January 31, 2016

The 17 Billion Euro Cover-Up

Statue of Venus at the Capitolina Museum in Rome. Credit: Museo Capitolina

Statue of Venus at the Capitolina Museum in Rome. Credit: Museo Capitolina

Dear Blog Readers –

There never seems to be a dull moment in Rome. I don’t know if it is the weather, the food, the history, the art or the fact that the Pope is here, but all the movers and shakers of the world have a habit of stopping by rather regularly. Over the years I have covered everyone from Aung San Suu Kyi to Condoleeza Rice, President Obama to President Putin and many more. I have also covered my share of Iranian leaders.

I covered Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s tense visit to Italy in 1999 when a protester threw red paint on his official car. I covered President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome in 2008 where he held a press conference and ranted about the West.

Well this week we had Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Rome and the atmosphere was very different. Rouhani’s was supposed to visit Rome and Paris in November and then the trip was canceled after the terror attacks in Paris and then rescheduled for this past week.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran holds press conference in Rome.  January 27, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Video-Journalist Paolo Santalucia

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran holds press conference in Rome. January 27, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Video-Journalist Paolo Santalucia

Rouhani’s visit came on the heels of the historic nuclear deal with the US and he seemed as though he was running a victory lap around Europe, offering up lucrative economic agreements and foreign policy advice.

No red paint on the car this time, instead a red carpet and some covered statues. The Italian government was so eager to please the Iranian leader that they boxed up statues lining the corridor that the Iranian President took to meet Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Statues in the hall at the Capitoline Museum in Rome covered up in boxes so as not to offend Iranian leader. January 25, 2016

Statues in the hall at the Capitoline Museum in Rome covered up in boxes so as not to offend Iranian leader. January 25, 2016

The two men spoke in front of the famous Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. Apparently there was even some discussion regarding the horse’s private parts and the Italians decided to have them speak at the side of the statue to avoid a clear shot of the horse’s you know what.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Iranian President Hassan Rohani speak in front of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.  January 25, 2016

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Iranian President Hassan Rohani speak in front of the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. January 25, 2016

When photos and videos of the cover-up were released, all hell broke loose. Italian commentators berated the government and comics went wild.   Many declared the Italian government had engaged in “cultural submission” and the cover-up was “shameful.”

One of my favorites was Italian comic Maurizio Crozza. In a hilarious stand-up routine he said:

“Today the President of Iran arrived. He personifies the 21st century, so much so that today he had us cover with huge white boxes Roman statues from 2000 years ago that were copies of Greek statues from 2600 years ago, and why is that? Because they represent NUDE BODIES! So, the Capitoline Venus was turned into an IKEA shoe cabinet….the man was offended by a pair of tits that are 2600 years old!!…but this man, whatever his hang-ups might be, it not a refugee, no he is a man who is providing 17 billion euros in investments for Italian businesses…. “

And that seemed to sum it up. Italy was willing to do a little cover-up in order to get their business deals locked up in a hurry.

Boxed up statue in corridor at Capitoline Museum in Rome. January 25, 2016

Boxed up statue in corridor at Capitoline Museum in Rome. January 25, 2016

When asked a few days later about this “cover-up” at a press conference in Rome, Rouhani insisted the Iranians had not requested the cover up but he added, “I know the Italians are very hospitable people, a people who try to do the most to put their guests at ease and I thank you for this.”

Indeed the Italians are hospitable (or would that be spineless) , clearly more than the French. Last November the French reportedly chose to scrap a Rouhani meal with President Francois Hollande at the Élysée Palace after the Iranians asked for wine not to be served. No wine was served at the official meals for Rouhani during his Rome visit.

Since Rouhani departed everyone seemed to be trying to cover his or her own backside and find a fall guy for the statue affair.

In the desperate attempt to find a scapegoat, several newspapers tossed the blame on Ilva Sapora, the Head of Ceremony for the Prime Minister’s office. Others pointed fingers at a young Foreign Service officer working in the Italian Foreign Ministry in Rome.

Italy’s Minister of Culture Dario Franceschini– who took Rouhani for a tour of the Coliseum– said, “I think there easily would have been other ways to not offend an important foreign guest without this incomprehensible choice of covering up the statues.”  He said both he and Renzi knew nothing about it.

While Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is ducking the blame on this one, there is apparently a precedent. When the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi visited Renzi at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence last October, the Prime Minister’s office made sure a statue on display by American artist Jeffrey Koons was covered up.

Apparently the Iranians and others had a field day on twitter:

Photo tweeted by @NavidRamaki

Photo tweeted by @NavidRamaki

I was not covering the “cover-up” event but did follow Rouhani’s visit to the Vatican. After my attempts at being a camerawoman at the White House last September (see Blog post: Hacks in Black On the Papal Plane with Pope Francis) , I had to step in when one of our cameramen had serious eye difficulties earlier this week and film Rouhani’s arrival at the Vatican. The welcoming committee of Swiss Guards, Vatican Gentlemen and Monsignors were sufficiently covered up to meet approval by everyone.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran arriving at the Vatican. January 26, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Trisha Thomas

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran arriving at the Vatican. January 26, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis has been a big supporter of the nuclear deal. According to a statement, the Pope encouraged the Iranian leader to “foster adequate political solutions to the issues plaguing the Middle East, fighting the spread of terrorism and arms trafficking.”

I also covered Rouhani’s lengthy press conference before he left. I was fascinated by many of his comments on global affairs. Unlike Ahmadinejad, I found Rouhani to be smooth in dealing with the press and easy handled a wide variety of questions. Although I obviously did not agree with him on many points, I found him intellectually sophisticated and clearly knowledgeable. Here are a few key nuggets:

In response to a question on recent tensions with Saudia Arabia following the execution of a Shiite Cleric:

“We know that Saudi Arabia has plans in the region, and they have failed and they are angry….Saudi Arabia was following its goals in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and has not been able to achieve those goals so it is angry and taking out its anger on us….in Persian we say that a person needs to drink some cool water and calm down, so Saudi Arabia needs to find other way to calm down so its anger will subside.”

On a question about doing business with the US and US sanctions:

“For just a small thing, the people of the US Congress get together and put new sanctions on Iran…the era of sanctions is over. I hope that we will have more sensible people in the US Congress…in the US, there are some problems. There is no unified voice, we can see right now there are differences between the Congress and the US Administration…”

Rouhani also said that the Pope and he had agreed that freedom of expression does not mean insulting “what is sacred to other people’s faith.”

He said:

“both of us condemned action of the sort and terrorism is condemned by us, and also insulting others is condemned. The Pope gave me an example about this. He said that if people come to you and insult your mother, are you going to like it? No, you are going to react to this.”

He seemed to be referring to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Pope Francis condemned the attacks on Charlie Hebdo but has suggested in the past that people should not insult the faith of others.

And if Rouhani wasn’t enough for one week in Rome,  we had a surprise visitor at the Vatican on Thursday. Leonardo Di Caprio showed up for a private meeting with the Pope to discuss their mutual concerns about the environment.

Pope Francis meets with Leonardo Di Caprio at the Vatican. Thursday, January 27, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV

Pope Francis meets with Leonardo Di Caprio at the Vatican. Thursday, January 27, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV

As far as I know, no one covered up any statues for Di Caprio.

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January 17, 2016

A Cigarette Butt, a Condom and a Phone Card

35-year-old Ashley Olsen who was found dead in her apartment in Florence in January, 2016. Credit: The Florentine

35-year-old Ashley Olsen who was found dead in her apartment in Florence in January, 2016. Credit: The Florentine

My cell phone rang at 6:27 am last Thursday. It was AP Television Rome’s Senior Producer Maria Grazia Murru. “Can you be on a train for Florence in half an hour. It leaves at 7:05. The prosecutor in the Ashley Olsen murder case is giving a press conference at 10am.”

I had been following this story at a distance all week. On Saturday, January 9th the body of 35-year-old American Ashley Olsen was found naked in her apartment in the Oltarno neighborhood of Florence.   Her boyfriend, a Florentine artist, had asked the landlord to let him in after he hadn’t heard from her in a few days.

Police carry out body bag with Ashley Olsen, American woman found dead in her Florence apartment

Police carry out body bag with Ashley Olsen, American woman found dead in her Florence apartment

AP sent a television crew immediately and they had filmed the quaint street on which she lived, the doorway piling up with flowers and graffiti left on the walls remembering the beautiful young woman.

Passersby read messages left by friends of Ashley Olsen outside her apartment in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra for Associated Press Television. January 14, 2016

Passersby read messages left by friends of Ashley Olsen outside her apartment in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra for Associated Press Television. January 14, 2016

Ashley Olsen had been living in Florence for years without a job, but was apparently active in the art and fashion scene. She was frequently bopping around the neighborhood with her beagle Scout and her skateboard. Olsen’s father is an art professor in Florence.

Ashley Olsen

Ashley Olsen

Shortly after her body was discovered, Italian police released a statement saying her neck was “bruised and scratched”. On Tuesday the prosecutor in the case said the initial results of the autopsy revealed that she had been strangled with a cord, but they were still investigating body fluids and other elements. On Wednesday the forensic police returned to her apartment and spent hours there leaving with large bags of filled with apparently big objects. By Wednesday evening they had arrested a Senegalese man whose DNA had matched that found on the scene of the crime.

And then I was on the train to Florence with AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra dragging computer, camera, mifi, tripod, LiveU, and cables frantic to arrive in time to cover the prosecutor’s press conference. We arrived in Florence to find pouring rain and traffic clogged up all over the city. We got to the Prosecutor’s office just in the nick of time. We set up the camera, cabled up the microfone and liveU, and connected it.

Florentine Prosecutor Giuseppe Creazzo talking about the arrest in the Ashley Olsen case.  January 14, 2015 Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Florentine Prosecutor Giuseppe Creazzo talking about the arrest in the Ashley Olsen case. January 14, 2015 Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra.

Prosecutor Giuseppe Creazzo entered the room, sat down in front of the microphones and didn’t waste time in getting right down to the gory details surrounding her death. He explained that they had arrested a 27-year-old man named Cheik Tidiane Diaw from Senegal. He said that witnesses had seen Diaw leave the Montecarla night club with Olsen, the two were filmed by a closed circuit security camera walking together towards her home on Via Santa Monaca at dawn and witnesses saw them entering her building together.

In her apartment forensic police found a used condom and a cigarette butt in the toilet, both with Diaw’s DNA.   They also found his DNA under her fingernails.

Creazzo said that they had arrested Diaw the day before and had spent the night interrogating him. Later he revealed that police had offered Diaw a cigarette during the interrogation then whisked away the ashtray and quickly sent the butt off to the laboratory for a DNA analysis.   Creazzo also said that Diaw had taken Olsen’s phone when he left her apartment and then stuck his own phone card in it to call his girlfriend.

Creazzo said that Olsen had two fractures on her cranium and that those blows to the head could have caused her death as much as the strangulation. He explained that Olsen had come home with Diaw, both already with plenty of alcohol in their systems. The two had “consensual sexual relations” after which they had probably done some drugs together.   After they consumed drugs, they had ended up in a physical struggle. The prosecutor said Olsen had been strangled with something that “was not his hands.”

As a result, Creazzo said, Diaw is accused of aggravated homicide. A judge later confirmed the arrest and Diaw remains in jail.

Newspaper articles on the death of Ashley Olsen showing the man accused of killing her.

Newspaper articles on the death of Ashley Olsen showing the man accused of killing her.

Diaw just came to Italy from Senegal a few months ago. He worked handing out flyers for nightclubs and lived with two brothers who have been Italy for longer and have legal status and jobs.

The press conference ended and Gigi and I were left with a lot of questions. We headed out – in the pouring rain – to visit (and film) Olsen’s home, the Diaw’s home and visit the church where her funeral was to be held the next day.

The street where Diaw lived with his brothers was mostly deserted. It looked like an elegant residential neighborhood, the family name did not appear on the brass intercom. I met some Italian colleagues at a coffee bar on the corner who had been let in by someone and went up to the apartment but no one answered.

We then got a call that the Olsen family was visiting the morgue. We took off in another taxi that again got stuck in traffic in the rain. I ended up leaving Gigi at the morgue waiting for the family to come out and crossed town again to meet with Father Antonio at the Santo Spirito Basilica where the funeral was to be held. I met the priest in the beautiful courtyard at the side of the Basilica and he ushered me into a small room where I chatted with him and the Bishop who would be presiding over the mass, Monsignor Giovanni Scanavino. The Bishop told me that he was upset about what was happening in the “Oltrarno” community (Note: the Arno is the river that runs through Florence so “Oltrarno” means the other side of the Arno). He said that the community was losing its humanity and the neighborhood should have done more to help a young woman like Olsen and keep her away from drugs and alcohol.

While Gigi and I were running around, my colleague Maria Grazia had booked us a hotel on the Piazza Santo Spirito near both the church and Ashley’s apartment. Although it was only three stars it was a beautiful hotel with gorgeous old rooms. After the meeting at the church I retreated to my room to re-group. Gigi was still stuck outside the morgue in the rain waiting for the Olsen family to emerge.

My room at the Hotel Guadagni in Florence. January 14, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

My room at the Hotel Guadagni in Florence. January 14, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

As I worked on plans for coverage of the funeral the next day, my colleague, AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield, called. She had been talking to Diaw’s lawyer, and he was willing to give us a TV interview. I jumped in another taxi and again had to cross Florence in the heavy rain. Lawyer Antonio Voce’s office was on the outskirts of Florence in a modern building. I stepped in the small elevator and as it slowly made its way up to the 7th floor I started contemplating the case, thinking of Ashley Olsen in a casket at the morgue and running over words that start with “mor” – morgue, morphine, morto, morbid, moribund, mortal — Suddenly I was overwhelmed with claustrophobia and felt that the elevator was like a coffin.

Diaw’s lawyer had been up all night assisting his client, but at 8pm he was still wired and eager to tell Diaw’s side of the story. He told us that when Diaw met with Olsen at the Montecarla club, they were both drunk. They went to her home together and had sex. He said there were abundant amounts of alcohol and cocaine involved.

Voce explained that after sex, Olsen told Diaw to leave. According to Voce he felt “exploited”, and “treated like a dog”, “he said he would leave without hurrying, she pushed him and he fell into the door, he reacted by punching her and she fell to the ground. After falling on the ground, she got back up, she pushed him away again, and at that point he pushed her and she fell to the ground hitting her head.”

There are a lot more details that are not that clear. Diaw said he put her back on the bed and when he left she was still alive. He says he punched her in the neck but did not strangle her, but the prosecutor said she was strangled with something like a cell phone charger cord or a rope.

The prosecutor excluded the possibility of erotic games what would involve a cord around the neck. “You would use a foulard for that kind of thing,” my cameraman colleague Paolo Lucariello explained to all of us the next day as we waited outside the church for the funeral.

That evening the Olsen family released a statement thanking the Italian investigators for their “swift apprehension of the perpetrator”. Many of us who covered the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case thought the Italian authorities – who were widely accused of botching the Kercher crime scene – were eager to avoid a similar situation, especially when they were again in the media spotlight.

Thursday night we worked late editing and then got a bite to eat at a restaurant next to our hotel. I had a couple of glasses of wine before heading to bed in my enormous room at the Hotel Guadagni. The room had huge French doors leading to a balcony, enormous mirrors on the walls, and sheer white curtains. I collapsed in a deep sleep then woke up at sometime in the night. I was thinking of Ashley and felt a presence in the room. A crack in the shutters threw a little streetlight on one of the mirrors that reflected the curtains. I thought it was Ashley’s ghost. I closed my eyes and tried to go back sleep.

