State Papers

Rome-ward bound with Pope Francis

The second day of Pope Francis's intense visit to Ireland started in Dublin and ended in Rome. In the last of three special reports, William Scholes given a unique insight into the historic trip

The papal flight arrived into mist and rain in Knock, Co Mayo. Picture by Yui Mok/PA Wire

THE first entry on Sunday's timetable bore the unwelcome message that breakfast would be at 4.30am, a necessity to get us from the hotel to Dublin Airport and a flight to Knock.

Saturday's sunshine had given way to heavy rain, with mist shrouding Mayo. But by now, Francis and his papacy was flying into a different sort of storm, that whipped up by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò's 11-page 'testimony'.

Its release had obviously been timed to secure maximum publicity for its allegations.

These are wide-ranging but essentially centre on Dr Viganò's claim that Pope Francis was involved in covering-up the sex abuse perpetrated by former US Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

It is an important story, and a vivid illustration of the battle that is raging around Pope Francis and his efforts at reform. Arguably, the biggest threat to the Catholic Church is now the Church itself.

That this was playing out against the backdrop of Ireland, where the devastation of abuse is writ large, was not a coincidence.

Having met with Irish survivors on Saturday evening, we knew that the Pope had promised, at their request, to talk about abuse on Sunday - this was the "We ask for forgiveness" section of his homily at Phoenix Park.

For my Vamp colleagues, Viganò became the story of the trip, especially for those catering for American outlets.

The Pope's opponents had engineered a situation in which he was appealing for forgiveness for the Church's mishandling of abuse while at the same time being accused by them of covering up that abuse.

As others dug into Viganò's erratic letter from a press centre in Dublin Castle, I travelled to Knock on Aer Lingus EI1979, a nod to the year of John Paul II's visit. The return flight was EI2018.

The Pope's departure to the Marian shrine was delayed because he decided to take time with the schoolchildren who had stood in the rain waiting to greet him.

By then, our minibus was already going like the clappers with the aid of a Garda escort; the countryside flashed by in a blur of papal flags and bunches of people waiting to see the Pope in his Skoda drive past.

One of the photographers tightened his seatbelt. "I've been in too many near misses on these sorts of rides," he said, grimly.

From Knock, to Dublin Airport and on to Phoenix Park, and a chance to eat something and sit at a table to type.

Numbers at the Mass were visibly down on the anticipated 500,000. The inclement weather and weeks of dire warnings about just how gruelling the day would be doubtless put people off. It's also possible that critics of the Church had snapped up tickets with no intention of using them, a sort of no-show protest.

Whatever the reasons, the sparser numbers compared to 1979 further illustrated the dramatic social and religious changes in Ireland.

The Church has changed too, and the abuse scandal has changed it. This was reflected in the questions put to the Pope during the 50-minute in-flight press conference on the way home.

For the press corps, this was followed by a race to write our stories before we landed. We were too busy to take the meal offered by the Aer Lingus cabin crew, to their bemusement.

By now, I was wilting. Nor was I the only one. A colleague whose head kept nodding forward as he was overtaken by sleep before he snapped awake again asked me to keep talking to him to keep him awake; others were sick; nausea and a headache were my constant companions.

The consensus among the experienced operators was that the Irish visit had been particularly intense, both physically and mentally.

Things get really bad when these trips go into third and fourth days, I was told. That's when you bump into walls, fall asleep in the lift and, because you can't work out how to open your hotel room door, you lie down in the corridor.

Coming off the plane at Rome's Ciampino airport, I was a husk of myself. It was back to earth with a bump, too. With no police escort or VIP treatment, I trudged off to queue for a taxi.

I eventually got to my hotel after 1am on Monday. Desperately hungry, I hit the button on the phone marked room service, only to discover someone had reprogrammed it to dial another bedroom; the person who answered the call wasn't thrilled when I asked for a club sandwich.

But by now, I was overtaken by sleep. I slipped into the arms of Morpheus. Pope Francis had come to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, and I was dreaming of seeing mine again.

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