Dear Blog Readers,
I am back from a gruelling, stimulating, and thrilling three day trip to the Middle-East covering Pope Francis. I still have the adrenalin pumping through my system and I hope it lasts long enough to get me through this post.
I am not sure whether you are all more interested in the behind-the-scenes details or the news headlines. I could tell you about the stray cat who wanted to get in the way of the historic meeting between Pope Francis and Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew until a Franciscan Friar removed the sweet, meowing kitty– tossing him behind a wall to the boos and cheers of journalists. Or the Orthodox priest frantically trying to telephone the kids at the top of the bell-tower to stop ringing the bells (the Pope was an hour late and the bells were making our heads pound).
Or how about the battle among the English language journalists about what questions to ask the Pope on the plane on the return trip (we were allowed two), or my escape into the sumptuous bathroom at the Royal Palace in Jordan, or stumbling through Old Jerusalem holding my computer open and frantically trying to file my video edit of the Pope in Bethlehem as we raced to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the next appointment (I ended up having to slip into a tiny, rather suspicious looking internet cafe’ and use their wifi to get my story in, I then had to run a half hour late to catch up to my pool and convince the Israeli security that I really was with the Vatican traveling press and not an imposter–no easy feat).
Then there was the crazed bus driver in Jordan who I thought was going to run over any car that got in the way enroute from Amman to Bethany-Beyond-the Jordan, the site of the Jesus’ baptism. In the intense moment when the Pope was standing staring into the River Jordan (a rather swampy looking stream), I was tweeting, sweating, and swatting away flies. I had lots of interest in my tweet on the stunningly beautiful Queen Rania of Jordan, joining the Pope for the visit to the baptism site. A little Mamma note here — she is 43, has 4 children and is involved in a lot of important humanitarian causes — and she looks like a movie star. What is her trick? By the way, her husband King Abdallah Hussein gave a beautiful speech talking about peace in the Middle East when he addressed the Pope that unfortunately got little media attention. Or how about the grown-up Palestinians waiting outside the Desheshah refugee camp where the Pope was meeting a group of children, getting into a ferocious, very Mediterranean-style debate, with shouting and gesticulating, people storming away in anger and returning– all over who would stand in the front near the door as the Pope passed and have a chance to greet him. Or how about the nuns at the gorgeous Church of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives who waited with eager, adoring faces for the arrival of the Pope and broke into wild cheers of “Long Live the Pope” when he came through the door. Then there was my frantic technology trip trying to manage to get all the video of the Pope’s hour long press conference downloaded into my computer, audio adjusted and turned around and put out live to go as soon as the embargo was lifted an hour and a half after we got off the plane. Let’s just say we drove fast from the Ciampino airport in Rome to the AP Rome bureau (almost like the Jordanian bus driver).
I could go on and on– but I suppose some of you also might want to hear the news highlights. For me, the key moments of this trip were when the Pope touched walls. The first wall was the separation barrier between Israeli and Palestine. As thousands of Palestinians and the press corps waited for Pope Francis in Manger Square, the Pope made a surprise stop at the massive separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories. He stepped out of the Pope-mobile, walked up to the wall and right near some graffiti saying “Free Palestine” he rested his head, touched the wall with his hand and said a prayer.
It was a stunning and unexpected gesture. The Palestinians in the press room were ecstatic. The Israelis less so. The next day on the front page of the Israeli daily “The Jerusalem Post”, Israel’s former Ambassador to the Vatican Oded Ben-Hur was quoted saying, “We’re not very happy that they used the pope as a political vehicle or tool to obtain a public relations victory.”
There is no doubt that image of the Pope, the photo and the video, over-shadowed the entire trip. Shortly after his visit to the wall, at the end of his Mass in Manger Square, the Pope announced that he was inviting the Israeli President Shimon Peres and the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to visit him in his “home” at the Vatican and join him in prayers next month. Both Presidents accepted within the hour. By his second day in the Holy Land, the Pope (or White Elephant as I said in an earlier post. See blog post: A White Elephant in a China Shop) who had promised a “strictly religious” visit seemed to be neck deep in the politics of the place and loving it.
At dawn the next morning we were taken to the Western Wall in Jerusalem — the last remaining part of the biblical Second Temple and the holiest place where Jews can pray. As AP television cameraman Gianfranco Stara and I waited, we snapped photos of people at the wall. I took a picture of a young Hasidic journalist in sidelocks, Gianfranco got a close-up of the prayer notes inserted in the wall and orthodox Jews praying at the wall.
Finally the Pope arrived and in a solemn ceremony was led by the Chief Rabbi for the site towards the wall. The last few steps he proceeded alone, pausing in front of the wall, holding a small paper in his hand (it was the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish), he stopped, prayed, touched the wall and then slipped his prayer inside. He then turned and quickly walked to his two friends accompanying him on the trip — Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Sheik Omar Abboud of Buenos Aires. The three men held each other in big inter-religious bear hug.
There was still another wall to go. The Pope was whisked off to his next stop, the Yad Vashem Memorial for Holocaust victims, but then in another unexpected detour from his schedule, he visited a memorial for victims of terrorism, again he solemnly touched the wall with the bronze plaques with the names of victims of terrorist attacks. Inside the Holocaust memorial, the Pope kissed the hands of holocaust survivors in a gesture of humility.
It would be impossible to go through all Pope Francis’ important comments and gestures throughout the trip, so I will just skip ahead to the Press conference on the return trip. On the way to Amman (see my picture with the Pope below) the Pope told us he would answer all our questions on the way back. The Pope’s spokesman said we had to divide into language groups: Italian, French, English, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Each group would get two or three questions and had to choose someone to ask them. The only Asian on the plane was a Japanese journalist so she was also given the opportunity to ask a question. From the moment we got on the plane each language group huddled up and got into serious wrangling about what questions to ask and who would ask them. In the end, the Pope came and took questions for an hour. Without hesitating or trying to evade any questions, he responded on the following issues: sexual abuse of children, the possibility of resigning, celibacy, communion for divorced Catholics, Middle East peace, scandals in the Vatican and the reform of the Vatican bank, a trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines and religious oppression in Asia, and populism in Europe, unemployment and the global economy. It was a stunning, wide-ranging, exhausting press conference. I won’t get into all his answers here. After an hour the Pope’s spokesman said he thought we should wrap it up because the crew really needed to serve the dinner. The Pope said that we could go on if we wanted, but then agreed to stop. We all applauded his willingness to go on and his openness in addressing our questions. Before leaving he asked us all to pray for him, “because I need it.” Then with a wave and a smile the Pope turned and made his way back up to the front of the plane leaving the dazed press corps momentarily speechless.