Ashley Olsen's casket being carried out of the Santo Spirito Basilica in Florence following her funeral. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra. January 13, 2015

Ashley Olsen’s casket being carried out of the Santo Spirito Basilica in Florence following her funeral. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra. January 13, 2015

 

 

On Friday we covered the funeral at the Basilica of Santo Spirito, just around the corner from her home. There were a lot of TV cameras outside, but none were allowed inside. Her friends came, many of them carrying single roses—red, pink, white. Her boyfriend Federico Fiorentini, looked anguished as he walked in with a huge bouquet of red roses. Throughout the ceremony he held Olsen’s beagle Scout in his arms. Scout seemed to understand the solemnity of the situation and sat patiently throughout. As he came out on his leash, Gigi caught a shot of Scout and the poor dog appeared to be in mourning.

Ashley Olsen's loyal beagle Scout - looking very mournful-  leaves church following  funeral. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. January 15, 2015

Ashley Olsen’s loyal beagle Scout – looking very mournful- leaves church following funeral. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. January 15, 2015

After the funeral the family took her to a Florentine cemetery to be buried. Her lawyer told me that in a homicide case a body cannot be cremated or taken out of the country, so that explains the decision for her burial in her adopted home.

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December 12, 2015

Opening the Door

Pope Francis pushes open the Holy Door on St. Peter's Basilica. December 8, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Pope Francis pushes open the Holy Door on St. Peter’s Basilica. December 8, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Dear Blog Readers,

Since we are all caught up in the pre-holiday frenzy and surely no one has much time to read blog posts, I will keep this one brief.

This week I covered the December 8th opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the Vatican. During this event, Pope Francis pushed open the Holy Door on St. Peter’s Basilica and passed through it. My AP colleague Gregorio Borgia was in the pool of photographers who were allowed up close as the Pope opened the door, and Gregorio has kindly given me a few of his fabulous extra, unused photos. The photos used by AP were on the front page of “The International New York Times”—just to give you all an idea of how lucky my blog is to have such contributions.

Given the media drumbeat over the past few weeks warning of the potential of a IS terror attack on the Vatican, it came as no surprise that the turnout was relatively small. Official estimates said the turnout was around 50,000, and there were an extra 5,000 police and soldiers put on duty to protect pilgrims coming to the event. Police created a big security zone around the Vatican and anyone entering the area had to open their bags for searching, unzip their jackets and be frisked by hand-held metal detectors. People entering St. Peter’s Square then went through regular airport-style metal detectors.

Interestingly, during the ceremony for the opening of the Holy Door in the 2000 jubilee year, AP Television relied on Vatican TV coverage and did not send a crew. Despite the fact that the Vatican TV had a total of 19 cameras dedicated to their live coverage of this week’s event, we still provided our own. This time there were nine of us from AP Television covering the event. We had a team on overnight to film pilgrims arriving and prayer vigils. I started at 6am with a cameraman to get pilgrims arriving in St. Peter’s Square. We actually had much less to do than we expected given the low turnout.

Pope Francis pushes open the Holy Door on St. Peter's Basilica. December 8, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Pope Francis pushes open the Holy Door on St. Peter’s Basilica. December 8, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia

Background:

For those readers who are not familiar with the Catholic tradition of Jubilee Years, it began under Pope Boniface VII in 1300. The idea was for pilgrims to travel on foot to Rome, pass through the doors of the great basilicas and for doing that (combined with confession, communion, renunciation of sin, prayer for the Pope, and charitable works) the church would grant an “indulgence” for the forgiveness of their sins. (More on the Indulgences below). The original idea was to have a Jubilee year every 100 years.

According to the Vatican, among the famous participants in that first Catholic Jubilee year were: Dante, Giotto and Charles de Valois, brother of the King of France.

Later Popes increased the frequency of what has become known as “ordinary” Jubilee years to every 25 years. But there are also “extraordinary” jubilee years. Pope Francis’ “Jubilee of Mercy” is the 65th “extraordinary” jubilee in the history of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis has decided to expand the doors and indulgence concept to include Holy Doors in Catholic churches around the globe. He opened the first “Holy Door” at the Cathedral in Bangui in the Central African Republic on his visit there in November.

In a letter written on September 1st, Pope Francis outlined how the church would grant indulgences during the extraordinary jubilee year. He specifically reached out to prison inmates and women who have undergone abortions. Here are some excerpts from his letter.

For the Catholic Faithful:

“To experience and obtain the Indulgence, the faithful are called to make a brief pilgrimage to the Holy Door, open in every Cathedral or in the churches designated by the Diocesan Bishop, and in the four Papal Basilicas in Rome, as a sign of the deep desire for true conversion.”

For prisoners:

“My thoughts also turn to those incarcerated, whose freedom is limited. The Jubilee Year has always constituted an opportunity for great amnesty, which is intended to include the many people who, despite deserving punishment, have become conscious of the injustice they worked and sincerely wish to re-enter society and make their honest contribution to it. May they all be touched in a tangible way by the mercy of the Father who wants to be close to those who have the greatest need of his forgiveness. They may obtain the Indulgence in the chapels of the prisons.”

For Women who have had an abortion:

“The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”

Of course Catholic Church “indulgences” have a bad reputation harking back to the Middle Ages when they were sold.

Martin Luther, the friar who kicked off the Reformation with his famous 95 theses, dedicated many of them to the question of indulgences being sold by the Church. And perhaps the historic cloud that hangs over the word indulgences somehow prompted the ire of the piqued prelate in my earlier post (Questioning Indulgences with a Piqued Prelate).

 

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December 3, 2015

Questioning Indulgences with a Piqued Prelate

Archbishop Rino Fisichella gets irritated over question on indulgence at a press conference in Rome. December 3, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia

Archbishop Rino Fisichella gets irritated over question on indulgence at a press conference in Rome. December 3, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot for AP Television by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia

Today I had to cover a press conference on the preparations for the Jubilee of Mercy which starts in Rome on December 8th. It was organized by the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi in a fabulous room in the Lateran Palace (part of the Saint John the Lateran Complex in Rome). I was working with my colleague Paolo Santalucia and we were particularly interested in getting a soundbite from Archbishop Rino Fisichella who is head of the Pontifical Council for Promotion of the New Evangelisation and a key figure in the organization of the Jubilee.

As Paolo and I took a taxi to the event we talked about what kind of comment we needed. We are preparing a preview story on the Jubilee including pilgrims arriving on foot, security boosted around the Vatican and a look at the Holy Doors. We decided we needed an explanation from the Archbishop on the tradition of the Holy Doors and indulgence and some of the practicalities surrounding it during this Jubilee.

We have learned that pilgrims coming to Rome for this Jubilee can sign up on line for an appointment to go through the Holy Doors and can get a certificate after they do. We wanted more information on that whole process.

Press Conference on the Jubilee of Mercy at the Lateran Palace in Rome. December 3, 2015.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia

Press Conference on the Jubilee of Mercy at the Lateran Palace in Rome. December 3, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia

One thing I have learned from my 30 years as a journalist is there is never a dumb question. AP has 8500 subscribers in 120 countries. We deliver news to a lot of people who are not Catholic and may not know how a jubilee works. There are also plenty of Catholics around the world who do not understand how the Jubilee works. I need to ask the questions they might want to know the answers to.

The press conference was an event where various businesses described contributions they were making to the jubilee.   Prior to the press conference a large group – who seemed to be from the various companies– got a private tour of the palace. Afterwards, there was a nice buffet. When the press conference began, a top official from Alitalia spoke of special flights for Pilgrims coming to the jubilee, and a top official from the Italian train company spoke of special trains for pilgrims.

Finally it was Archbishop Fisichella’s turn to speak and he began by explaining that the reason he was wearing his elegant Archbishop’s vestments was that he had just come from a meeting with the Pope “therefore I had to be dressed in this way.” Otherwise, he said, he would have worn simple priestly vestments.

He went on to say that the Jubilee is a spiritual event in which everyone needs to feel the beauty and mercy of God.

Eventually they opened it up to questions. The Archbishop seemed impatient. Finally I got my turn so I asked my question and somehow managed to infuriate the Archbishop who could barely control his hostility and ended up telling me in a patronizing tone that he would fail me at school because I do not even know the ABCs of indulgence.

Fortunately, we had all this on camera so I was able to go back and transcribe it later. This is how it went:

TRISHA THOMAS:

“My name is Trisha Thomas, I am from Associated Press Television and I have a question for Cardinal Fisichella. Could you explain to us in a very simple way for pilgrims who are coming from all over the world how does this indulgence work? They can do the inscription on line, then they can go through the doors, then how does it work after that? They have a certificate, or something to keep for themselves, or is it something personal that they have and that is all?”

ARCHBISHOP RINO FISICHELLA:

“Look if you think that to obtain an indulgence it is necessary to have a document I fear that you create in me the spirit of the old University professor and I will have to send you back to school because it is clear that you do not know the ABCs of indulgence.”

(Here there was a general snickering as all the business people – clearly good Catholics and well informed on indulgence– got a laugh)

He went on:

“But because I do not want to be rude, and because at 3pm I have to go to the Vatican and then return again here to the Lateran, the time – even in 5 minutes – to explain what is indulgence would be very difficult for me. I invite you to read “”the Signs of the Jubilee” (the Archbishop’s book), where there is a chapter on the indulgence.”

At this point, I started to get a bit miffed by his patronizing attitude, and since I still had the microphone in my hand, I decided to clarify:

TRISHA:

“I am asking you this because we are a television new agency that goes all over the world, and we have heard …

FISICHELLA (INTERRUPTING AND CLEARLY VERY IRRITATED)

“…but you cannot ask me if you can get a certificate for an indulgence because there does not exist any certificate for the indulgence..

TRISHA

“We have heard that there will be…”

FISCHELLA (INTERRUPTING):

“to obtain an indulgence you only have to confess,

TRISHA (INTERUPTING)

“We know that…”

FISICHELLA:

“and we don’t hand out a document that someone has confessed,” — at the point he angrily shoved his microphone away

TRISHA:

“I am sorry, obviously we know that there is all the Catholic tradition, but we have heard there will be certificates, so you are telling me this is an error?”

FISICHELLA (CLEARLY ANGRY)

“A certificate of indulgence does not exist, so who could have told you nonsense like that!! Tell me who said it?? Because there does not exist any certificate for any indulgence!! There exists a certificate for who comes on foot or for who wants to say that he participated in the Jubilee but not the indulgence. Those who come on foot and participate as a pilgrim on foot can come to number 5 on Via Della Conciliazione and will get a diploma that he has made the pilgrimage on foot, which does not mean he has gotten an indulgence.”

So it turns out there is a certificate. It is not a certificate of indulgence, but it is a certificate of participation in the Jubilee.

After I left the office today a young woman from the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggio called and apologized for the Archbishop’s comments and said my question was perfectly legitimate.  She then offered me an interview with someone else.  I am wondering why my question about the certificates hit such a nerve.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella at a press conference on the Jubilee of Mercy starting December 8th. December 3, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella at a press conference on the Jubilee of Mercy starting December 8th. December 3, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia.

I have covered several of Pope Francis’ conferences aboard the Papal plane in which he has taken all sorts of questions from journalists from all over the world and never showed such arrogance or impatience.  I have also covered dozens of press conferences with the gentle Papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi who has had to field a vast array of sometimes inane questions from journalists who have no clue about the Catholic Church.  He always does so with patience and grace.

And for those of you who might not be experts on “indulgence” and have not read the key chapter in Archbishop’s Fisichella’s book on “indulgence”, below is a definition from the Code of Canon Law (can. 992):

“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”.

Right.

In layman’s terms I would say it is a basic washing up, a clearing away of sins. During a Jubilee Year, a Catholic who has confessed his or her sins and passes through the door will receive a special indulgence. But indulgence is a complicated issue with a rather tainted past and deserves a longer post. This one is dedicated to a piqued prelate.

 

 

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November 29, 2015

Scraping Away at Ghiberti’s North Doors

A restorer uses a scalpel to scrape away grime on Ghiberti's North Doors in laboratory in Florence. Credit: Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/ Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

A restorer uses a scalpel to scrape away grime on Ghiberti’s North Doors in laboratory in Florence. Credit: Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/ Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

Last week I had the rare opportunity to dedicate myself for two days to a feature story in Florence, the restoration of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s North Doors on the Florence baptistery and the making of a replica. After becoming discouraged about the current situation in Rome (see last post “Ravishing, Rotten Rome”) it was refreshing to spend time in the charming, well-run city of Florence and meet with artisans and restorers who represent the best of Italy.

The story was on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s North Doors of the Florentine Baptistery.

Florentine artist, sculptor, goldsmith and architect Lorenzo Ghiberti took over 20 years to make the bronze doors completing them in 1424. The doors have 28 panels, most with scenes from the New Testament. Each panel is a bronze engraving gilded in 24-karat gold. Over the years millions of tourists have stopped to stare at the doors, but in recent years the once magnificent panels have become grime-covered and difficult to appreciate.

The restoration team at work cleaning Ghiberti's North Doors. Credit: Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/ Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

The restoration team at work cleaning Ghiberti’s North Doors. Credit: Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/ Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

Over the past two had a half years a team of nine restorers has been working to restore the doors. They finished their work this fall and the completely restored doors are now on display in the Museum of the Opera Del Duomo.

The restoration began in March 2013 when the North Doors were removed from the baptistery and taken to a nearby laboratory for the restoration, no small feat given that the massive North Doors are five meters (16.4 feet) tall and 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) wide and weigh 9 tons.

Then, millimeter by millimeter, using scalpels, lasers, chemical compresses and q-tips the nine restorers worked their way over the 600-year-old Renaissance masterpiece.

The gold gilding reappears on the partially restored head on Ghiberti's North Doors. Credit: Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/ Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

The gold gilding reappears on the partially restored head on Ghiberti’s North Doors. Credit: Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore/ Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

As the restorers scraped off the grime, the 24-karat gold gilding came back to light, and little creatures, such as insects and a split-tailed gecko emerged.

I had the chance to interview Stefania Agnoletti, the head of the restoring team and she explained that they used scalpels, dentists’ magnifying glasses, lasers and even tiny needles to clean tiny details on the door.

On the night of September 10th workers moved the massive door from the laboratory to its new home, the New Museum of the Opera del Duomo, where it stands in an acclimatized case next to Ghiberti’s other restored door, “The Gates of Paradise.”

Tourists checking out the newly restored North Doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti inside the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 20, 2015

Tourists checking out the newly restored North Doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 20, 2015

The restoration of the doors has gone hand in hand with the creation of an exact replica of Ghiberti’s original doors, which is nearing completion at a foundry near Florence and will be put on the Florence Baptistery in January.

The Florence Baptistery.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra. Florence, November 20, 2015

The Florence Baptistery. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra. Florence, November 20, 2015

The project is being funded using a method of art adoptions.   Philanthropists organized by a group called the Guild of the Dome, are each paying for the restoration and replica of one of the panels. Each panel costs a donor 150,000 Euros. By adopting a panel, each donor will have his or her name etched in the back in honor of their gift. The donors are from Russia, the US, Taiwan, India, Italy, Mexico and Israel, and Europe.

Enrico Marinelli, the ebullient President of the Guild of the Dome and also President of the Frilli Gallery drove me out to the Ciglia and Carrai Foundry where the replica is being made. The Frilli Gallery also handled the creation of the replica of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” doors, which were put on the Baptistery in 1990.

