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Behind the scenes: What it was like travelling across Canada with Pope Francis during papal visit

As I took my seat on board the Pope’s plane, a leased ITA Airways Airbus 330, the Vatican media started chatting in Italian and someone shared a photo on Twitter: “Il Papa è a bordo.” The Pope is on board.

Another photo, taken by Italian Jesuit priest and journalist Antonio Spadaro, showed the Pope in a first-class seat, hands clasped in prayer, and on the wall before him was an image of the Madonna, Our Lady of Bonaria.

The plane itself has no Vatican insignia on its exterior. It’s blue, with the colours of the Italian flag – green, white and red – on its tail. No Holy Cross, nothing to say it carried the head of the Catholic Church more than 8,000 kilometres to Canada.

Inside were roughly 75 journalists, along with the Pope’s nurse, doctor, a security team made up of Swiss Guard, and 11 advisers, including Canadian Cardinals Michael Czerny and Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

The papal plane offers a front-row seat to history.

I never imagined I’d be here. It was my first papal flight, but the journalists around me had made dozens of trips before. In fact, a few have been on this plane more than 100 times, making their first papal flight with John Paul II, who was head of the Catholic Church from 1978 until his death in 2005.

On the flight, different rules apply. Photographers were given the window seats to set up their gear. Tripods were extended and audio cords run down the aisles. As the plane took off, photographers gripped their equipment to keep it from tipping. It’s a production studio in the air.

Once the plane reached altitude, we were told Pope Francis would greet people on board, something that he has done on previous trips. The Pope’s mobility has been questionable. An arthritic knee had left him unable to travel to Africa in June. The trip was cancelled on doctor’s orders. Given the physical challenges, Vatican journalists on board asked questions about his appearance, “How will the Pope move?” “Will he sit to speak?” He didn’t.

About an hour into the trip, Pope Francis emerged from the front of the plane. Leaning heavy on a cane, he spoke of the journey ahead, a trip he said should be treated with care. Turning to a handler, he said: “I believe I can make it. Let’s try.” He took the first steps into the cabin.

Some members of the media brought gifts for him, cards, flowers, a framed print. He spent some time chatting with people. He blessed one man. He smiled at the veteran Vatican reporters who had travelled with him so many times before, and when he got to me, I nervously told him I was a Canadian journalist and it was a pleasure to meet him. He smiled and nodded. His handshake was warm.

This trip was expected to be exhausting for the Pope, three cities spanning more than 3,000 kilometres with two events scheduled most days.

Each morning starts with breakfast around 5 a.m. as equipment is swept by security and sniffed by dogs before departure.

The Vatican communications team runs a very tight schedule. Before each event, there was a roll call for journalists and then an outline of what to expect from the event. The Vatican team, including journalists, had to be in place before the Pope arrives, which usually meant getting to a location up to two hours in advance.

It’s a historic journey. An apology in the homelands of Indigenous people, generations in the making, and it was the 58th call-to-action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Pope Francis was met with tears and applause at the powwow arbour in Maskwacis, Alta, where he issued his first apology of the trip, asking for forgiveness for “deplorable evil” and describing the trip as a “penitential pilgrimage.”

Then, cheers at Edmonton Commonwealth Stadium when he kissed babies brought to him from the crowd ahead of Holy Mass. This was followed by prayerful silence on the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, a spiritual site for Indigenous people and Catholics as he blessed the lake.

But there has been mixed reaction, too. A lack of Indigenous culture or traditions during Holy Mass was described as a “missed opportunity,” while Si Pih Ko, who spontaneously sang in Cree to the Pope after his apology in Maskwacis, said she did so because it affected her family too much. She told CTV Edmonton: “I had to speak out.”

Next, to Quebec City, where he arrived not in an armoured car, but in his customary Fiat, to further express his “shame and sorrow” for the role Catholic institutions played in the residential school system.

With one stop left on his trip, Iqaluit, where he will meet residential school survivors and attend a community event hosted by Inuit leaders at a local elementary school, Vatican sources say Pope Francis is pleased by the trip.

It has been called a penitential journey and I’ve had a front row seat to history. Top Stories



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