Touching the Walls – Pope Francis in the Mideast

Pope Francis praying at the barrier wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. May 25, 2014. Credit: Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis praying at the barrier wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. May 25, 2014. Credit: Osservatore Romano

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).

Orthodox Priest desperately tries to contact enthusiastic bell ringers at top of bell tower with little luck. May 25, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Orthodox Priest desperately tries to contact enthusiastic bell ringers at top of bell tower with little luck. May 25, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

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).

A soldier stands guard waiting for the Pope to arrive at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan to visit the site of the baptism of Jesus. May 24, 2014. Photo by Gianfranco Stara

A soldier stands guard waiting for the Pope to arrive at Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan to visit the site of the baptism of Jesus. May 24, 2014. Photo by Gianfranco Stara

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.

Prayer notes in Jerusalem's Western Wall. Photo by Gianfranco Stara. May 26, 2014

Prayer notes in Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Photo by Gianfranco Stara. May 26, 2014

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.

Pope Francis holds a slip of paper with the Lord's Prayer in his hand and he leans on the Western Wall in Jerusalem. May 26, 2014 Credit: Vatican Pool

Pope Francis holds a slip of paper with the Lord’s Prayer in his hand and he leans on the Western Wall in Jerusalem. May 26, 2014. This photo was taken by my colleague AP Rome Bureau Photographer Andrew Medichini for the International Agencies Pool

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.

Trisha Thomas greeting Pope Francis on the Papal Plane going from Rome to Amman. May 24, 2014. Photo by Simone Risoluti

Trisha Thomas greeting Pope Francis on the Papal Plane going from Rome to Amman. May 24, 2014. Photo by Simone Risoluti

Share this:
Share on FacebookPin on PinterestShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someone
Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

12 Comments

  1. Carina
    2014/05/27

    So cool, just curious, what did he say about communion for divorced Catholics?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/05/28

      Hi Carina –It was not one of his best answers. He was not very decisive on the issue of divorced Catholics, instead passing the ball to the big Synod in October — but just so you have it I will translate below his comment that was made in Italian:
      “The Synod will be on the family, on the problems of the family and on the richness of family and on the actual situation of families. I did not like that many people said after the first report by Cardinal Kasper that the Synod will be for allowing communion for divorced Catholics who have married again, as though the whole thing was reduced to one case. As Pope Benedict XVI said, we have to study the procedures, we have to study the procedures for the annulment of marriage, to study the faith in which people enter marriage and make it clear that divorced people are not ex-communicated. Many times they are treated almost as though they have been excommunicated.

      Reply
  2. Walter Pressey
    2014/05/27

    Dear Trisha,

    I am a retired financial services executive who ran across your blog during an earlier trip to Italy. I love getting it and have particularly been looking forward to this description of you trip with Pope Francis to the Middle-East. It did not disappoint. I will post it on my Facebook page for others to read. Thank you and keep up the great reporting.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/05/28

      Thank you Walter, I am thrilled you like my blog and you enjoyed the post on the Mideast trip. I was joking with my boss that, even though the trip was exhausting, I was in my “brodo di giuggiole” which is an Italian way of saying 7th Heaven. We slept very little because we always had to get to places ahead of the Pope and then work late once the day was done to get out or reports– but it was worth every second. I loved it.

      Reply
  3. Laney (Ortensia Blu)
    2014/05/27

    What an incredible experience! Thanks for the behind the scenes view which is really what makes the Pope and the story so fascinating.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/05/28

      Thank you Laney — I am glad you liked it. There was/is so much more to tell –the whole trip was packed with official important gestures, speeches etc, and also tons of behind-the-scenes details that were fascinating.

      Reply
  4. Nancy Rockwell
    2014/05/27

    Brava, Trisha! I will want to hear more details about your personal adventures, next time we meet. What an amazing trip – the news hear, of the Pope getting the heads of Israel and Palestine to agree to meet with him, was such a welcome bit of good news, and I was thrilled to know you were with him when this happened. I hope you will write more about this trip. Who attended the masses? Invited guests? Huge crowds? And did local priests assist him?
    The news from Jordan was also terrific, we heard clips from the Jordanian king, and he was fluent in English and wise. More hope came from this trip than from anything in long years.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/05/28

      Yes, Nancy we must get together and I will fill you in on all the details. For example, at the Mass in Jordan there were 1400 children getting their first communion. The Jordanians are such a gracious, generous and hospitable people. One big indication of that is the fact that they have taken hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Palestine over the years. The Mass in Manger Square in Bethlehem was packed with people. I had several nice photos from there. Interestingly during the day in Bethlehem, I got a sense of the poverty among Palestinians by the children. There were little boys asking people if they could have their little Palestinian flags and then they would sell them to tourists. Then as soon as the Mass was over the altar was besieged by people taking away all the flowers. Also, while my cameraman was filming something I noticed one of those cute little Palestinian boys had his hand in Gianfranco’s pocket. This is not a criticism of the Palestinian people just an indication of the level of poverty. In Jerusalem — the city was pretty much shut down because the police had created a huge security zone. All the events there were for people with invitations. I think there were 8,000 security officers on duty. For me it was incredible because I got to see all the sites in the center of Jerusalem without all the tourists around. Jerusalem is such a gorgeous city, I would love to live there. (I actually did live there for three months one summer as a young journalist and loved it). Another thing that always fascinates me about Israel is the ethnic diversity of the Israel people. There are the Orthodox, hasidic jews very present in Jerusalem, the men in black and women with covered heads. Then there are some gorgeous young women– often in military uniform– that are clearly of Ethiopian origin. There are also many men in military uniform, or police uniform that I would immediately think were Arab if they were not in an Israeli uniform.

      Reply
  5. Alan
    2014/05/28

    . . interesting stuff, Trisha – at this rate you’ll have me warming to the fellow! :-)

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/05/30

      Now don’t get carried away Alan, I wouldn’t want to see you wandering around St. Peter’s Square saying the rosary!

      Reply
  6. Beth
    2014/05/28

    The internet grapevine brought me here, to your blog, and what a wonderfully fascinating read this is! Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Also, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m less interested in the news highlights, which anyone can get from all over the web anytime, but the things that only those who’ve had access to the behind-the-scenes would know, like, why was there an embargo on the pope’s press conference? I don’t think there ever was one before.

    So I too hope you will write more posts about “tons of behind-the-scenes details that were fascinating.”

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2014/05/30

      Thank you Beth!! Ok, next time it will be all behind-the-scenes stuff. On the embargo– it was a journalists’ self-imposed embargo. They apparently did it for the first time when the Pope came back from Brazil and spoke at length on the plane. All the journalists were tense because they couldn’t file from the plane and did not want to have the race to file first coming down the stairs of the airplane. So it was agreed to give people time to get their luggage and get to the office. It was huge help for me this time because I was able to download the material from the camera disks, fix the audio (getting rid of the natural sound background noise of the airplane, and adjusting up the Microphone with the Pope’s voice) and turn it around so we could go live with it immediately when the embargo was lifted.

      Reply

Leave a Reply