Workers pouring liquid bronze into mold as part of work to create a replica of Ghiberti's North Door. Credit: Frilli Gallery

Workers pouring liquid bronze into mold as part of work to create a replica of Ghiberti’s North Door. Credit: Frilli Gallery

Entering the foundry I was immediately accosted by the loud noise, smoke and strong fumes. Artists and artisans were busily working with bronze, hammers, wax and chisels to complete the replica of the door in time for the inauguration on the baptistery on January 23, 2016.

There are 15 artisans on the team who have been working for the past four years to create an exact replica of the Lorenzo Ghiberti’s North Door. The original doors were made using a technique called Lost Wax Bronze Casting, the same method being used to make the replica at the Ciglia and Carrai foundry.

Jacopo Ciglia, head of the team making the replica, explained the process to me. Because they were not allowed to make molds from the original panels, they used 3D laser scans to create a silicon mold. From the silicon mold they created a wax prototype. They then used the same process that Ghiberti used called “Lost Wax Casting” in which the liquid bronze is poured into the wax cast which melts away. The final stages include the chiseling of all the details and the polishing of the bronze panels.

Close up of work in progress on "The Crucifixion" panel on the replica of Ghiberti's North Doors.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra. Florence, November 20, 2015

Close up of work in progress on “The Crucifixion” panel on the replica of Ghiberti’s North Doors. Freeze frame of video shot by AP cameraman Gigi Navarra. Florence, November 20, 2015

Ciglia said it has been a tough job as they have endeavored to precisely replicate Ghiberti’s work, spending days trying to accurately copy details such as eyes and feet. He said they struggled for weeks over Christ’s belly button in the crucifixion panel noting, “It was complicated trying to capture the expression of the belly button as it was in Ghiberti’s original.”

Close up of head on replica of Ghiberti's North Doors. Freeze frame of video shot by Gigi Navarra for AP Television. November 20, 2015

Close up of head on replica of Ghiberti’s North Doors. Freeze frame of video shot by Gigi Navarra for AP Television. November 20, 2015

The artisans pointed out borders on clothing, designs on helmets on warriors, and a gecko’s tail split in two, apparently a sign of good luck, along the border of the door.

Artist Andrea Romanelli chiseling the hair on the figures in "The Last Supper" Panel on the replica of Ghiberti's North Doors. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 20, 2015

Artist Andrea Romanelli chiseling the hair on the figures in “The Last Supper” Panel on the replica of Ghiberti’s North Doors. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 20, 2015

Andrea Romanelli, one of the Master Chiselers was carefully chiseling the fine detail into each panel. He had a box with hundreds of small metal tools similar to those used by Ghiberti to complete his task. Romanelli proudly demonstrated for my cameraman and me how he chiseled a curl in the hair of an apostle in the panel of “The Last Supper.”   He noted that his replica maintains every detail in the hairstyles, the embroidery on the cloths, and the architectural designs on the panels even in areas of the panels that would be out of sight to someone looking at the door.

Sculptor Marco Degl'Innocenti working on wax prototype for panel "The Temptation of Christ" for the replica of Lorenzo Ghiberti's North Doors. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 20, 2015

Sculptor Marco Degl’Innocenti working on wax prototype for panel “The Temptation of Christ” for the replica of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s North Doors. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gigi Navarra. November 20, 2015

While the ovens burned below, upstairs we filmed sculptor Marco Degli’Innocenti as he carefully used q-tips and small wooden implements to work on a wax prototype of the panel showing “The Temptation of Christ”.   Wearing thick magnifying glasses, he worked his wooden implement around the scales on the clawed foot of the devil figure. “It is called Lost Wax Casting because the wax goes away and magically it has transformed into bronze everything that was in wax,” Degl’Innocenzi explained.

 

Artisans putting together the bronze frames to go around the panels on the replica of Ghiberti's North Doors. Credit: Frilli Gallery

Artisans putting together the bronze frames to go around the panels on the replica of Ghiberti’s North Doors. Credit: Frilli Gallery

The artisans spent six months studying Ghiberti’s North Doors before beginning work on the replica which has been going on for four years. Clara Marinelli of the Frilli Gallery told me in the past four years they have used 1 ton of silicon, 400 kilos of wax and 3.5 tons of bronze to make the replica of the North Doors.

Top shot of Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra. Florence, November 20, 2015

Top shot of Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra. Florence, November 20, 2015

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November 16, 2015

Ravishing, Rotten Rome

Two priests in "cappelli romani" watching the Finance Police marching band in Piazza del Popolo. November 5, 2015 Photo by Trisha Thomas

Two priests in “cappelli romani” watching the Finance Police marching band in Piazza del Popolo. November 5, 2015 Photo by Trisha Thomas

The other night I happened to be passing through Piazza del Popolo at dusk as I headed home from work. My mind was spinning around the events of the day: a massive corruption trial in Rome, and more scandals at the Vatican. As I briskly clipped my way over the cobblestones, my thoughts, interspersed with typical mama multi-tasking, went something like this: “Damn, I forgot to get the meat out of the freezer for dinner,” “Could Cardinal Bertone really have used 200,000 euros destined for Rome’s Vatican-run children’s hospital to renovate his spacious roof-top apartment?”, “I wonder if the girls took out the dog since I am late?”, “Where are all the defendants being held in the Mafia Capitale trial?”

Suddenly, my way was blocked by the Italian Finance Police marching band making its way around the piazza. I skirted around the edge of the band and then saw two portly priests wearing “the cappello romano” (translated: The Roman Hat) – a round hat with round top sometimes worn by the clergy. One of them grasped his plump hands behind his back. “Only man in Rome who doesn’t seem to have his hands in the cookie jar today,” I thought to myself.

I passed them and then turned back to look again. There were purplish-grey clouds in the sky and light glinting off the top of the Church of Santa Maria di Montesanto. The ravishing loveliness of Rome halted me in my tracks. And being the multi-media mama that I am, I took out my cell phone, snapped a photo and tweeted it with an inane comment, and then turned and rushed home.

But the moment remained in my mind because it happens often in this city. The beauty, the sacred and profane all mixed up, takes your breath away and makes you forget its rotting core.

So what is rotting?

Well this past week the “Mafia Capitale” trial kicked off with 46 defendants including businessmen, politicians and common criminals all accused of being wrapped up in a racket with Rome’s City Hall. The businessmen were lining the pockets of city hall officials to get lucrative contacts for garbage collection, park maintenance, and shelters for migrants, among other things. While grass has grown up in the city parks, broken fountains remain that way, fallen trees stay where they land, and garbage lies around the city streets, these men were getting rich.

Politicians from across the political spectrum are accused of making a buck off the city of Rome. (see blog post “Rome’s Middle World”)

Nighttime view of the Vatican from a bridge on the Tiber. Photo by Trisha Thomas. March 18, 2015

Nighttime view of the Vatican from a bridge on the Tiber. Photo by Trisha Thomas. March 18, 2015

Meanwhile, across the Tiber over at the Vatican, there is something that stinks of rot as well. Two new books on the Vatican have revealed financial mismanagement, corruption and strong resistance to Pope Francis’ efforts to reform the Curia (the Vatican government.)

Just before the books came out, the Vatican announced the arrest of a Spanish Monsignor accused of leaking documents to the press. He is still in jail at the Vatican. With him, the Vatican accused a young woman who has been working at the Vatican (she was quickly released after agreeing to cooperate with the investigation).

“Avarice” by Emiliano Fittipaldi, revealed documents showing that the former Vatican Secretary of State under Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, used 200,000 euros intended for a Children’s Hospital run by the Vatican to renovate his enormous Vatican apartment with a large roof terrace. “Merchants in the Temple” by Gianluigi Nuzzi showed how hundreds of thousands of euros in donations are spent to “make” Saints, with no one checking on how the money is spent.   It revealed that the Vatican owns thousands of apartments in Rome but charges rent way below market value and loses millions of euros. And both books showed how money that is donated for charity often ends up being spent on the Vatican administration.

To be honest, much of what was revealed in details, using Vatican documents, is actually common knowledge in Rome. Everyone knows that to get an apartment, store or studio owned by the Vatican in Rome is like winning the lottery – low rent, flexible arrangements. As far as Cardinals’ apartments are concerned, any journalist who has interviewed a Cardinal in his home in Rome knows that the Vatican provides the Princes of the Church generously large apartments. All this has been taken for granted for the past 23 years I’ve been in Rome, and much before that.

But now Pope Francis is trying to push through massive reforms at the Vatican. He is trying to make the church a place for the poor and is leading through example, eschewing the Papal apartment in the Apostolic palace and living in a small space in the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence.

At a press conference last week to promote his book, Gianluigi Nuzzi said that the Pope’s collaborators say there is a “war in the Vatican” between the reformers and those who are trying to slow the Pope’s efforts to change the place.

It wasn’t long before the Pope was speaking out himself. In his daily morning mass to a small group at the Santa Marta residence Pope Francis denigrated the priests and bishops who lead a “double life.” He spoke of his sadness on seeing those in the church who are “climbers” and “attached to money”.

The Pope went even further in his Sunday angelus, speaking from a window above Saint Peter’s Square to the crowd below he said, “I know that many of you have been upset by the news circulating in recent days concerning the Holy See’s confidential documents that were taken and published. For this reason I want to tell you, first of all, that stealing those documents was a crime. It’s a deplorable act…”

A few day later the Vatican announced that it was also investigating the two journalist/authors who wrote the books for “their possible participation in the crime of dissemination of news and confidential documents.”  Author Gianluigi Nuzzi has been summoned to the Vatican tomorrow (Tuesday morning) to talk to investigators but he has said he will not go.

I can understand the Pope’s anger and frustration over all these revelations, but I am not convinced shooting the messenger will help.

The Italian press has dubbed this month’s crisis as “Vatileaks II” bringing back to mind the documents leaked by then Pope Benedict XVI’s butler which many say led to Ratzinger’s unprecedented resignation. (see blog posts: “The Butler Did It” and “The Pope’s Butler Takes the Stand.”

An image of a Madonna with child keeps an eye on a worker on Palazzo Grazioli on the corner of Via della Gatta in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

An image of a Madonna with child keeps an eye on a worker on Palazzo Grazioli on the corner of Via della Gatta in Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas

But what would Rome and the Vatican be with out elegant Cardinals in flowing red robes living in opulent apartments and fashionably-dressed, smarmy Italian politicians in cahoots with criminals?

Crossing back over the Tiber, leaving the luxury apartments of climbing cardinals, we can sink back into the muck beneath the magnificent surface of the city.

The “Mafia Capitale” trial will move this week from the Rome courthouse to the court inside Rebibbia Prison on the outskirts or Rome where many of the defendants are being held. Although the trial is still in its preliminary stages it is guaranteed to reveal how the city’s government was infiltrated by this criminal group and how weak politicians quickly took the money leaving Rome a ruin.

A view out over the Roman Forum towards the temple of Venus from the Coliseum. April 3, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A view out over the Roman Forum towards the temple of Venus from the Coliseum. April 3, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

 

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October 9, 2015

Hopes, Dreams and Humidity with Pope Francis in Cuba

A cigar store in Havana, Cuba with sign welcoming Pope Francis.  Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. September 18, 2015

A cigar store in Havana, Cuba with sign welcoming Pope Francis. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. September 18, 2015

Dear Blog Readers,

After my lengthy post on the Papal trip to the United States (Hacks in Black: On the Papal Plane with Pope Francis), I am going to keep my post on the Cuba leg short. I want to share some of the photos, especially those taken by my AP photographer colleague Alessandra Tarantino, and will accompany them with just a few thoughts.  This is not at all a proper report or analysis of the trip just a few impressions.

When we got off the plane in Havana, two things struck me immediately; first, the incredible heat and humidity. We climbed down the stairs from the air-conditioned plane and with in moments were dripping with sweat.

Cubans greet Pope Francis at Havana Airport on his arrival. September 19, 2015 - Photo by Trisha Thomas

Cubans greet Pope Francis at Havana Airport on his arrival. September 19, 2015 – Photo by Trisha Thomas

As modern journalists we are all obsessed with sending information-not only sending written and video stories, but tweeting, periscoping, facebooking etc. We struggled to get through the welcome ceremony with speeches by both the Pope and President Raul Castro without being able to file our stories. A woman told us there was a WIFI at the airport and presented us with a lengthy, complicated password and the press corps crowded around her desperate to get it right, but it did not work. We had to wait until we got to the press center at the elegant old Hotel Nacional in Havana. (Being a journalist was so much better before the age of internet and cell phones – we actually had to take time to think things through before we filed back then)

Cuban woman walks past sign welcoming Pope Francis on a door in Havana, Cuba. September 18, 2015. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Cuban woman walks past sign welcoming Pope Francis on a door in Havana, Cuba. September 18, 2015. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

The second thing I noticed was the poverty. There were some attractive young Cuban women helping with the press at the airport, and they were dressed elegantly and professionally for the event, but I noticed that their shoes looked old and worn.   In the crowd at the airport no one was waving a cell phone or an ipad to catch a photo of the Pope – they did not have them.

As our bus drove into Havana from the airport, crowds of people lined the road waving and cheering as the Pope past.   It was an important event for the country and everyone was coming out to see what was going on.

French Vatican Correspondent Antoine Izoard of I. Media enjoys a cigar at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba shortly after arriving. Photo by Trisha Thomas. September 19, 2015

French Vatican Correspondent Antoine Izoard of I. Media enjoys a cigar at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba shortly after arriving. Photo by Trisha Thomas. September 19, 2015

Our first night in Cuba was one of our only free moments on the trip. I noticed French correspondent Antoine Izoard of I.Media quickly found a Cuban cigar to enjoy.

As soon as we filed our report on the Pope’s brief comments on the plane, AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia and I headed out to see Havana. I couldn’t help being the gawking tourist when I saw the old American cars.

There seemed to be some very handsome Cuban men hanging around our hotel in old American convertibles clearly eager to offer their company to rich female tourists.

 

Old American car on the street in Havana, Cuba.  Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma, September 18, 2015

Old American car on the street in Havana, Cuba. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma, September 18, 2015

First stop was the gorgeous old San Cristobal Cathedral where the Pope would say Vespers the next day. We wandered down the street to the “Bodeguita del Medio” – the bar/restaurant when the Mojito was supposedly invented and was once frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Neruda, Nat King Cole and other notable figures.

Mojitos on Bar at De

Mojitos on Bar at De

 

There was a fabulous band playing at the entrance with five women and two men. The flute and cello players particularly impressed me. The music was contagious, the mojito delicious and I was soon buzzing with a high on adrenalin, humidity and rum.

 

 

View from a Cuban taxi in Havana, Cuba. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. September 18, 2015

View from a Cuban taxi in Havana, Cuba. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma. September 18, 2015

From there we wandered the streets of the old city, which had clearly been cleaned up for the Pope, to the Plaza Vieja, a lovely large square with Colonial style buildings all around it. There we ate dinner—lobster tails–and listened to another fantastic band with an incredible clarinet team.  Cubans seem to have an innate musical talent that could be seen as they played at bars and restaurants, but sometimes we saw people playing all by themselves just enjoying the instrument and the sound.

 

Clarinet and Trumpet player at restaurant in Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba. Photo by Trisha Thomas. September 19, 2015

Clarinet and Trumpet player at restaurant in Plaza Vieja, Havana, Cuba. Photo by Trisha Thomas. September 19, 2015

A Cuban man on the Malecon seawall playing the trumped all by himself.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. September 20, 2015

A Cuban man on the Malecon seawall playing the trumped all by himself. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. September 20, 2015

By the end of the meal I was fading dramatically and had to return to the hotel so I would be able to make my 5am wakeup for the Papal speeches.

