing first-hand the endurance he requires to conduct his duties.

The stamina required, especially in an 81-year-old, to endure a day of engagements at Áras an Uachtaráin, Dublin Castle, St Mary's Pro-Cathedral and Croke Park cannot be underestimated. A lesser man would have been broken when onlooker Daniel O'Donnell took to the stage.

:: The final part of William Scholes's reflections on travelling with Pope Francis will be in tomorrow's Irish News. Click here to read the first part.

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