At dawn we were taken to the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana. Here are some photos from the Mass there with the Pope.

Cubans wait for Pope Francis in Plaza de la Revolucion. Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia

Cubans wait for Pope Francis in Plaza de la Revolucion. Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia

I loved this nun photographer.

Nun-Photographer waiting for Pope Francis in Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Nun-Photographer waiting for Pope Francis in Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

In the afternoon we returned to the San Cristobal Cathedral to wait for the Pope to say Vespers with the priests, nuns and seminarians. The San Cristobal Church did not have air conditioning, and the few fans they did have were turned off so they could have enough power to turn on the lights when the Pope came. We waited and waited, and slowly turned into soaking wet messes.

Finally they allowed us to go out and stand on the side street to get a breath of air. My colleagues went off in search of some water.

Jaime Lopez Lopez of Televisa Mexico, Paloma Garcia Ovejero of Cadena Cope, and Paolo Santalucia of AP Television bring water back to their colleagues in the Cathedral of San Cristobal, Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Jaime Lopez Lopez of Televisa Mexico, Paloma Garcia Ovejero of Cadena Cope, and Paolo Santalucia of AP Television bring water back to their colleagues in the Cathedral of San Cristobal, Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope Francis arrives for an evening vespers service in the San Cristobal cathedral, Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis arrives for an evening vespers service in the San Cristobal cathedral, Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

After the Vespers the Pope met with young people who had gathered in the rain to hear him speak. As he did several times on the trip, he tossed his prepared remarks and delivered a speech on dreams. I found it one of the most simple but inspiring speeches of his whole trip. Here are a few quotes from it:

“A young person who is not capable of dreaming is cloistered in himself, he’s closed in on himself. Sure, a person sometimes dreams of things that are never going to happen. But dream them. Desire them. Seek the horizon. Open yourselves to great things.”

“Open yourselves and dream. Dream that the world with you can be different. Dream that if you give the best of yourself, you are going to help this world be different. Don’t forget. Dream. If you get carried away and dream too much and life cuts you off, don’t worry. Dream and share your dreams. Speak about the great things that you want, because inasmuch as your capacity to dream is greater, when life leaves you only half way, you will have gone farther. So, first dream.”

The next morning we left at dawn for Holguin. Again, I was struck at the simplicity of the people and the poverty.  The heat was oppressive and I wondered how all the faithful at the Mass managed to stay under the hot sun without fainting. After lunch we headed by to the airport and I notice a huge billboard on the side of the road condemning the US blockage.

Road sign in Holguin, Cuba. Reads: Blockade: The Largest Genocide in History.  Photo by Trisha Thomas. Holguin, Cuba, September 21, 2015

Road sign in Holguin, Cuba. Reads: Blockade: The Largest Genocide in History. Photo by Trisha Thomas. Holguin, Cuba, September 21, 2015

The last place we visited in Cuba was Santiago de Cuba. The evening we arrived, I was lucky to be in a small pool that was allowed to cover the Pope visiting the Sanctuary of the Vergin de la Caridad del Cobre, the Patron Saint of Cuba. The Sanctuary is about a half hour drive through the verdant countryside into the hills.

AP Video-Journalists films the view from the Santuary of the Virgen de la Caridad in Cobre,  Cuba. September 21, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Video-Journalists films the view from the Santuary of the Virgen de la Caridad in Cobre, Cuba. September 21, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

For the history of the Virgin de la Caridad, see pre-trip post on Cuba: “Pope Francis: Revving up for Cuba.”

A close up of the Virgen de la Caridad, Patron Saint of Cuba. Photo by Trisha Thomas.  September 21, 2015

A close up of the Virgen de la Caridad, Patron Saint of Cuba. Photo by Trisha Thomas. September 21, 2015

I was eager to see the Virgin up close and thought I would see lots of items placed at her feet. Instead, she was on a stand by herself at the front of the church. The Pope came in with a bouquet of flowers and prayed first silently before her before reading some prayers.

Pope Francis arrives with a bouquet of flowers at the Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Caridad in Cobre, Cuba. September 21, 2015. (That is me, Trisha Thomas watching in the background, holding my cell phone and ready to take photos.) Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service for Mozzarella Mamma. September 21, 2015

Pope Francis arrives with a bouquet of flowers at the Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Caridad in Cobre, Cuba. September 21, 2015. (That is me, Trisha Thomas watching in the background, holding my cell phone and ready to take photos.) Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service for Mozzarella Mamma. September 21, 2015

As he was getting ready to leave, the church suddenly filled with the sounds of sweet singing voices. There was a choir of little Cuban girls hidden at the back who had prepared some songs for the Pope. Their singing was lovely. The Pope went straight back to greet them and they were thrilled.

Little Cuban girls smile and show photos of the Pope after singing for him at the Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Caridad in Cobre, Cuba. September 21, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Little Cuban girls smile and show photos of the Pope after singing for him at the Sanctuary of the Virgen de la Caridad in Cobre, Cuba. September 21, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The final Mass in Cuba was for Cuban families at the Cathedral in Santiago. The place was packed and again steaming hot. Again, not a cell phone to be seen. I loved seeing the energy and enthusiasm of all the families and taking pictures of the children gripping their Cuban and Vatican flags as they waited for the Pope.

Young Cuban waits for Pope Francis at the Cathedral in Santiago, Cuba. September 22, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Young Cuban waits for Pope Francis at the Cathedral in Santiago, Cuba. September 22, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

As we were rushed out of the Cathedral to head for the airport and our flight to Washington, I caught a glimpse through an open doorway of a woman watching the Pope’s Mass on a little TV with a big poster of Che Guevara with the title “Guerrilero” on her wall.

Woman watching Pope on TV in Santiago Cuba with Poster of Che Guevara. Photo by Trisha Thomas. September 22, 2015

Woman watching Pope on TV in Santiago Cuba with Poster of Che Guevara. Photo by Trisha Thomas. September 22, 2015

And a special thanks to my colleague, AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for being so generous with her photos.

AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino editing photo at the Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino editing photo at the Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

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October 3, 2015

Hacks in Black: On the Papal Plane with Pope Francis

A cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis being held up by the Statue of Liberty in Times Square, New York. September 25, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis being held up by the Statue of Liberty in Times Square, New York. September 25, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dear Blog Readers –

After nine thrilling days of dragging my computer bag and camera tripod all over Cuba and the United States chasing after Pope Francis, I am back in Rome and ready to do my behind-the-scenes post on traveling on the Papal Plane.

There were a total of 79 journalists traveling on the Papal Plane from many countries – the US, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Britain, Russia, Australia, Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Cuba, and Poland, and the group included print reporters, photographers, TV camerapersons, producers, and correspondents. At each location we split up, with most of the print reporters heading to the various media centers to work on tables where the wifi was guaranteed and they could watch the events on big screens. The photographers and TV types were taken to the events to participate in the tight pools. Those of us in the tight pools are required to wear black so as not to stand out when we are close to the Pope. The instructions in our “work program” provided by the Vatican say “dark suit and tie for men, dark dress for women, thus my title “hacks in black.”

TV Cameras in position on Papal Plane. September 19, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

TV Cameras in position on Papal Plane. September 19, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

My cameraman, video-journalist Paolo Santalucia (more on him below) and I were serving as agency television pool for Associated Press and Reuters and so we had to cover every single event where the press was given access, a total of 23 papal events including masses, speeches, prayers, and meetings.

As with any group confined to a bubble, stuck in the same airplane, buses, hotels, media centers and press events, we developed a “Boys on the Bus” pack journalism mentality, becoming giddy with exhaustion, joking endlessly about frivolous matters, battling for the quickest, goofiest tweet, obsessed with food and finding toilets.

While we were degenerating into teenage behavior on the bus, the Pope was soaring. One Vatican official told me ahead of time “it is going to be a love-fest” – and it was. Americans loved the Pope. They thronged to his masses; they lined the roads to catch a glimpse of him in his Popemobile; and they stretched out their hands to touch him, while attempting a selfie with the other arm.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives at the Festival for the Family in Philadelphia. September 26, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by video-journalist Paolo Santalucia for AP Television.

Pope Francis waves to the crowd as he arrives at the Festival for the Family in Philadelphia. September 26, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by video-journalist Paolo Santalucia for AP Television.

In the US, the Pope made crucial stops in the halls of power delivering weighty speeches at the White House, Congress and the United Nations, but also made time for the homeless, school children, immigrants and jail detainees.

He expressed strong opinions on many issues: the environment, immigration, poverty, abortion, the death penalty, nuclear weapons, and religious liberty, zigzagging from what is considered left to right in the US political spectrum without falling into the trap of entering into American culture wars. He stayed above it all, earning the respect of many.

I must add though there have been two spoilers for the Pope since he departed the US that probably could have been avoided. First the announcement that he met with Kim Davis (the Kentucky County Clerk who refused to give marriage licenses to homosexuals, or her allow her assistants to, and was briefly jailed for it) while he was in the US and urged her to “stay strong.” This meeting and reported comment, for days not confirmed or denied by the Vatican, is clearly lowering the Pope into internal US debates where he did not want to go. The second was a comment on the plane harshly denying that he had invited the Mayor of Rome to the World Meeting of Families (the Mayor of Rome has been a big proponent of gay marriage). That comment dominated the Italian TV and newspapers on the day after the Pope’s return. The Pope would do well to stay above the political fray in Italy as well.

As I am writing this post, I feel like a whirling dervish trying to keep up on all the spin on the Pope-Kim Davis story.  Today the Vatican distanced itself from her, only to be contradicted by her lawyer.  Then this evening the Vatican made a statement that the Pope has met with an Argentine Chef who is openly gay.  What a confusing mess!

Pope Francis speaks to reporters aboard the Papal Plane enroute Washington. September 22, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia.

Pope Francis speaks to reporters aboard the Papal Plane enroute Washington. September 22, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia.

On the way to Cuba, the Pope came back and briefly greeted all the journalists and then came around and shook our hands one by one. He told us that we should all try to build small bridges of peace which eventually could help construct a larger bridge of peace in the world. Bridges and walls became a theme of the trip. On the way back from the US to Rome, a journalist asked him about barriers and walls being constructed in Europe to keep out migrants and the Pope responded that walls and barriers only increase hatred and eventually fall down, that they are not a solution. When he came back to Rome he said that he saw his flight from Cuba to the United States as a symbolic bridge – a bridge of dialogue, rapprochement and peace.

On his flights the Pope goes around and says hello to each journalist. We are asked to stay in our seats and simply greet the Pope, not give him a long sob story about our sick grandmother or lost dog or bore him with tales of our childrens’ accomplishments. This time, that rule seemed to be thrown to the wind. Many journalists tried to engage the Pope in conversation. The charming Marie Antonieta Collins of Univision gave the Pope a gift of scrumptious Empanadas, which were later offered around to all of us. Andres Beltram Alvarez of Notimex made the Pope listen to his child singing some song on his cell phone. I don’t think the Pope could hear anything, but he was gracious about it. Others gave gifts and asked for interviews. When he got to me, I was a bit shy and stiff (my Waspy DNA kicking in, in contrast with my more voluble Latino and Mediterranean colleagues) until my cameraman Paolo reached out his hand and said “Auguri per il suo viaggio Santo Padre!!” (Goodluck with your trip Holy Father) and which point I chimed in my good luck wishes as well.

TECHNOLOGY AND TENDENCIES

From the moment I stepped on the Papal Plane, I knew this trip was going to be a whole new game in terms of technology. As Paolo and I set up our tripod and cable for the inflight press conference, across the aisle from me Alan Holdren of Catholic News Agency, and Eternal World Television News had a cell phone on a mini-tripod attached to the seat in front of him and was Periscoping. For those ignorant people like me out there who do not know what Periscoping is, let me explain what he was doing. Alan was sending out a live video report of himself sitting on the plane getting ready to go, talking about the trip and showing what was going on. This live feed was going out through his Periscope-Twitter account. Any of his followers could send him comments or questions that would pop up on the bottom of the screen and he would reply.

Meanwhile other colleagues were busy texting and tweeting, sending photos and messages as we waited for the Pope to arrive and the plane to takeoff.

One of the most important roles that the Agency Television Pool plays on the Papal Plane is covering the Pope’s inflight press conferences and making sure it is transmitted as soon as we land.

As we winged our way from Santiago de Cuba to Washington on September 23rd, Pope Francis spoke at length with us about the trip to Cuba. Among other things, he was asked if he was anti-Catholic. He response was amusing. He told the story of a woman who thought he was the anti-pope because he refuses to wear the traditional red papal shoes, then he said that he may have given the impression of being a bit of a lefty because of his views on the environment and on capitalism, but that all of his words and deeds fall within the social doctrine of the Church. He then said he would recite the creed for us journalists if we really wanted to hear it. (We did not).

I whipped together an edit of the press conference on the plane and then pulled out my special US Mifi (portable wifi device) that had been sent to me from the US ahead of time. Eight minutes out from Andrews Air Force base I turned the device on and miraculously it connected to T-Mobile. I began transmitting. There was an embargo until the Pope landed, but I wanted to get the material to our Master Control so they would broadcast it as soon as we hit ground. While I was transmitting, AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield (more on her below), was sitting next to me frantically writing. As soon as I finished sending my edit, we sent her story and transcription notes. AP had the story before the wheels touched ground. Yeah team!!

What immediately struck me coming to the United States from Cuba is that everyone in the US had a cellphone or an Ipad and immediately lifted their electronic device into the air upon seeing the Pope. (No one had cell phones at the Masses in Cuba). Often covering events in the United States I felt like I was behind a forest of arms, each one with a cell phone leaf at the end. When he arrived at a school in Harlem, a line of kids was waiting behind a barrier outside the school. As the Pope went down the line greeting them, every single kid held out a cellphone and either took a photo or attempted to do a selfie with him. It seemed as though people were communicating with the Pope through their electronic devices rather than speaking to him directly.

People raising their cell phones to take a photo of Pope Francis at St. Patrick's Church in Washington. September 24, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

People raising their cell phones to take a photo of Pope Francis at St. Patrick’s Church in Washington. September 24, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Speaking of new forms of communication, throughout the trip I was madly tweeting. I constantly tweeted photos of the Pope, the faithful, colleagues covering the Pope, tidbits from the Papal speeches. I have never had such success with tweets.  I casually tweeted a photo of Catholic News Service photographer Paul Haring taking a photo of the crowd as we were waiting for the Mass to start in Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, and I got over 4,000 views.  Here it is:

Catholic News Service Photographer Paul Haring takes a photo of the crowd waiting for Mass with Pope Francis in Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba. September20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Catholic News Service Photographer Paul Haring takes a photo of the crowd waiting for Mass with Pope Francis in Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba. September20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

I was getting thousands of views of tweets with photos of my colleagues and one tweet showing the Pope arriving at a Mass got over 100,000 views!! I even got a little silly sometimes. I tweeted a photo of Cardinal Chibly Langlois of Haiti in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia declaring he was voted the best-looking Cardinal by the women in the Vatican Press Corps.  I received some replies from infuriated followers telling me I was being sexist and didn’t I have anything better to do.  I promise my critics that when there are women Cardinals, I will give them the same sexist treatment.

Haitian Cardinal Chibly Langlois at Independence Hall in Philadelphia waiting for Pope Francis. September 26, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Haitian Cardinal Chibly Langlois at Independence Hall in Philadelphia waiting for Pope Francis. September 26, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

“THE LAND OF THE FREE AND THE HOME OF THE BRAVE”

As soon as the Papal plane lands anywhere in the world, the back door is opened and the Pope’s security details rushes out. Right behind them are the photographers and camerapersons who have to cover the Pope getting off the plane. Pope Francis has sciatica and a bad knee and of course wears ankle length vestments so stairs can sometimes be difficult for him.

Pope Francis gets off plane at Andrews Air Force Base. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. September 22, 2015

Pope Francis gets off plane at Andrews Air Force Base. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. September 22, 2015

On this trip, while I was putting away my computer, AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia was already out the door, down the steps and in place to film the Obama family walking out the red carpet to meet the Pope at the base of the stairs. He told me later he was impressed by the cool elegance of President Obama, the way he walked, gestured and spoke with such grace and self-assurance.   As we edited the video there was so much noise from the crowd cheering we could not hear the conversations, so we tried to read their lips. We saw Obama saying “This is my wife, Michelle” and Michelle saying “It is a pleasure to have you here.”

Obama family heads down red carpet to meet Pope Francis as gets off plane.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. September 22, 2015

Obama family heads down red carpet to meet Pope Francis as gets off plane. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. September 22, 2015

We saw Sasha walking confidently next to her father while Malia held back with the First Lady and seemed very shy, keeping one hand self-consciously on her stomach, but when she had to greet the Pope, it looked as though she spoke to him in Spanish.

Shortly after the arrival, we were all blown away when we saw the Pope step into a little Fiat 500L and drive away dwarfed amidst the giant SUV security vehicles escorting him. It was true Francis style – no armored vehicles for him. The gesture probably earned someone in the marketing department at FIAT a big promotion too.

Pope Francis leaves Andrews Air Force Base after arriving in the US in a Fiat 500 L. Photo by Trisha Thomas, September 22, 2015

Pope Francis leaves Andrews Air Force Base after arriving in the US in a Fiat 500 L. Photo by Trisha Thomas, September 22, 2015

I will skip ahead here to arguably the most important speech of the Pope’s trip, the one to the Joint Session on Congress. He made history becoming the first Pope to address Congress. Unfortunately, only some print reporters and photographers from the Vatican group were inside. I was kept outside with the other TVs because live coverage was provided. So I watched the event on a large screen on the Capitol steps (where the new Presidents give their inauguration speeches). One advantage of being there was that I could record the reaction of the thousands of people gathered on the mall.   I think the biggest applause he got was when he opened his speech by saying: “I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” The crowd went wild.

Pope Francis addresses a Joint Session of Congress. Washington, September 24, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis addresses a Joint Session of Congress. Washington, September 24, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

In his speech the Pope used four American figures to address four issues – Abraham Lincoln on liberty, Martin Luther King on dreaming for a future with equal rights for all, Dorothy Day on striving for justice and the cause of the oppressed, and peace and contemplation as shown by Thomas Merton.

A little aside, I was stunned afterwards when my father emailed me that he had met Dorothy Day several times and that she had been a friend of my grandfather who was active in social justice issues. (I will dedicate another blog post to my grandfather, his work, and the fascinating figure of Dorothy Day).

In his speech the Pope condemned fundamentalism in any religion but also warned about simplifying into categories of good and evil. He warned against violence to counter violence saying “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place. That is something which you, as a people, reject.”

Pope Francis delivers speech to Joint Session of Congress. September 24, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis delivers speech to Joint Session of Congress. Is Speaker John Boehner tearing up behind him? September 24, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

He spoke about eliminating global slavery, called for the abolition of the death penalty, and condemned exporters of weapons saying that they do it for money, “money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood.” Then he added, “In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and stop the arms trade.”

The Pope spoke about the environment, urging action. He got a big applause when he spoke about immigrants noting: “We, the people of this continent, are not fearful of foreigners, because most of us were once foreigners.”

Interestingly, he accidentally skipped an important paragraph of his speech when he was to quote the Declaration of Independence and conclude with a bit of a scolding for members of Congress saying: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”

Later the Vatican spokesman told us it was purely an error and we could consider that paragraph as part of the delivered speech.

Although I did not see it personally, I learned later Speaker of the House John Boehner was sniffling and teary-eyed through much of the visit earning him the title “Weeper of the House.” Poor guy, I feel sorry for him.

Pope Francis looks a bit like a flying saucer as he speaks in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and a gust of wind blows his vestments about.  He is using the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln for  the Gettysburg Address. Freeze frame of video shot by video-journalist  Paolo Santalucia for AP Television, September 26, 2015

Pope Francis looks a bit like a flying saucer as he speaks in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and a gust of wind blows his vestments about. He is using the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln for the Gettysburg Address. Freeze frame of video shot by video-journalist Paolo Santalucia for AP Television, September 26, 2015

Another important speech was the one he delivered at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to tens of thousands of migrants stretched out on Independence Mall. He stood at the lectern used by Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address.

During this speech he made a special greeting to the Hispanic population of the United States saying, “I greet you all with particular affection! Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation.”

Shortly before the Pope arrived, a young woman who was helping with the organization asked me if I could come with her to speak to a woman attending the event who wanted to talk to someone in the Vatican press corps. I followed her to the edge of the crowd where I saw a thin, elderly woman clinging to a manila envelope. She had two pairs of glasses on, one on top of the other and looked at me with large magnified eyes. She did not speak English, but addressed me in Spanish and asked me if I would please give her envelope to the Pope. On the envelope there was written “Por Papa Francisco.” I promised her I would and she gave me a huge hug. I know she will not be reading this blog post, but for the record the envelope was delivered through the figure of Matteo Bruni of the Vatican Press Office (more on him below).

As usual we were taken out of the Independence Hall event early, so that we could get back on our bus and start heading to the Festival of the Family event. While the Pope was still speaking, we gathered up our cameras, cables, tripods, camera lenses and computers and headed for the bus. Unfortunately, we bumped into a rigid Philadelphia cop who blocked our path and would not let us go anywhere. There ensued a furious argument between Matteo and various security officials and we were worried that he might get arrested. Finally, they let us through and we rushed back around Independence Hall to get to our bus. But we were stopped short. Suddenly Matteo turned around and said, “all of you in a line, against the wall.” We stopped, dropped our stuff and stood there. Suddenly a row of police on motorcycles revved their engines and pulled out, and then around the corner came the Pope in his little Fiat. When he saw his “hacks in black” lined up like a bunch of school children against the wall, he waved enthusiastically, and between photos and filming video, we waved back and yelled “Ciao!” (Which is actually not a word for addressing a Pope, but we used it anyway.)

Pope Francis waves to the "Hacks in Black" as he leaves Independence Hall in Philadelphia. September 26, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by video-journalist Paolo Santalucia for AP Television.

Pope Francis waves to the “Hacks in Black” as he leaves Independence Hall in Philadelphia. September 26, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by video-journalist Paolo Santalucia for AP Television.

OVAL OFFICE ANGST

A highlight of the trip for all of us was the visit to the White House.  But for me it was filled with some angst because I had to take on a double roll as camerawoman.

Trisha Thomas aka Mozzarella Mamma checking the setting on the little camera as the Vatican Press Corps prepares to enter the White House. Photo by Paolo Santalucia, September 23, 2015

Trisha Thomas aka Mozzarella Mamma checking the setting on the little camera as the Vatican Press Corps prepares to enter the White House. Photo by Paolo Santalucia, September 23, 2015

There were two events at the White House, the ceremony on the South Lawn, which included speeches by both Pope Francis and President Obama and then the photo opportunity in the Oval Office. The Vatican gave us the option of covering one or the other. We opted to cover the ceremony on the South Lawn, but then Paolo suggested that we separate and I use a small camera to film the Oval Office event, while he continued on to the meeting with the American Bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington.

I am not a camerawoman and have only occasionally, in 20 years working for AP Television, picked up a small camera to shoot something. So, I was pretty nervous that I would blow the Oval Office shoot. In a photo-opportunity with two leaders in the Oval Office, a cameraperson had to be sure to get a wide shot to show where the leaders are, a medium shot with both of them in it, close-ups of each one, shots of camerapersons and photographers filming them to use in the edit. Photo opportunities usually last about five minutes and each shot has to be about 6 seconds, and a total of about 1 minute is necessary for an edit. Then there is the question of focus and white balance as well. On top of that, a photo opportunity has to be shot without a tripod, which often leads to shaky, wobbly video that does not look good.

Pope Francis and President Obama stand at attention as the US Army  Fife and Drum Corps march past on the South Lawn of the White House. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. September 23, 2015

Pope Francis and President Obama stand at attention as the US Army Fife and Drum Corps march past on the South Lawn of the White House. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. September 23, 2015

The ceremony on the White House Lawn was a colorful event with the US Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps marching up and down and playing “Yankee Doodle” just like they did for Benedict XVI back in 2008. The crowd was exhilarated and we had fun chatting with people and taking photos before the event began.

I got this photo of two Air Force women, which I just love.

Tatiana Toquica and Jillian Kozub of the US Air Force waiting for Pope Francis on the South Lawn of the White House. September 23, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Tatiana Toquica and Jillian Kozub of the US Air Force waiting for Pope Francis on the South Lawn of the White House. September 23, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Pope finally arrived and delivered his speech in English that was a bit rough and rigid but the crowd did not seem to mind. “English is not my strong point,” he had told us on the plane. He said he came “as the son of an immigrant family” and told them he hoped to “listen to, and share, many of the hopes and dreams of the American people.” He touched on some of his themes of the trip: climate change, poverty, and religious liberty.”

As soon as he was finished, I was taken off with the small group that was included in the Oval Office pool. But to my surprise we didn’t go straight to the Oval Office, they put us in a position in the Rose Garden and explained to us that we would film the President and the Pope walking under the portico past the Rose Garden and into the Oval office. Groan!! That meant I would have to first do a moving shot, a pan, in the bright sunlight and then rush into the Oval Office. “Ok, ok, you can do this, Trisha” I reassured myself.

Then a White House employee gave us a mini-lecture on the rules for the Oval Office: “When you go in – do not sit on the furniture, do not touch the furniture, do not take anything, do not leave anything or you will not see it again.”

It made me wonder: What do all the photographers do when they get in there? Take a selfie sitting on the President’s desk? Grab a pen off the desk to take home? Write “I was here” on the wall with their name? Try to take a nap on the Oval Office couch? Stick an Oval Office throw pillow under their shirt?

“What about my computer bag?” I asked the White House lady plaintively.

“That, you can leave by the columns outside and get it right after you come out or it will be mine,” she replied curtly.

It seemed like I was standing in that Rose Garden for an eternity with my little camera pointed at that door, arms and knees feeling a little weak. Finally it opened and the two men sauntered through, President Obama nonchalantly pointing out something in the Rose Garden, as though there were not a bunch of sweaty, stressed out photographers and camerapersons standing in the middle of it filming their every move. They rounded the corner, stepped into the Oval Office and the door was closed.

President Obama and Pope Francis walk past the Rose Garden at the make their way to the Oval Office. Freeze frame of video shot by Trisha Thomas for AP Television. September 23, 2015

President Obama and Pope Francis walk past the Rose Garden at the make their way to the Oval Office. Freeze frame of video shot by Trisha Thomas for AP Television. September 23, 2015

Then there was the stampede towards the door. Everyone wanted to be in first. I rushed up the steps to the portico, dumped my computer bag by a column and shoved my way up to the front of the pack.

Then the Oval Office doors were opened and like the “running of the bulls” in Spain we charged through the door busting past anything in our way. As one of the first, I instinctively adopted a strategy to get the best pictures. I dropped to my knees behind a sofa and rested my elbows on the back (yeah, I know, I forgot I wasn’t supposed to touch the furniture). Then using my elbows as a tripod I had a steady camera to film both the Pope and Obama who were only about a meter away from me. At one point they even both looked straight at me. The Pope was probably wondering what I was doing down there, and Obama gave me one of his huge smiles (or at least I like to think he was smiling at me).

Pope Francis and President Obama in the Oval Office. September 23, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Trisha Thomas for AP Television.

Pope Francis and President Obama in the Oval Office. September 23, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by Trisha Thomas for AP Television.

It lasted only a few minutes and as I dragged my computer bag out of the White House grounds and back onto our bus, I nervously wondered whether I had gotten decent footage or not. Turns out it was nearly perfect.

Tony Gentile a photographer from Reuters who was the Agency Pool photographer on this trip caught me in the side of his photo just after I jumped up to get one last shot before being ushered out.

President Obama and Pope Francis in the Oval Office, and that is me with the little camera over on the right. Photo by Reuters photographer Tony Gentile for Mozzarella Mamma. September 23, 2015

President Obama and Pope Francis in the Oval Office, and that is me with the little camera over on the right. Photo by Reuters photographer Tony Gentile for Mozzarella Mamma. September 23, 2015

TRIALS, TRIBULATIONS AND TOILETS

When journalists travel on the Papal Plane, they have the opportunity to get copies of the Pope’s speeches for the day in the hotel room of the Assistant to the Vatican Press Office who handles the traveling press, the charming, gracious Matteo Bruni, secret heartthrob of many Vaticaniste. My cameraman colleague Paolo, perhaps envious of anyone stealing female attention from him, nicknamed Matteo “Mr. Fifty Shades of Gray” because his hair is a mix of blond and grey.

Thomas Chiu, cameraman for Fox News shows off his Trump tie to Paolo Santalucia of AP Television, Matteo Bruni of the Vatican Press Office and Trisha Thomas of AP Television outside the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre, Cuba. Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service for Mozzarella Mamma. September 22, 2015

Thomas Chiu, cameraman for Fox News shows off his Trump tie to Paolo Santalucia of AP Television, Matteo Bruni of the Vatican Press Office and Trisha Thomas of AP Television outside the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in El Cobre, Cuba. Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service for Mozzarella Mamma. September 22, 2015

The copies are given out for 15 minutes at dawn, and then later distributed by email. For me, and many others, it is important to get the hard copies. The copies come in both the language it will be delivered and in various translations. I always need to get the original language and English. On this trip the Pope made 24 speeches of which only 4 were in English. I needed the original Spanish so I could follow along, see where the Pope went off the speech and ad-libbed, and note where crowds applauded. I also needed the English to carefully read through and look for soundbites we could use in our stories. This was even more important on this trip because at nearly every event in the United States we had access to a mult-box where we could attach an audio cable and get proper sound of the speeches (this was not the case in Cuba).

Let me tell you the distribution hours for the speeches during the trip: 5am, 4:15am, 4:45am, 6am, 5:30am, 5am, 4:15am, 7:30am.   Those of us who felt we needed the hard copies of the speeches became very neurotic, often waking up before our alarm clocks. Two people misread their clocks and got up in the middle of the night and started throwing on clothes to go get the speeches before they realized their error.

Once we got our speeches, we would have breakfast in the hotel restaurant before our fearless leader, the above-mentioned Matteo Bruni, made the roll-call (known as the Verifiche in Italian) for the pools. You cannot miss the Verifiche or you risk losing the pool altogether. What does one do at a breakfast at 5am when you’ve been averaging 4 hours of sleep a night? Drink mug after mug of coffee. However, this can lead to a lot of discomfort later during long masses or other Papal events with huge crowds. As Catholic News Service’s Vatican Bureau Chief Cindy Wooden warned me one morning as I re-filled my mug of coffee before the prison visit, “I would be careful with that coffee, I don’t know how many toilets will be available in the prison.”

Pope speaks to an inmate at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. September 27, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Pope speaks to an inmate at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. September 27, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Well, there was one, and obviously I was rushing for it, trying to get in and out before the detainees were brought in to meet the Pope.   The toilet problem haunted us throughout the trip and we often found ourselves desperately looking around Mass sites for the nearest Porta-Potty.   We noticed that in Philadelphia at the World Meetings of Families, the city was lined with porta-potties, some with unusual names. One group of porta-potties was blazoned with the name “The Royal Flush” – which begs the question – why would you name a latrine with no flush at all “the Royal Flush”?? Later we noticed a line-up of porta-potties each bearing the name “Celebrity”. How enticing, we all thought, makes you feel like a star as you rush to the loo.

TV Cameras in position on Papal Plane. September 19, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

TV Cameras in position on Papal Plane. September 19, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

There were a couple of occasions where the toilets were quite decent. Before the Pope spoke to the United Nations General Assembly we were ushered into our own booth in the translators section. Anyone remember the film “The Interpreter” with Nicole Kidman? We were given a booth like the one she used in the film. Nearby there were some very decent bathrooms and every roll of toilet paper had a message on it. It said: UN Water, 19 November, WORLD TOILET DAY. 1 in 3 people still don’t use a basic toilet. #WeCantwait to end this deadly crisis. Share your support for #goal16 and #worldtoiletday. Taking advantage of a captured audience like that is not a bad way to make a case. I had no idea that the lack of toilets in the world was a deadly crisis, and now I do, just because I drank a lot of coffee when I was in New York.

Pope walks into the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York, September 25, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia.

Pope walks into the General Assembly at the United Nations in New York, September 25, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia.

By the way, the mult-box in the interpreter booth turned out to be a nightmare. We were all packed into the little booth, camerapersons and photographers at the front and others at the back. We had plugged our cable into the box in the corner.

The Pope started speaking and Paolo whispered to me loudly, “hey, Trisha, you plugged into the English translation, we need the original natural sound in Spanish.” Together with Javier from Rome Reports I started crawling around on the floor near the Mult-box between the legs of the camerapersons and photographers. I shoved the cable into a different plug.

“That’s Arabic translation,” Paolo exclaimed. I tried another, “That’s Chinese!!” Paolo declared. I tried another, “That’s French!”

I started getting mad. “Stop, pulling my leg.” I hissed back, “it’s not funny, we are missing the speech!!!”

“I’m not kidding!!” Paolo shot back. Finally Javier Lopez Lopez of Televisa Mexico interrupted our back and forth. “I got it,” he said, “Hook your cable into my camera.”

So Paolo hooked our cable into Javier’s camera, and I pulled myself up off the floor so I could listen to the speech. Ah, the glamour of TV news.

Speaking of glamour, entering into the UN we had to go through the usual massive security checks.  I had just completed my check and was waiting for my colleauges when a woman security officer said to me, “Hey, do you like Shakira?” I was contemplating that for a second when she added, “Well, there she is, coming through the gate.”

I quickly snapped a bunch of photos which I tweeted right away and whammy — gazillions of re-tweets and new followers.  Here she is:

The singer Shakira enters the United Nations. She was expected to sing later in the day, after the Pope's Speech.  New York, September 25, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The singer Shakira enters the United Nations. She was expected to sing later in the day, after the Pope’s Speech. New York, September 25, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

I must admit I loved every minute of the time we spent in New York.  There is so much to say that I cannot fit it all in.  I laughed as I watched Mayor Bill De Blasio,  Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Chuck Schumer all lavishing attention on the Pope when he got off the Popemobile on 5th Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  There was a whole riser filled with cameras on the other side of the street and the pols were determined to get their photo-op.

I loved the gigantic poster of the Pope that we saw shortly after we stepped off the train at Penn Station.

Welcome to New York says this big yellow poster with the image of Pope Francis. Photo by Trisha Thomas, September 24, 2015

Welcome to New York says this big yellow poster with the image of Pope Francis. Photo by Trisha Thomas, September 24, 2015

One of the highlights of the New York visit was a packed Mass in Madison Square Garden.  We were all surprised to learn that Mo Rocca, a reporter for CBS Sunday Morning, and an openly gay man, was one of the readers at the Mass.  His brother Frank Rocca, the Vatican Correspondent for “The Wall Street Journal” was on the plane with us and he had never breathed a word about it.

GETTING GIDDY

On the second to last day of the trip were were collapsing with exhaustion and absolutely giddy. Matteo, and his assistant Salvatore, brought us to the World Meeting of Families evening celebration called the “Festival of Family.” The Pope was not to arrive until 730pm but we were there hours early.

The evening’s host was Mark Wahlberg. I had never heard of him before, but some friendly local TV journalists informed me that he used to be a Calvin Klein underwear model, so a quick Google search resolved my ignorance about him. The evening included dancers and musicians to warm up the crowd before the Pope got there.

Sister Sledge sing "We are Family" at the Festival of the Family in Philadelphia, September 26, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia

Sister Sledge sing “We are Family” at the Festival of the Family in Philadelphia, September 26, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia

All of a sudden the group “Sister Sledge” burst onto the stage and got the crowd rocking and rolling to “We Are Family”. Even the nuns were jiving along. At that point Rai cameraman Marco Sanga and I could not resist the temptation – we forgot about our work and bogeyed down.

Happy Nun jiving to "We are Family" by the Sister Sledge.  Philadelphia, September 26, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia

Happy Nun jiving to “We are Family” by the Sister Sledge. Philadelphia, September 26, 2015. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia

Trisha Thomas of AP Television and Marco Sanga of RAI kicking up their heels to "We are Family" at the Festival of the Family in Philadelphia. September 26, 2015 Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia

Trisha Thomas of AP Television and Marco Sanga of RAI kicking up their heels to “We are Family” at the Festival of the Family in Philadelphia. September 26, 2015 Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia

We had settled down by the time the Pope arrived and watched him listen to the testimony of one family after another. Their stories were long and dramatic, the evening was chilly, and everyone was tired. Even the Pope looked a little bored. At one point the Pope asked an aide for something and looked like he was going through his prepared speech crossing half of it out. Then it was time for his speech. He stood up, figuratively tossed his speech to the wind, and delivered an off-the-cuff monologue on families. He earned a big laugh when he said, “In families we quarrel, sometimes plates fly, and children give us headaches, and I am not even going to talk about mothers-in-law.”

MR. PROTOCOL, THE SOPHISTICATED PHOTO-BOMBER, POPS INTO THE PICTURE

Vatican Chief of Protocol Alberto Gasbarri precedes Pope Francis into ceremony at Ground Zero. September 25, 2015.  Photo by Trisha Thomas

Vatican Chief of Protocol Alberto Gasbarri precedes Pope Francis into ceremony at Ground Zero. September 25, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Spending a lot of time with photographers on the Papal trip, I soon learned who drives them crazy, the Vatican’s debonair Chief of Protocol, Dr. Alberto Gasbarri. Gasbarri is tall, has a head of silver hair that he sweeps elegantly back across his head delicately covering some emerging empty patches. He is always impeccably dressed, the picture of elegance.

The Pope was constantly accompanied on this trip by several individuals that we all know—his chief of security, Domenico Giani and his team of Gendarmes and Swiss Guards in plain-clothes, Monsignor Mark Miles, his quiet translator, Father Federico Lombardi, the Papal spokesman, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, and a few others. But only one of them is nearly always in the photos, Dr. Gasbarri. The photographers explained to me that no matter where they are in the world from the Vatican to the Philippines, when they are about to snap that perfect picture, peek-a-boo, up pops Gasbarri’s silver head. I believe Americans refer to that as being a photo-bomber. As soon as they pointed this out to me, I realized a lot of my own photos, and our video had the same problem, an elegant photo-bomber.

THE KILLER AP TEAM FROM ROME

One of the greatest joys of this trip was working closely with my AP colleagues. First and foremost was my dashing, video-journalist colleague Paolo Santalucia. Paolo is an incredibly talented producer and cameraman with an unusual combination of editorial and technical abilities. He is also good-natured and his endless, playful joking helped keep me laughing throughout the trip.   His looks made him a magnet for the women journalists on the plane and I would often notice the Spanish and French journalists bending his ear during long waits. He ate up the attention. His looks were not lost on American women either. As our pool of reporters was taken through the US Capitol building and down the steps leading towards the Mall, an American woman waiting to see the Pope looked at Paolo and said, “Ah, are you Italian?” When he said, “yes”, she declared, “Oh, you Italian men are so sophisticated, you have such panache.” As we continued to move towards our television position, my foreign colleagues turned to me and asked, “What is panache?”  Well, here he is, Mr. Panache himself.

AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia aka Mr. Panache on Capitol waiting for Pope Francis to arrive. September 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia aka Mr. Panache on Capitol waiting for Pope Francis to arrive. September 24, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The Queen of the AP wire coverage of the Papal trip was our Super-woman Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield. Nicole should be the poster-woman for the “Lean-in” movement. Like me, Nicole is a mother of three, and her kids are younger than mine. But while I went part time after the birth of my second child, Nicole has leaned-in becoming AP’s Vaticanista (Vatican Correspondent) as well as Rome Bureau Chief. I have often wondered how she does it and can say after this trip it is a combination of incredible talent, hard work, organization, determination and willpower. I would see Nicole at the dawn speech pick-up in sweats after which she would whip off to the hotel gyms for a workout before slogging it out through the day writing AP news stories and staying on top of every unexpected event. Whether it was the Pope meeting with Fidel Castro or with victims of sexual abuse, Nicole was all over it, getting it right and getting it first – as usual. On top of that, she is a generous team player, sharing her knowledge of events, her contacts and making sure AP Television and photos gets everything we need to make the story a multi-media success for AP. I enjoyed working with her on the plane, deciding what the priorities were in terms of the comments from the Pope and making sure we got them out fast.

AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield with AP wire colleagues Eduardo Castillo (Center) and Mike Weissenstein at press center in Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield with AP wire colleagues Eduardo Castillo (Center) and Mike Weissenstein at press center in Havana, Cuba. September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

And last, but absolutely not least, another Super-mamma, AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino. Alessandra was not given a spot on the papal plane (there were apparently 60 people who applied who were not given a seat due to lack of space), so she got the tough job of having to try to cover all the Papal events without being in the Papal entourage. That meant flying ahead to Havana, and to Holguin, and then bouncing through the Cuban countryside in a crowded van to reach Santiago de Cuba.

AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino with Che Guevara at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino with Che Guevara at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, September 20, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Alessandra was always one step ahead or behind us having all sorts of horror stories (leaving a 10,000 euro camera lens in a taxi in Santiago de Cuba – she later got it back), and eating food that sent her stomach for a ride. Despite getting sometimes only one hour of sleep, Alessandra kept on marching, never missed an event and always had a smile. Twice she shared my hotel room when she did not have time to get back to her own hotel and it was such a pleasure to have a roommate to gossip and laugh with. Some of Alessandra’s extra photos are in this post. During our train ride from Washington to New York she copied for me some of her best extra photos from Cuba which I will use the in the next post.

BLOWING UP BRIDGES – BICKERING OVER EMBARGOS

While the Pope was building bridges of peace, the Vatican press corps was sometimes less than peaceful. On this trip there were two inflight press conferences, one on the flight from Santiago de Cuba to Washington and one on the flight from Philadelphia back to Rome. That makes two opportunities for journalists to ask questions. As I mentioned in my  earlier post on the trip (Pope Francis: Heading for the US), the journalists are divided into language groups – English, French, Spanish, German and Italian, and each group chooses three questions and three journalists to ask them. The Pope takes one from each group and then begins the rotation again.

The English language group is particularly difficult with a lot of egos getting in the way. The rule is that people who have never asked a question before get priority and new journalists on the plane get to go first. In the English language group there is then a big battle over what the questions will be and then several journalists draft the questions.

The process seems to be dominated by heavyweight Vaticanisti John Allen of “Crux:, Frank Rocca of the “The Wall Street Journal,” Phil Pullela of Reuters and Gerry O’Connell of “America” Magazine. I started a campaign early on in the trip to rally the others to change the system. With the help of my female colleagues:  Elena Pinardi of Eurovision, Phoebe Natanson of ABC, Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service, Nicole Winfield from AP, and Courtney Walsh from FOX, we managed to convince the group that the questions cannot be dictated – we agreed on themes and each journalist got to ask the question as they wished. We pushed hard to get Siliva Poggioli of National Public Radio to ask a question on the Cuba-USA leg and Elizabeth Dias of Time Magazine to ask a question on the USA-Italy leg.

Speaking of Sylvia Poggioli, the Vatican had not originally wanted to give her a seat on the plane. The story goes that other Vatican correspondents, including Phil Pullela of Reuters went to the Papal Spokesman to help him understand how important she is. They said to him something along the lines of sending a Papal Plane to the US without Sylvia Poggioli is like sending the Ark without Noah. She got a place, and she got to ask a question.

Once the final press conference was finished, US Network pool producers Phoebe Natanson of ABC News, and Anna Matranga of CBS News stayed up all night transcribing every word. We were all grateful to them. But as the flight got closer to Rome, the embargo battle began. Many reporters like to keep an embargo on the Papal Plane inflight press conference for an hour or two after landing. That way they have more time to get home and get to work. The Italians seem to like the embargo the most while many of the English-speaking press don’t want it. The TV journalists do not want it because they want to go on air immediately to talk about it. I won’t go into the details here but there was some nasty bickering on the flight about it, a vote was taken, and it was decided to impose a two-hour embargo. Some journalists threatened to break the embargo, others cried foul. It was a bit of a mess, but par for the course. As far as I am aware, the two-hour embargo held, we were all too zonked to break it.

Coming Soon: Reflections and Photos from Pope Francis’ Visit to Cuba

 

Related posts:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Part II – Pope Francis: Heading for the United States

Pope Francis walking towards Saint Peter's Basilica to begin his weekly audience. September 9, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis walking towards Saint Peter’s Basilica to begin his weekly audience. September 9, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Dear Blog Readers, this is the second part of my two-part series on the Pope’s trip to Cuba and the United States. (see also Part I – Pope Francis- Revving up for Cuba).  As with the first post, it is a bit of a long plod through the schedule and themes of the trip that I wrote mostly to prepare myself.  Feel free to scroll through to what interests you or skip it altogether.

 

September’s trip to Washington, New York and Philadelphia will be the first time Pope Francis has visited the US in his 78 years.   It is a bit strange for a well-educated, well-travelled man, who served for many years as a Cardinal in Latin America, never to have set foot in the United States. A Vatican official told me recently that perhaps the Pope has a “healthy mistrust” of the US that is typical of many people in Latin America.

Others have told me that the Pope added the trip to Cuba so that he could arrive in North America with a wind from the South at his back. Clearly this Pope envisions the Vatican as a geo-political player and why not exercise influence in his own hemisphere? He has jumped headlong into the debate on migration in Europe, has tried his hand at peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and has made headlines around the globe for his strong stance on climate change. He was behind the rapprochement between the US and Cuba; what else might he have in mind for the Americas?

During his time in the US, the Argentinian Pope will make many speeches in both English and his native Spanish.  I have heard that the Pope has been brushing up on his English with an American who works at the Vatican, but I have not been able to confirm this.

When asked if the Pope is likely to use his trip to hammer the United States on everything from consumerism to the death penalty and the environment, a Vatican official said to me, “Are you kidding? It is going to be a love-fest.”

Pope Francis Statue. Photo by Trisha Thomas, September 2015

Pope Francis Statue. Photo by Trisha Thomas, September 2015

Vatican officials confirm that the Pope will definitely touch on his preferred themes – environment, immigration, poverty, capitalism but he is not going to be pointing fingers at anyone.

In typical Francis fashion, he will not just frequent the halls of power, but will also reach out to the “periphery” adding to his appointments at the White House, Congress, and the United Nations, meetings with prisoners, homeless people, the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, children and immigrants.

Pope Francis caresses a baby during his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square. September 2, 2015.  Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis caresses a baby during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. September 2, 2015. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis is the first Latin American Pope and his worldview is clearly shaped by his origins. He took the name Francis after Saint Francis of Assisi and has done everything in his power to reach out to the poor and marginalized. But it is also important to remember that Francis is the first Jesuit Pope and brings with him a background that clearly reflects his Jesuit training and service. He is tough, shrewd and determined as well as being an action-oriented risk taker. The tough determination with which he has tackled the corruption and incompetence he found in the Vatican Curia is a clear indication that he doesn’t shy from confrontation and difficult decisions.

The Pope will arrive on a flight from Cuba at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington in the late afternoon on September 22. He will go straight to the Apostolic Nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue for the night. Francis’ packed schedule does not start until the next morning when he heads for a 9:15 appointment at the White House. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will greet the Pope on his arrival and bring him to the South Lawn for an official ceremony. Both the Pope and the President are expected to speak. Following the ceremony on the South Lawn the Pope and the President will take the elevator up to the first floor for a private meeting in the Oval Office.

I covered a similar ceremony during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Washington in 2008 with George W. Bush. It was a lively, colorful event with a band (US Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drums Corps) dressed up as revolutionary soldiers marching up and down the lawn playing “Yankee Doodle”, a singer performing Happy Birthday for the Pope (It was Benedict XVI’s birthday) and warm comments by both the Pope and the President. On that occasion there were thousands of invited guests including young children, which made the event special. Perhaps it will be similar on this occasion.

Pope Benedict watching the US Army Fife and Drums Corps at the White House. April 16, 2008

Pope Benedict watching the US Army Fife and Drums Corps at the White House. April 16, 2008

President Obama and Pope Francis have met before, in March 2014 at the Vatican. Following that private meeting in the Pope’s library the two leaders exchanged gifts. Obama gave the Pope a box of seeds from the White House vegetable garden to be planted at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence.  Castel Gandolfo, a half hour from Rome, has a small farm which provides some fruit and vegetables for the Papal table.  Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden is famous, but there won’t be time for the Pope to visit it.

After their first meeting, the Pope gave Obama a copy of his first Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudium Evangelii” – “The Joy of the Gospel”.  The Apostolic Exhortation is a no-holds-barred attack by the Pope on the global economic system.  In it he writes, “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”

“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

President Obama steps past the Swiss Guards as he enters the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

President Obama steps past the Swiss Guards as he enters the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

For more on that meeting see my blog post: President Obama in Rome

A White House Statement in March described the upcoming meeting between the Pope and President as a conversation between two leaders with common goals.

“During the visit, the President and the Pope will continue the dialogue, which they began during the President’s visit to the Vatican in March 2014, on their shared values and commitments on a wide range of issues, including caring for the marginalized and the poor; advancing economic opportunity for all; serving as good stewards of the environment; protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom around the world; and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”

Following his meeting with the President, the Pope will travel in an open motorcade from the White House around the National Mall after which he will switch to a closed car to go to The Cathedral of Saint Matthew in Washington to meet with the Bishops of the United States.

Pope Francis gives the thumbs-up to the crowd during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. September 18, 2013. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Pope Francis gives the thumbs-up to the crowd during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. September 18, 2013. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

There are many occasions during this trip when the Pope will travel in the Popemobile. Such travel is always a security risk, not just when he travels outside the Vatican, but even during his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. Vatican gendarmes always run along beside the Popemobile watching for threats. It is hard to forget that Pope John Paul II was shot while going around St. Peter’s Square in a Popemobile. Journalists often debate whether Pope Francis sometimes might wear a bulletproof vest. Personally, I highly doubt it. Pope Francis never seems minimally worried for his own safety and often throws himself into the crowd, kissing babies, touching those who reach for him, with little concern. He leaves it to others to worry about his safety and believe me, many, many people will be worrying about protecting him during this trip.

In the afternoon he will go to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington for a Mass and the Canonization of the Blessed Junipero Serra.

Postage Stamp with image of Catholic missionary Junipero Serra

Postage Stamp with image of Catholic missionary Junipero Serra

Junipero Serra was a Franciscan philosophy professor on the island of Mallorca in Spain who left everything to go work evangelizing Native Americans in California and Mexico in the 1700s. His mission was to spread the Gospel and baptize the Native Americans. He was paid both by the Spanish government and the Catholic Church. He established 21 missions across California. There has been some controversy surrounding the canonization that I won’t get into in this post, but if any one is interested in more information, check out this fascinating interview by Jesuit journalist Thomas Reese with Professor Robert Senkewicz author of  “Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary” (Junipero Serra: Saint or Not?)

The next big event for the Pope, and one of the key moments of the trip will be Thursday, September 24th when he becomes the first Pope to address a joint session of the US Congress. Although there are not likely to be any real surprises in the themes addressed by Pope Francis during his speech to the Congress, apparently there has been some discussion about what the protocol will be. Will the members of congress break into applause and jump to their feet as they do during the State of the Union Address, or will they listen quietly and applaud warmly at the end? Certainly, there are plenty of things the Pope could say that many in Congress disagree with, for example, look at his last encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si.”

In “Laudato Si” the Pope did not shy away from denouncing economic powers like the US writing, “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain, which fail to take the context into account, let alone the effects on human dignity and the natural environment.” The Pope said that the earth “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” He denounced the “throwaway culture which affects the excluded just as it quickly reduces things to rubbish.” There has been a fair amount of criticism of the Encyclical from Republicans in the United States with Presidential Candidate Jeb Bush and others saying the Pope is not a scientist and should not meddle in politics.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican candidate for President of Cuban origin, has been highly critical of the Pope-finessed rapprochement with Cuba, and leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said also been critical of the Pope.

According to Crux contributor Christopher Hale, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has a “big Pope Francis problem. His values, attitude, and policies stand in profound contrast to the 78-year-old Argentinian pontiff.”

It is impossible to pigeonhole Pope Francis and it would be a huge mistake to say his views are closer to the Democrats than the Republicans. His positions on a range of issues stretch across Republican and Democrat lines.

The environment and the inequalities wrought by capitalism are at the top of his agenda. He has also been extremely vocal on the importance of welcoming migrants and recently asked every parish in Europe to take in a migrant family. He is likely to encourage a more humane policy towards migrants in the US.

Pope Francis is against abortion, but has just made new rules in which it will be much easier for priests to absolve the sin of abortion during the jubilee year. He is against the death penalty. He recently denounced producers and exporters of weapons “that have on them the blood of innocents.” He has recently changed the rules on marriage annulments to make them faster and free. The Pope has opened up a debate in the Vatican on whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive communion. He has said “who am I to judge?” when it comes to homosexuality but has maintained the Catholic Church position that marriage is between a man and a woman.

It remains to be seen which of these topics is he likely to raise in Congress.

From the Halls of the Capitol Pope Francis will zip away to St. Patrick Church where he will go to a Catholic charities center. He is going to meet there with hundreds of homeless sitting at tables under a tent having lunch. These are the kinds of events that the Pope clearly enjoys, casually mixing with ordinary people and chatting.  This is not the first time he has met with homeless people.

Pope Francis celebrating his 77th birthday at the Vatican by inviting three homeless men to breakfast.  December 17, 2013.  Credit: Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis celebrating his 77th birthday at the Vatican by inviting three homeless men to breakfast. December 17, 2013. Credit: Osservatore Romano

In the afternoon he will leave for New York City. His first event in New York will be Vespers in St. Patrick’s Cathedral with priests, nuns and seminarians. Obviously, Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio will be there, eager to get their photo-op with Pope Francis.

Friday, September 25th begins with a speech to the UN General Assembly. Pope Francis is the fourth Pope to speak to the United Nations. Pope Paul VI gave a speech there in 1965, Pope John Paul II in 1979 and again in 1995, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2008.

Pope Francis is expected to hammer home his points about the environment and discuss world peace. He will speak both in English and in Spanish.

The Vatican State is a Permanent Observer at the United Nations and not a full member. Just this week the General Assembly approved a resolution allowing both the Palestinian State (also a permanent observer) and the Vatican to fly their flags together with the 193 member states at the United Nations. The Vatican’s ambassador to the UN Archbishop Bernardito Auza said that the Vatican would not raise its flag before the Pope’s speech on September 25th but said it might at another point in the future.

From the UN, the Pope will go to Ground Zero for an inter-faith event.

In the early afternoon the Pope will visit the Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. This student body makeup of this school is 70 percent Hispanic and 22 percent African American. The Pope will greet the children there and speak to them in Spanish.

Following this meeting, the Pope will take part in a procession through Central Park which is likely to be one of the most colorful moments of his trip. The city of New York is giving away tickets to get access to the route. The procession will make its way from Harlem down to Madison Square Garden for a Mass with thousands of faithful that will wrap up the New York leg of his US visit.

Saturday, September 26th Pope Francis travels to Philadelphia for the 8th World Meeting of Families. This meeting was the original purpose of the Pope’s trip and slowly his agenda was expanded to include the stops in Washington, New York and the visit to Cuba. The last World Meeting of Families was in Milan, Italy in 2012.

Again, Pope Francis’ papacy has called into questions many issues regarding the Church and social doctrine on topics such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality, reproduction, and communion. As soon as Pope Francis returns from Philadelphia the second round of the Synod of Bishops which will take place from October 4-25th. Bishops will gather in Rome to take up again the issues they began to discuss last year in what was a contentious meeting with conservatives and progressives church leaders airing their differences as they tried to hammer out church positions for the future. Key topics are whether divorced and re-married Catholics should be allowed to receive communion, the church’s approach to homosexuals, and policies towards couples living together out of wedlock. Will the Pope address these issues at the meeting in Pennsylvania? Many people in the church will be watching closely for any comments from the Pope that might indicate positions he would like the Synod to adopt.

His first public event in Philadelphia will be a Mass with Bishops, Priests and Nuns at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. He is expected to speak in both English and Spanish and will be sure to have a special greeting for the sick and handicapped attending the Mass.

His next big event will be at Independence Mall in Philadelphia. He will arrive there in his Popemobile to meet with tens of thousands of people from the Hispanic Community and other immigrants. I think it is at this event that we can expect the Pope’s strongest comments on immigration urging the United States, as he has urged European nations and the Catholic Church, to open their doors to migrants and refugees.

Offering refuge and support to migrants has been a key theme for Pope Francis since the first days of his papacy. I covered his first trip outside the Vatican to the Italian island of Lampedusa where thousands of migrants arrive on boats from Africa every year.

(See blog posts: “Goosebumps on Lampedusa” and “Into the Deep Blue Cemetery”)

Pope Francis greets the people of Lampedusa as he makes his way through the port. Freeze frame of video shot by Trisha Thomas  July 8, 2013

Pope Francis greets the people of Lampedusa as he makes his way through the port. Freeze frame of video shot by Trisha Thomas July 8, 2013

Speaking to reporters aboard the Papal plane returning from the Philippines, the Pope said that he would like to show his solidarity with Mexican immigrants by entering the US across the Mexican border. “To enter the USA from the border of Mexico would be a beautiful thing, as a sign of brotherhood and help for the immigrants,” he said.

The Pope has also urged the US to welcome unaccompanied migrant children.

The final event of the day will be a celebration for families at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Organizers are expecting 1 million people to attend this colorful prayer vigil which will also include music and dancing.

On his final day in the US, the Pope will visit prisoners at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. Again, reaching out to prison inmates has been a recurring theme for Pope Francis. Shortly after he was elected Pope Francis went to a juvenile prison and washed inmates’ feet on Holy Thursday. He has repeated that gesture every year, and has visited prison inmates on many occasions.

(See blog posta: Francesco Frenzy, and “Is Pope Francis Tired?”)

Pope Francis kissing tattoo-ed foot at Juvenile Detention Center on Holy Thursday. March 28, 2013. Freeze Frame of Vatican TV video.

Pope Francis kissing tattoo-ed foot at Juvenile Detention Center on Holy Thursday. March 28, 2013. Freeze Frame of Vatican TV video.

At the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the Pope will meet dozens of 18 to 21-year-old prisoners. He will give a speech in Spanish before walking among them and greeting them individually.

He will then meet with prisoners’ families and a group of women prison guards.

Pope washing the feet of a little boy in the lap of his mother, a prison inmate in Rome, as part of the Holy Thursday foot-washing Mass at the Rebibbia Prison in Rome. April 2, 2015. Freeze frame of video released by Vatican TV.

Pope washing the feet of a little boy in the lap of his mother, a prison inmate in Rome, as part of the Holy Thursday foot-washing Mass at the Rebibbia Prison in Rome. April 2, 2015. Freeze frame of video released by Vatican TV.

The last big event of the visit will be the Mass for the World Meeting of Families at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia. Organizers said there could be 1.5 million people there. Again, the Pope will speak English and Spanish.

The Pope leaves the US from Philadelphia at 8pm on Sunday, September 27th. Then it will be a long night for us. During return trips the Pope comes back to the press area of the plane and usually spends over an hour taking questions from journalists.

Since some blog readers have asked, here is a little more information on who those press conferences work.

For the inflight press conference there are a few rules. First, we are asked by the Vatican to keep the questions to the current trip. Then we have to divide into language groups – English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. The first few questions are given to journalists from the country just visited by the Pope, for example, a Turkish journalist when he visited Turkey, a Korean journalist when he visited Korea. After the first few questions, they begin the rotation in the language groups. Each language group has to prepare 2-3 questions and choose 2-3 journalists to ask them. The Pope takes one question from each group and then starts the rotation again.

There are clear differences in the attitudes and styles between groups. The English group begins batting around questions early on the morning of the final day and usually comes up with a long list of questions that gets whittled down. The English language group drafts written questions for the chosen journalists to ask and they often end up being long, complicated four part questions, which I often find do not lead to strong, interesting answers. I have heard Italians making fun of the English language group for being obsessed with questions about homosexuality and unable to go beyond that topic.

The other national groups seem to me to be more laid back about the questioning. They choose journalists to ask a question and leave them to ask what they want making sure the questions do not conflict.

I have also heard members of the English language press making fun of the French for what they say are cloying questions eager to please the Pope and the press office, but not particularly penetrating or insightful.

Personally, I have found the most interesting questions come from the journalists who are not usually on the Papal plane, who are from the country he just visited.

During the inflight press conference, everyone is required to stay in their seat, except the person who is asking the question who is invited up in front of the Pope in the mid-section of the plane. I am lucky because as a pool producer with a cameraperson we are given seats that are close to where the Pope stands when he speaks to the press.

When the press conference is done, everyone frantically goes over their notes, tries to decide which were the most newsworthy comments. We then hammer out an embargo agreement– usually we give ourselves at least one hour after the Pope’s plane lands before we can report what was said.

I have to download the material into my computer and edit out the key soundbites. This takes a lot of time and whether or not I get it done depends on how long the flight is, and how long my computer battery lasts. On many occasions I have walked through the Rome airport, computer open, still downloading the material. I have also stood in the airport terminal with my computer plugged into the wall, talking to my editors on the phone as the cameraman waits to get our bags off the conveyor belt.

We then start filing while in the taxi heading back to the office.

On this trip we are expecting double inflight press conferences – one on the Santiago, Cuba- Washington, D.C. flight, and one on the Philadelphia – Rome flight.

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

Related posts:

September 9, 2015

Pope Francis – Revving up for Cuba

Cars on the street in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Gwen Thomas. March 16, 2015

Cars on the street in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Gwen Thomas. March 16, 2015

Dear Blog Readers,

On September 19th, I will be departing on the Papal Plane with Pope Francis and his entourage to Cuba and the United States. The entourage will include Cardinals, Bishops, Vatican Gendarmes, Swiss Guards in plainclothes, a doctor, the Papal spokesman, Vatican press office officials, a Popemobile driver, liturgical specialists (Mass helpers) and roughly 80 journalists.

I will be the Agency Television Pool Producer on the plane. My colleague, video-journalist Paolo Santalucia will be on the plane as well, and so will AP Rome Bureau Chief, Nicole Winfield, for AP wire. My AP photographer colleague, Alessandra Tarantino, who has provided me with a few of her extra photos this week for my posts, will be flying to Cuba and the US on her own to cover events.

On the ground in these locations AP is sending out an army of staffers to cover every breath the Pope takes. Yes, the Pope sneezes, and AP will be there to give you the details, the photos and the video.

Pope Francis at his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square. September 2, 2015. AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis at his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. September 2, 2015. AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

This will be my 20th trip on board the Papal plane. I started back in 1996 with John Paul II, did many with Benedict XVI and this is my third with Pope Francis. I will put my links to the blog posts I did some of those trips below.

Hopefully, when I get back I will be able to treat you all to a juicy, behind-the-scenes account of being in the Papal Entourage, filling you in on all sorts of details like why the Cardinals are always coming to the back of the plane, how the journalists conduct their tweet battles, the food we eat, the 5am pajama line to get the Pope’s daily speeches, the tussling to get to ask the Pope a question on the plane and especially what the Pope does when he comes back to see us.

This, however, is going to be a detailed post that I am doing it mostly for myself, walking through the entire trip looking at where the Pope will be going, why he is going there, what he will do and what issues might come up.   Some of you may want to stop reading now, others might want to just scroll to the parts you are particularly interested in.

So, here we go….

On September 19th the Pope will fly from Rome to Havana, Cuba.   He is the third Pope to visit Cuba. John Paul II was the first Pope to go to Cuba making his historic visit there back in 1998 when he met with Fidel Castro and said Mass in Havana’s famed Plaza de la Revolucion. John Paul II asked Fidel Castro if Christmas could be reinstated as a holiday in Cuba and his request was granted. Pope Benedict XVI also visited in 2012. He met with Fidel Castro on March 28th, 2012. In the photos of the meeting, Castro still looks pretty lively. Following Pope Benedict’s visit, Cuba reinstated Good Friday as a public holiday.

Pope Francis’ trip comes on the heels of the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba ending over 56 years of tensions. Both President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama gave credit to Pope Francis for pushing forward talks that led to the re-establishment of diplomatic relations this year. In his address to the nation Obama said the Pope’s, “moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”

Statue of Christ of Havana inaugurated shortly before Fidel Castro entered the city in 1959. Photo by Gwen Thomas, March 19, 2015

Statue of Christ of Havana inaugurated shortly before Fidel Castro entered the city in 1959. Photo by Gwen Thomas, March 19, 2015

People I spoke to who have recently been to Cuba have said that Cubans are thrilled about the rapprochement with the US and excited about the opportunities they will have, but they know little about the Pope’s role. This is mostly because of their limited media access they have. They have practically no internet; TV is government controlled, and there is one dominant newspaper called “Granma” which describes itself as “the official voice of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee.”

By the way, “Granma” is the name of the boat that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and dozens of other revolutionaries took from where they were living in exile Mexico to Cuba in 1956 to lead the revolution against the corrupt and violent dictator Fulgencio Batista. It is on display in downtown Havana behind the Museo de la Revolucion, but I doubt the Pope will have time to check it out.

Tank used by Fidel Castro outside the University of Havana Cuba. Photo by Gwen Thomas. March 18, 2015

Tank used by Fidel Castro outside the University of Havana Cuba. Photo by Gwen Thomas. March 18, 2015

It is unlikely that anyone in the Papal Entourage will have much time to break away from the scheduled events and see much of Cuba. One recent visitor said that the Cubans are painting all the fronts of the buildings in the places where the Pope will pass and urged journalists to get back behind those buildings to see the real Cuba. I hope we have the chance.

The Pope’s trip to the US was scheduled before  the Vatican announced the stop in Cuba first.  For Cubans this decision is significant.  One official suggested that it is the Pope’s way of supporting David before Goliath, to draw more attention to the historic rapprochement and to show the world that two enemies can leave their disagreements behind them and move forward.  “This is the Pope’s way of showing that good is possible,” one Cuban said to me, “a symbol of hope for the world.”

On his first full day in Cuba, the Pope will start off with a Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion (Revolution Square). The same place where John Paul II held a mass in 1998 with Fidel Castro seated in the audience. Fidel Castro is now 89, not in excellent health so will probably not be at any official events, but both Cuban and Vatican officials have indicated to me that if there is a way to organize a meeting between the Pope and Fidel, they will do it.

Revolution Square. Havana Cuba. Photo by Gwen Thomas. March 13, 2015

Revolution Square. Havana Cuba. Photo by Gwen Thomas. March 13, 2015

In the afternoon the Pope will pay a visit to President Raul Castro at the Palacio de La Revolucion in Havana. Raul Castro met with the Pope at the Vatican this past May and came out singing the praises for the Latin American Pope saying, “If the Pope continues this way, I will go back to praying and go back to church. I am not joking.”

A Cuban source told me this week that the 84-year-old Raul Castro was definitely not joking, so it will be interesting to watch the behavior of the octogenarian communist leader during the Pope’s visit. Raul Castro has been slowly opening up his country’s economy and has said he will step down in 2018 when his term as President ends. This leaves a lot of big question marks about Cuba’s political and economic future.

I asked some Cuban officials if they thought the Cuban government would ask the Pope for help in convincing the US Congress to lift the embargo.  After all, the Pope is going straight from Cuba to the US where he will be speaking to a joint session of Congress.  He could put in a good word for them.  I was told “absolutely not” that the Cuban government does not need to ask anyone for help, the embargo will eventually be lifted, but they would never ask the Pope to get involved.

Havana Street Scene. March 17, 2015. Photo by Gwen Thomas

Havana Street Scene. March 17, 2015. Photo by Gwen Thomas

A Cuban government document given to the journalists who will be accompanying the Pope says the population of Cuba is 11, 247,925 inhabitants and 110,922 square kilometers. It is incredible to think how this tiny island with such a small population has played a major role in geo-politics in the past century.

The document explains that the Cuban population is made up of descendants of the Spanish colonizers, African slaves and the indigenous population. This mix has had an interesting influence on religious beliefs, but more on that later.

In the afternoon of September 20th, the Pope will celebrate vespers with “Priests, Men and Women Religious (nuns) and Seminarians at the Cathedral in Havana. Given the suppression of the church after the revolution, I will be curious to see how many priests, nuns and seminarians there are in Havana.

Surely life cannot be easy for Cuban priests and nuns. It is hard enough for most Cubans to make ends meet. Apparently the average salary is $20/month. On a recent trip there, my sister took a taxi driven by a man who said he was a priest and had become one after taking an Internet course with a seminary in Arizona. I guess there are many ways to make ends meet.

I have heard from both Catholics in Rome and Cuban officials that an interesting part of this trip is the slow but steady development of the relationship between the Cuban government and the Catholic Church. After the 1959 revolution Cuba was declared an “atheist” state and religion was suppressed. In 1992 the Cuban constitution was changed to make it a “secular” state, instead of an “atheist” state and religious practice has steadily grown.

The Catholic Church has been working with the Cuban government for the past few decades to improve relations and apparently have a “tacit agreement” not to criticize each other. A Cuban official told me that the relationship is “not perfect” but there is now “trust.”

I guess that means the Catholic Church authorities in Cuba have not been particularly vocal on the question of human rights in Cuba. A quick glance at the annual reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch give a good indication that there is improvement to be made.

According to the Human Rights Watch 2015 report (based on 2014):

“Members of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White)—a group founded by the wives, mothers, and daughters of political prisoners and which the government considers illegal—are routinely detained before or after they attend Sunday mass. On May 4, for example, more than 80 women were detained before attending mass throughout the island. On July 13, 129 members of the group were detained as they prepared to attend commemorative ceremonies honoring Cubans who died attempting to leave the island in 1994.”

Following Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998, Cuba released some 100 prisoners and prior to Pope Benedict’s visit, the Cuban government granted amnesty to some 2900 prisoners. A source told me that we are likely to see another prisoner amnesty around Pope Francis’ visit.

I could be wrong, but after speaking with a number of people, I have the impression that the Pope will not tackle the question of human rights in Cuba head on so as not to derail the slow but steady progress that is being made in State-Church relations, but sometimes Pope Francis surprises us all with his impromptu, off-the-cuff, off-script remarks.

The final event on September 20th will be a meeting with young people at the Felix Varela Cultural Center. Meetings with young people are always a high point for Pope Francis and this should be a lively event where Pope is likely to find ways of engaging young people as he often does – whether it is with a selfie, exchanging his white zucchetto (skull-cap) or a trying on a football jersey.

Pope Francis with young people at his weekly audience at the Vatican. September 9, 2015. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino

Pope Francis with young people at his weekly audience at the Vatican. September 9, 2015. Photo for Mozzarella Mamma by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino

On Monday, September 21st, the Pope will fly to Holguin in Eastern Cuba. The Eastern province of Holguin is famous because Christopher Columbus first landed there on October 28, 1492. It is also the province where both Fidel and Raul Castro were born, sons of a wealthy sugar plantation owner.

Pope Francis will say Mass in the Plaza de la Revolucion and bless the city from “Loma de la Cruz” (The Hill of the Cross). “Loma de la Cruz” is a hill that rises to 261 meters above sea level and is reached by climbing up 458 steps. Given that the Pope has only one lung and a bad knee, I certainly hope they find an alternative route up the Hill for him or it is going to take a long time.

I also hope they find another route up the hill for me since I will be dragging my computer, backpack with batteries, cables, microphone and Wi-Fi devices. I do have a backpack with wheels that I use on these trips, but they are not very useful on stairs.

At the top of the stairs there once was a wooden cross that was erected by a Franciscan friar Francisco Antonio Alegria in 1790. According to Vatican documents, this was a Spanish custom to ward off disease and natural disasters. The wooden cross rotted away, a second cross got hit by lightning and now the third cross in that spot, a cement one, will receive the blessing of Pope Francis.

From Holguin, the Pope will go on to Santiago de Cuba where he will go with the bishops and papal entourage to the shrine of the “Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre”, or “Our Lady of Charity,” or “Our Lady of El Cobre.” “Cobre” means copper in Spanish. And if all those names are a mouthful for you, you can just call her “Cachita”. Cachita’s sanctuary is in the mining town of El Cobre outside of Santiago.

 

The Patron Saint of Cuba. Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, or the Virgin of Charity of Copper

The Patron Saint of Cuba. Our Lady of Charity of Cobre, or the Virgin of Charity of Copper

I have read several versions of the legend behind the virgin so here is my summary: In the early 1600s three boys (known as the three Juans) were out in a boat in the Bay of Nipe gathering salt to be used for workers —Indios and slaves– in the nearby copper mines. Two of the Juans were of Indios descent, one of African descent. When a storm came up their boat was tossed on the waves and they thought it was the end. Then suddenly they saw something floating in the water. It was a small statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus with the inscription Yo soy la Virgen de la Caridad, (“I am the Virgin of Charity”). The boys made it safely to shore and since then the Virgin has been an object of veneration and credited with many miracles.

Pope John Paul II placed a crown on the head of the statue of the virgin when he visited in 1998. Pope Benedict XVI celebrated the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the statue when he visited in 2012. Over the years many people have left offerings to the virgin to thank her for miracles.  Apparently there is a display of crutches, wheel-chairs, medals, and diplomas.   I have read that the mother of Raul and Fidel Castro left a golden guerilla fighter at the feet of the statue as her sons were battling the dictator Batista.  I will ask for more details on that when I am there.

When Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for literature for “Old Man and the Sea” he placed his medal at the foot of the “Virgin de La Caridad.”

We will see if Pope Francis leaves something.

Apparently it is not just Catholics who are devoted to the Virgin of Caridad. In Cuba many people believe in something called “Santeria” a syncretic religion introduced by slaves brought from Africa to Cuba.

Laura Daranas, a Cuban art historian who works in Havana explained it to me like this:

“Since the slaves were not permitted to worship their gods here in America and they were forced into the Catholic faith, some of them created a system of identification between their ancestral gods and goddesses (called orishas) and the saints of the Catholic tradition.  Eventually this led to the formation of the highly ritualized religion we know today as Santeria or Regla de Ocha.  Santeros (practitioners of Santeria) walk into a church today and they pay their respects to the Virgin of Charity, the Patron Saint of Cuba, but they also pay their respects to the cheerful and voluptuous Ochun.”

Cuban dancer performing as Santeria goddess Ochun.   Havana, Cuba, March 20, 2015. Photo by Gwen Thomas

Cuban dancer performing as Santeria goddess Ochun. Havana, Cuba, March 20, 2015. Photo by Gwen Thomas

Daranas also shared with me a fascinating tid-bit that ties together the rapprochement with the United States, Catholicism and Santeria.  This is what she said:

“The day Castro and Obama made their pronouncement, December 17, is a very important day for the Cuban people.  It is the day of Saint Lazarus or Babalu’ Aye’ as this saint is known in Santeria.  Second only to the Sanctuary for the Virgin of El Cobre, the sanctuary of Saint Lazarus in El Rincon (on the outskirts of Havana) is a great center of pilgrimage.  The priests know that a large part of the thousands of people who ride, walk or crawl their way there on that day are actually praying to Babalu’ Aye’, an African Orisha (deity) who also suffered from a skin illness as Lazarus the beggar did in Jesus’ parable.  Babalu’ Aye’ or Lazarus is called “El Milagroso”, the miracle worker.  For many people the events of last December 17 were a miracle, a gift from Saint Lazarus to the Cuban people who have long suffered and devoutly carried out their promises to him,”

And now the man behind that rapprochement “miracle” is headed their way.

 

Pope Francis at his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square. September 2, 2015. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis at his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square. September 2, 2015. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

On his last day in Cuba, the Pope will say Mass at the Virgin’s shrine in Santiago, meet with families at the Cathedral and bless the city from the Square in front of the Cathedral.

At 12:30pm local time Pope Francis will depart from Santiago de Cuba for Washington D.C.

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A special thanks to my sister, Gwen Thomas, who visited Cuba this spring with a group of University students and provided me with a lot of background information, contacts, and some great photos.  Thanks also to my colleague, AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino, who continues to give me all her extra photos of the Pope during his weekly audience that are not used by AP.

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Earlier blog post on traveling with Popes:

Covering John Paul II

A White Elephant in a China Shop

Touching the Walls – Pope Francis in the Mideast

Pope Francis in Turkey – Part 1

Pope Francis in Turkey – Part II

Related posts: