April, 25, 2016

Is it Time for a New Watch?

My old, faithful watch. Photo by Trisha Thomas April 25, 2016

My old, faithful watch. Photo by Trisha Thomas April 25, 2016

The other day I noticed these tiny little Roman numerals sticking on the inside of the face of my watch. A minuscule, upside-down “I” near the number 12, an “X” down by the 4, an “L” over by the 6. Given that my watch uses Arabic numerals, it took me a while to figure out where these little Roman Numerals were coming from. I finally realized they were not Roman Numerals at all but the small letters “TIMEX” written on the face have come loose and are floating around inside my watch and sticking to the glass. I also noticed an “A” and an “L” and am wondering what the other word was that I have had on my wrist for over a decade and has now come loose. I certainly cannot remember.

I have had this cheap Timex watch for about 18 years. I have replaced the battery and the watchband many times. It is perfect for me because I am always in a hurry and the numbers are big and I can see the time with a quick glance.

Of course, there is a story behind this watch. When my son was born 21 years ago, my Italian father-in-law said he wanted to give me a gift. He took me to a lovely old store called “Haussman and Co.” on Via del Corso in Rome with deep-burgundy leather chairs and wooden paneling. Posh sales-clerks placed pricey watches on black velvet trays for us to examine. We chose an elegant Cartier watch with a wide gold rim, roman numerals, and a black, alligator-skin watchstrap. I was honored by the gift and felt very sophisticated with my Cartier watch.

A few years later when my son was in his terrible twos, my husband took a sabbatical year and we moved to New York City while he taught at Columbia University. The Nobel Prize winning economist from Columbia, Professor Robert Mundell, gave us his apartment on Claremont Avenue for the year. I was pregnant with my second child and enjoyed my time off work, waddling around New York with my rambunctious two-year-old and waiting for the arrival of my second child. I proudly wore my elegant Cartier watch wherever I went, from the playground in Riverside Park to visiting the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum. It was as though I was a little bit more European-sophisticated with my Cartier watch and not the messy, American mozzarella Mamma. Turns out my true, un-sophisticated alter-ego was lurking in the background waiting to attack.

On January 17, 1998, my daughter Caterina was born. Anyone who has done it knows that the jump from one child to two is a big deal. Babies are always easier when they are still in your stomach and my juggling act began (and still is going on). My rambunctious two-year-old (nearly three-year-old) became demanding and assertive, throwing toilet training progress to the wind (translate: massive accidents in the playground), tantrums timed to moments when Mommy was breast-feeding, and occasional falsely sweet murder attempts when Mommy was not paying attention. Those were when I left Caterina in her baby carriage and he would come up and say “Caterina, look at my teddy bear!” and then plant it on her face. Or perhaps an attempt to swing on the handle of the baby carriage risking sending baby Caterina flying skywards.   Needless to say, I had to be on my toes.

I developed a nighttime routine that I swore by. I would read Nico several books then put him to bed and then around 11pm start giving Caterina her final feeding for the evening while I watched Seinfeld on TV. After Seinfeld and the usual rounds of burping and diaper changing, I would put her down to sleep, take a shower and then head to bed. That would usually guarantee me three hours of sleep until the 3am feeding.

One night I wearily put Caterina down and went into the bathroom, took off my clothes, turned on the shower, used the toilet, as I was taking off my Cartier watch and then–I will never know exactly how it happened–but the watch slipped off my wrist into the toilet as I was flushing and down it went.

I froze in shock and then yelled, “GUSTAVO….MY CARTIER WATCH JUST WENT DOWN THE TOILET!!!”

He came charging down the corridor into the bathroom and as I stood there with a towel wrapped around me I explained, “I just flushed the Cartier watch your Dad gave me down the toilet.”

Let’s just say his reaction was not pretty. He was furious, he was enraged, he was so mad at me he could hardly see straight.

Before I knew it we had the doorman, the building super, plumbers and I think even the fire department marching up and down our hallway and into the bathroom. They took apart the toilet and found nothing. They spent hours down in the bowels (literally, perhaps) of the building trying to find my Cartier watch. In the meantime, I cowered in the bedroom feeling like the world’s biggest loser and really just wanting to go to sleep.

(I hope Robert Mundell never reads this post. I don’t think he ever heard about this incident)

It must have been around 3am when all the workers gave up. It was awful. I still do not think my husband has forgiven me for that. Needless to say, I had to go out and buy myself a cheap Timex and have never mentioned the word “watch” to my husband again.

(Word of advice to any women marrying an Italian.  Never-even by accident– flush an expensive gift from your father-in-law down the toilet.  And if you do, cover it up.  In retrospect, it would have been far wiser to buy a similar-looking cheap, imitation Cartier watch from a street vendor in NYC)

What is it about being an American and lacking that European sophistication, that savoir-faire, that “je ne sais quoi?” that distinguishes them from us sloppy, sweaty, messy boors. (Ok, don’t get offended blog-readers, I am just speaking about myself).

Fast-forward a couple of decades.  My son is now 21, my daughter 18 and the third one is 15.  I still have my Timex. The other day my husband took me to what I would define as a crème de la crème party in Rome. It was in this gigantic apartment in the center of Rome with art works all over the walls, precious tapestries, and antique everything. There were a combination of art world people, a few journalists, a former government minister or two, a sprinkling of nobles, prominent businesspeople, and then an awkward American. Yup, that’s me. I do not know why I cared but I noticed shortly after I entered that I was the only woman in boots. There are all these fashion rules and codes in Italy that I just don’t get. They are like the food rules – you never order a cappuccino after lunch, you just don’t (see blog post: “Amatriciana in the Blender”). Then there are also fashion rules that I am much slower on picking up—in fact, I have been living in Italy for over 23 years and I still don’t get them. For example, middle-aged women can and should wear a bikini at the beach and God forbid you cover up your flab in a one-piece bathing suit (see blog post: “Mozzarella Mamma meets Italian Teenage Summer”), and at a sophisticated dinner party your spiffy, suede, high-heeled boots are not good – you can’t wear boots. I went to an evening wedding one summer where I wore an expensive, pretty, cotton summer dress and all the women were in floor length gowns. Go figure. Can someone write down the Italian fashionista (not to be confused with fascista) rules for me, please!

So at this crème de la crème party this whole boot business started making me feel a bit like a loser with a capital L on my forehead at the get-go. Then I made a gaffe about a thing on the coffee table that turned out was a piece of art by a famous sculptor—as a woman on the other side of the coffee table was quick to point out. “Oh, you don’t know him?” she asked, smiling as she held her glass of pro secco. AWKWARD. No, I didn’t know him and the sculpture looked like a Maine lobster to me. I decided to shut up, stick to my husband’s side and be a good wifey. He knows how to handle these situations – let’s say he is a bit cremoso (That is creamy in Italian)– he would never flush a Cartier watch down the toilet, or make a dumb comment at a party about an obviously famous work of art. I, on the other hand, am not crème-osa. I tend to be more like sour milk that you pull out of the fridge at 7 in the morning and think, “damn, how did that go sour, now I have to run to the store before breakfast, dammit, dammit and then I will be late for work, dammit, dammit.”

When the food was served, I made a beeline for the dining table and piled up my plate with all the fantastic food. I then headed for a two-person couch assuming my husband was right behind me and I would only have to converse with him. But when I plopped down he was not behind me and the other half was soon occupied with a gorgeous woman who looked like a middle-aged goldilocks. She was wearing a glamorous mini-skirt and mile-high heels with pom-poms on them and she managed to pull it off, she looked fantastic. (Fashionista rule: mile high heeled sandals with pom-poms allowed, suede boots no). She immediately started up a flirtatious conversation with the man in a chair on the other side and I dove into my food. It did not take me long to polish off everything on my plate and soon I realized I had to engage in conversation. But feeling rather “sour-milky” and not  “crème-osa” I was not sure how to do that, so I did one of my classic faux-pas (or “brutta figura” I should say since I am in Italy). I asked her what she does for work. I butted into their conversation with a casual little, “So, what do you do?” (That is a big no-no in Italy, See Blog Posts:  “How I Ended up in Italy” and “The Tailhook and the Elegant Dinner Party”). She looked at me and laughed a delightful little crème de crème laugh and said, “Ah, you know, WORK and I just don’t go together. I have never worked. It’s just not for me.” Then she turned and went back to speaking to Mr. Crème on the other side.

To be honest, I eventually managed to break into their conversation and this woman was charming, interesting and knowledgeable. We had a stimulating conversation about international affairs but I did wonder what she thought of me with my black boots, my eagerness to talk about my work, and my old watch with the loosened letters floating around the face.

I guess it is time to buy a new watch, but I am actually very attached to this one. We have come a long way together in our messy, unsophisticated American way.

POSTSCRIPT

Looking at the super-close-up photo I did of my watch for this blog post, I am having some doubts that my Timex is actually a Timex.  I see the letters I-T-A — which make me think of the word Italy, but I am quite sure “Italy” was not written on the face of this watch.  Hmmm, I guess it will remain a mystery.

 

 

Related posts:

A Spectacular Sight – The Roman Forum at Night

The Roman Forum lit up at night. Photo by Chiara Piga, April 19, 2016

The Roman Forum lit up at night. Photo by Chiara Piga, April 19, 2016

Dear Blog Readers –

Here is a quick visual blog post on a story I did the other night on a new system of LED lights in the Forum. AP Television got invited on an advance tour on Tuesday night by the Ministry of Culture to see the new lighting. It was spectacular. I brought my daughter Chiara along and together with cameraman Gigi Navarra and news assistant Sarah Chiarello we tramped our way up to the top of the Palatine Hill – once the home of Roman Emperors– past the rose garden to the lookout point over the Roman Forum. Then at 7:28pm they turned on the 450 new lights.

It was magical. The lights run from the Arch of Titus at one end down the Via Sacra to the Arch of Septimius Severus at the other end.

For those of you not familiar with the Roman Forum, it was the center of the Roman Empire. The Via Sacra runs down the center and on one side was the Roman Senate and on the other the home of the Vestal Virgins who kept a flame constantly burning in their temple

When the lights came on we could see the statues of the Vestal Virgins lining their courtyard.

 

Statue of a vestal virgin lit up at night in the Roman Forum. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. April 19, 2016

Statue of a vestal virgin lit up at night in the Roman Forum. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. April 19, 2016

There are 450 lights in total of different shapes and sizes. Long, skinny stick-like lights, small round lights on the ground, and rows of softball-size lights. They range in color from a white-gold light effect to a soft white light on the monuments.

After getting the top-shot of the lights going on, we made our way back down the Palatine Hill, stopping to film the lit-up Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. The construction of this temple began under the Emperor Maxentius who was defeated by Constantine in the dramatic Battle of the Milvian Bridge (not far from where I live) and was completed by Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor.

Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine lit up in the Roman Forum at night. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. April 19, 2016

Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine lit up in the Roman Forum at night. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. April 19, 2016

At one end of the Forum the lights shine on the Arch of Titus celebrating his military victories in the Middle East. The frieze inside the Arch shows the Romans in the sack of Jerusalem carrying off the Menorah from the Temple.

 

Arch of Titus lit up at night in the Roman Forum. Photo by Chiara Piga, April 19, 2016

Arch of Titus lit up at night in the Roman Forum. Photo by Chiara Piga, April 19, 2016

One of the most beautifully lit monuments in the Forum is the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. The Roman Temple has 10 Corinthian columns on the outside but within the ancient temple there is a baroque church called San Lorenzo in Miranda.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina lit up in the Roman Forum. Photo by Chiara Piga, April 19, 2016

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina lit up in the Roman Forum. Photo by Chiara Piga, April 19, 2016

Behind the Basiclia Aemilia on can see a frieze depicting the ancient saga of the rape of the Sabine women by the Roman men.

A frieze showing the rape of the Sabine women at the back of the Basilica Aemilia lit up at night in the Roman Forum. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. April 19, 2016

A frieze showing the rape of the Sabine women at the back of the Basilica Aemilia lit up at night in the Roman Forum. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gigi Navarra. April 19, 2016

A team of architects, lighting experts and technicians worked a total of 3800 hours to install 6,000 meters of cables.  Using Led, energy saving technology, they placed lights from 7-80 watts throughout the Forum.

Officials told us that they have tried many times to find a way to light up the Roman Forum at night but the cost was prohibitive and earlier attempts all failed.  They are now hoping the low-consuming Led lights will allow this attempt to succeed.

Starting on April 22nd visitors can take tours through the Roman Forum at night from 8pm until midnight.   A maximum of 75 people can participate in a tour group and tours will be in Italian and English.

 

Related posts:

April 17, 2016

Feeling the Bern at the Vatican

Press crush around Democratic candidate for President Bernie Sanders as he speaks outside the Perugino Gate at the Vatican. Note on the left hand side you can see my arm in a light blue shirt holding up our boom microphone and feeling the "bern".  You can also see the top of my head and the head of the policeman pushing me back.  April 15, 2016.  Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Press crush around Democratic candidate for President Bernie Sanders as he speaks outside the Perugino Gate at the Vatican. Note on the left hand side you can see my arm in a light blue shirt holding up our boom microphone and feeling the “bern”. You can also see the top of my head and the head of the policeman pushing me back. April 15, 2016. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Let me tell all you blog readers where I was feeling the “Bern” – all up and down my right arm as I desperately tried to keep our boom microphone high in the air above Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders as he gave a statement nearly squashed by dozens of journalists, photographers and camerapersons against the Vatican wall.  My arm muscle was burning as I struggled to keep the microphone in the air so we could get proper audio of Bernie Sanders speaking. But my arm muscle was burning. Meanwhile I was being pushed back by a burly Italian policemen.

Bernie Sanders announced last week he would be coming for a quick trip to the Vatican to take part in a conference to mark the 25th Anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, written at the end of the Cold War, which delves into questions of economic and social justice.

For many it seemed an odd time for the candidate to leave the United States with the New York primary looming around the corner on Tuesday, April 19th. Sanders could really use the 291 democratic delegates that are up for grabs in New York if he wants to catch up to Hillary Clinton.

The two of them had their most heated debate last Wednesday night going at each other on questions from gun control to Wall Street. After the debate he hopped on his campaign plane and headed for the Eternal City.

Before his arrival there was a lot of head-scratching going on at the Vatican. Who had invited him, and would he meet the Pope? The Pope already took the unusual step of entering in the US Presidential election with a powerful swipe at Donald Trump over his idea to build a wall between the US and Mexico, but would he really meet with a candidate in person before an important primary? The day before Sanders’ arrival the Pope’s spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told the press that there were no plans for the Pope to meet Sanders. The Pope was preparing for his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos and was not participating in the conference.

The afternoon before his visit, we learned from the Sanders campaign that he was planning to arrive at the Vatican in a car, give a speech and then walk outside the Perugino gate to speak to the press. Those of us who cover the Vatican knew that it would be crazy. The Perugino gate is Vatican property and controlled by Vatican Gendarmes but once you step outside it is Italian territory.

If you want to see what a Gendarme looks like, check out the photos in one on my earlier blog post “A Woman Locked up at the Vatican.”

After the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels, the Italian government has assigned two young Italian soldiers to stand across the street with automatic rifles just in case. They spend their days looking bored.

Hours before Sanders was to arrive AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra got to the position with News Assistant Sarah Chiarello and set up three barriers behind which the press could stand and put down tape on the ground for a spot for Sanders to make a statement. A little while late I got there and then Sanders’ campaign aide Marik Von Rennenkampf arrived. Unfortunately he did not like our little set up with the barriers and the tape. He said Sanders wanted to get out of his car and walk up the road from inside the Vatican with the Dome of St. Peter’s behind him. Sanders obviously needed the visual to show he was at the Vatican. The problem was if he was going to do that, all of us had to stand in front of the gate and the Gendarme was not hearing any of that. He furiously told him that no one would block his gate and he had no instructions whatsoever to stop the traffic. I was trying to help Marik with translation but the Gendarme was so furious that it was all very clear without any translation. Marik had me attempt to explain that the Secret Service had worked it out with the head of the Gendarmerie, but that didn’t go down to well.

Sign in hands of a Bernie Sanders supporter in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra, April 15, 2016

Sign in hands of a Bernie Sanders supporter in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra, April 15, 2016

So we decided to move the barriers across the road and the press would go behind the barriers and Sanders would walk out the gate and across the street and we would have our nice photo-opportunity and maybe even a comment. In the meantime about 15 cheerful Sanders supporters arrived with Bernie t-shirts and “Rome is Berning” posters. A team of Italian police on motorcycles arrived as well. We then began negotiating with the supporters trying to get them to be in a position where they would not block our view and access to Sanders. We were quite sure Sanders would want to greet them and didn’t want to lose our chance.   The supporters were great and agreed to help.

Marik then asked me if I would translate for him with the police. There was a little parking area which had been blocked off with plastic police barricade tape. Marik asked me to explain to the police that he wanted to remove that tape because the press bus following Sanders was supposed to park there. I asked an Italian policemen with a large girth standing beside his motorcycle if that might be done. “Are you kidding,” he told me, “the traffic cops put that stuff up and they do it under orders and even if they were standing here right now and you asked them to do it, they would not remove it. I cannot touch it.”

I explained that the bus with the press people in Sanders motorcade was supposed to park there. “What’s the problem then,” he said, “it’ll be a battle between the bus and the tape. I think the bus will win.”

That resolved, I tried to convince Marik to get Sanders to take a walk around Rome in the evening, throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain, eat a plate of pasta at an outdoor restaurant at Piazza Navona. I really wanted a visual to show Sanders in Rome. I started suggesting some good restaurants. Senator John Kerry always goes to Tullio, other US dignitaries prefer Pier Luigi’s. When the large-girthed policeman heard me recommending restaurants he and his colleague interrupted, “What are you telling him? You Americans always go to the same restaurants….now you translate for us, tell this guy that they should go to Rosanna’s on the Salaria.”

Shortly thereafter Bernie arrived and whipped into the Vatican in his car. The bus pulled in and indeed broke through the police tape and no one said a word.

Then a new set of negotiations began. The travelling press team for Sanders told the police that they wanted all the Italian and international press in Italy standing behind the metal barriers on the other side of the road and the travelling press would be lined up along the Vatican wall, closer to Bernie than us. We did not like that one bit. I was in the middle of complicated negotiations talking to the police, the Bernie’s press people trying to explain to everyone that if Bernie stopped to talk to his travelling press then the rest of us behind the barriers would break free and run up to join them. Several other journalists and I explained that the travelling press should stay behind the barrier with the rest of us and we could all work together.

Then before we knew it, Bernie was coming back out from inside the Vatican and the police shoved us behind the barrier and the travelling press got their backs against the wall and Bernie was walking towards us. And then it all went wacko. Bernie turned and walked over to greet the supporters on one side, the travelling press pulled off the wall and went towards him and we all broke free from behind the barriers – to hell with gendarmes, soldiers, police, secret service, campaign officials and the rest of them.

The situation was spinning out of control. The secret service guys were trying to surround Bernie and his wife and I thought he was going to get crushed by all of us. AP television was live so Gigi was holding the camera up in the air and had the LiveU backpack on his back. I was in the middle of the mess with the boom microphone. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and Bernie looked red-faced, tense and nervous. (His wife Jane seemed calm as a cucumber).     The mass moved over to the other side of the entrance towards a corner in the wall. The Bernie Campaign people started yelling “back behind the barrier, get back behind the barrier, someone please translate that in Italian, get back behind the barrier!!” No one was going back behind the barrier. A big secret service guy said, “Ok guys, were going to make a wedge here.” So they made a “wedge” around Bernie at the corner of the wall and we all squashed in and around him and that is when my arm started burning.

Bernie Sanders speaks to press outside the Vatican. April 15, 2016 - Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Bernie Sanders speaks to press outside the Vatican. April 15, 2016 – Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

He briefly sang the praises of Pope Francis both for his vision of a fairer economic system and for his views on climate change. He also said he was so “moved” by the invitation to come to the Vatican to participate in the conference that he could not refuse even though it was taking him away from the campaign trail for a day. When he stopped talking I yelled out a question: “do you think this visit is going to help you with the Catholic vote?” But Bernie just said “thank you” and left.

And then he turned and walked back into the Vatican with dozens of journalists, photographers and camerapersons running behind him, only to be blocked by angry gendarmes at the Vatican gate.

Press pack blocked by Gendarmes at Perugino gate as Bernie Sanders heads back inside. April 15, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra

Press pack blocked by Gendarmes at Perugino gate as Bernie Sanders heads back inside. April 15, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Gigi Navarra

I obviously was not the only one with that question in mind because I noticed later in an AP story that someone had asked Reverend Matt Malone, editor of the Jesuit Magazine “America” the same question. Malone responded, “I don’t think that Bernie Sanders going to the Vatican is going to help Bernie with Catholics any more than Ted Cruz going to a matzo factory is going to help him with the Jewish vote.”

Inside the Vatican, Sanders delivered what I think is an excellent speech. I am not sure if it is straight from his stump speech, but it is good stuff and helps me understand why my son Nico is such a Bernie fan. Here are a few quotes:

“In the year 2016, the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, while the wealthiest 60 people – 60 people – own more than the bottom half – 3 1/2 billion people.

I am told time and time again by the rich and powerful, and the mainstream media that represent them, that we should be “practical,” that we should accept the status quo; that a truly moral economy is beyond our reach.

Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world’s greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism.

He has opened the eyes of the world once again to the claims of mercy, justice and the possibilities of a better world.

He is inspiring the world to find a new global consensus for our common home.

I see that hope and sense of possibility every day among America’s young people. Our youth are no longer satisfied with corrupt and broken politics and an economy of stark inequality and injustice.

They are not satisfied with the destruction of our environment by a fossil fuel industry whose greed has put short-term profits ahead of climate change and the future of our planet. They want to live in harmony with nature, not destroy it.

They are calling out for a return to fairness; for an economy that defends the common good by ensuring that every person, rich or poor, has access to quality health care, nutrition and education.”

Pope Francis did not attend the conference and was surely planning for his one-day trip to Lesbos, Greece to visit migrants on Saturday (more on that below). But perhaps he did have a chance to read the speech and maybe that convinced him to allow for a brief meeting with Sanders. Did the Pope feel the Bern?

Sanders slept inside the Vatican residence/hotel Santa Marta – where the Pope has a room. (For more on Pope Francis’ decision to live in Santa Marta rather than the Papal Apartment in the Apostolic Palace see blog post “Francesco Frenzy“)

Saturday morning AP political correspondent Ken Thomas, who was travelling with Sanders, had a brief (5 minutes) interview on the roof of the Paul VI residence near the Vatican. AP cameraman Paolo Lucariello and photographer Alessandra Tarantino and I joined him. Sanders arrived clearly feeling cheerful, had his wife Jane adjust his tie, and launched into his “news”. He had had a five-minute meeting with Pope Francis that morning at 6am in the lobby of the Santa Marta Residence.

Bernie Sanders speaks to the Associated Press about his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. April 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Bernie Sanders speaks to the Associated Press about his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. April 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

“It was a real honor for me, my wife and I, to spend some time with him,” he told us. “I think he is one of the extraordinary figures, not only in the world but in modern world history in talking and enlightening the world about the massive levels of income and wealth inequality, about a culture which rewards greed and ignores people who are hurting, about climate change.  So it was an honor to meet with him.”

And that was that.  A bit later Bernie left the residence and got in a car headed for the airport and back to New York and the crazy 2016 campaign.

Bernie Sanders gets in a car to head to the airport after his visit to Rome and the Vatican. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Paolo Lucariello. April 16, 2016

Bernie Sanders gets in a car to head to the airport after his visit to Rome and the Vatican. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Cameraman Paolo Lucariello. April 16, 2016

I rushed back to the office eager to edit my story. As I walked in, AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield called out to me telling me there were reports that Pope Francis was going to be bringing 12 migrants with him on the Papal Plane back from Lesbos. Groan. Some days the news never stops.

Related posts:

April 6, 2016

Lizzy Myers meets Pope Francis

Pope Francis caresses the eyes of Ohio girl Lizzy Myers at the end of his weekly audience. April 6, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Pope Francis caresses the eyes of Ohio girl Lizzy Myers at the end of his weekly audience. April 6, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Dear Blog Readers — this is not a proper post, just a few freeze frames of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara showing Lizzy Myers at the Pope’s weekly audience today. At the end of the audience the Pope walked up to her, kissed her and touched both her eyes.  She gave him a piece of a meteorite as a gift.

Pope Francis walks over to wear five-year-old Lizzy Myers is sitting at his weekly audience to greet her. April 6, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Pope Francis walks over to wear five-year-old Lizzy Myers is sitting at his weekly audience to greet her. April 6, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

For the full story of Lizzy’s visit to Rome see my blog post from yesterday “Lizzy Myers’ Visual Bucket-List

Pope Francis greets Ohio girl Lizzy Myers at the end of his weekly audience. April 6, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Pope Francis greets Ohio girl Lizzy Myers at the end of his weekly audience. April 6, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Related posts:

April 5, 2016

Lizzy Myers’ Visual Bucket List

Five-year-old Lizzy Myers drawing in a garden in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Paolo Lucariello. April 2, 2016

Five-year-old Lizzy Myers drawing in a garden in Rome. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Paolo Lucariello. April 2, 2016

Dear Blog Readers,

This past week we have been following the story of little Lizzy Myers, the five-year-old girl from Mansfield, Ohio who has come to Rome with her family as part of a “visual bucket list” they are trying to complete before she goes blind.

By the time you read this post Lizzy will probably have had her chance to greet Pope Francis at his Wednesday weekly audience where she is expected to be sitting at the front.

Lizzy has a rare genetic disease called Usher Syndrome Type II A which is slowly taking away her hearing and gradually making her blind. Lizzy does not know yet this is going to happen.

Her parents, Steve and Christine, decided to make up a “visual bucket list” so their daughter can see many of the wonders of the world before she loses her sight.

Steve, Christine, Lizzy and Kayla Myers visit the Coliseum in Rome April 1, 2016.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Steve, Christine, Lizzy and Kayla Myers visit the Coliseum in Rome April 1, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Speaking to the AP last Saturday in the garden at their hotel on the Appia Antica in Rome, her parents explained that the list has many simple things on it like catching fireflies, seeing a rainbow, swimming in the ocean, and viewing the stars and the moon.

The Myers family lives near the Warren Rupp Observatory in Ohio so Lizzy and her friend got a special trip to the observatory to check out the night sky through a big telescope.

The trip to the observatory made it onto the local news and before they knew it the Myers had an invitation from the head of Turkish Airways for a flight to anywhere in the world. “It took us all of about 30 seconds to decide that Rome was the place,” her father, Steve Myers, told us, “Both because we are Catholic but also because of Lizzy’s interest in art and big things, you know, history. It wasn’t a difficult decision.”

Last Friday AP cameraman Gianfranco Stara and news assistant Sarah Chiarello followed the Myers family as they got a tour of the Roman Forum and Coliseum. Gianfranco told me he was moved when he saw Lizzy carefully tracing her finger over the engraved letters of Julius Caesar on the base of his statue.

Lizzy Myers touching the words on the Julius Caesar statue in Rome. April 1, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Lizzy Myers touching the words on the Julius Caesar statue in Rome. April 1, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

She trotted happily over the giant Roman cobblestones outside the Coliseum and listened attentively to their guide.

Steve and Christine Myers described how they ended up with a “visual bucket list”. “I think that happened almost immediately when we found out that Lizzy had Ushers Type 2A,” said her father Steve Myers using the name of the rare genetic syndrome that he says Lizzy was diagnosed with, “Once we got over the initial shock of all of that we realized that we have to do as much as we can to let her see as many wonderful things as possible.”

Lizzy’s mother Christine explained their decision not to tell their daughter about her disease. “She knows that she has hearing problems, she wears hearing aids, she has adjusted really well to those, but we have not told her anything else because she is five,” said her mother Christine Myers. “I want her to live as normal a life as she can, now. There will come a time when we will have to tell her. I dread that day.”

Their two daughters played cheerfully in the garden behind them as Steve Myers said they were looking forward to tomorrow’s visit to the Vatican. “We are hoping for a little special prayer or something for Lizzy and maybe a miracle will happen that way as well.”

He then glanced across at Christine who said, “no, we already have our miracle. This is already a miracle.”

Related posts:

March 26, 2016

Get a Grip, Europe!

get a grip

It is time for Europe to get a grip.

This week fundamentalist Islamic terrorists blasted the heart of Europe with suicide bomb attacks in Brussels that left over 30 people dead and hundreds wounded. In a deeply symbolic gesture they hit the center of European power, even targeting the Maelbeck subway stop outside the European Union Headquarters.

The scene at the Brussels airport after the suicide bomb attacks. Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The scene at the Brussels airport after the suicide bomb attacks. Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The attacks put into sharp focus Europe’s failure politically. The 28-nation group that started as an economic union has been unable to create an effective political entity. Now it is time for the EU to do that or allow the terrorist attacks at its heart become the catalyst that tears it to pieces.

Street scene in Brussels after bomb explode in subway station near the EU headquarters.  March 22, 2016

Street scene in Brussels after bomb explode in subway station near the EU headquarters. March 22, 2016

In the past few years it has become clear that there are no official “European borders” monitored by an adequate “European police force”. It became brutally apparent this week that there is no effective Europe-wide intelligence and police cooperation, and it has been apparent for a few years now that Europe cannot come up with an effective policy for facing the onrush of migrants and refugees flowing in from Africa and the Middle East.

For a few years now some Europeans have been retreating into the safety of their nation-states, grasping on to what remains of their ethnic fiefdoms, hoping to somehow protect their historic identity. Nationalist movements from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France to Matteo Salvini’s Northern League Movement in Italy have been promoting the end of Europe and, even worse, the British will vote in June on a referendum on whether to pull out altogether.

Great Britain, a former empire, the nation of Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill is shying away from a role in the creation of a politically strong Europe. Instead the British are talking about a “Brexit”, a British exit from the EU, pulling back like a snail into the questionable safety of its shell. The safety of the shell is “questionable” because the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels came from an enemy within. That could just as easily happen in Britain.

The first step for Europe to get a grip is to stop going to pieces and start acting. Just over a week ago when European leaders met in Brussels to iron out a deal with Turkey on migrants, a photo of their banquet was circulating on Facebook. This, while over 10,000 migrants were stuck in a filthy sprawling camp in Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonia border, scrambling for an egg or some bread as aid workers threw food from the back of trucks. The contrast left the impression of well-fed, fat cat, clawless European leaders and bureaucrats unable to even scratch the surface of the migrant crisis.

Migrants reaching for food handouts from trucks in the village of Idomeni, Greece on the border with Macedonia. March 2016

Migrants reaching for food handouts from trucks in the village of Idomeni, Greece on the border with Macedonia. March 2016

The deal they came up with showed just that. To sum it up rather brusquely it is a deal paying Turkey a lot of money to take back the “huddled masses” of migrants. Of course Europe is eager to be nice to Turkey when it comes to taking back migrants that Europe doesn’t want. However, last June when Turkey arrested a Belgian citizen named Ibrahim El Bakraoui as he was trying to enter Syria and warned Belgium he was a suspected terrorist, the Turks warning was ignored. El Bakraoui was eventually deported and put on a flight to Amsterdam last July. He went on to become one of the two suicide bombers who blew himself up at the Brussels airport this week.

I think European governments will be more inclined to listen to Turkey’s warnings in the future. But Europe also needs to start recognizing the importance of Turkey for Europe’s future. The bottom line is Europe needs Turkey. As much as Europeans might have legitimate concerns over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic tendencies, it is critical to have a country as important and powerful as Turkey on its side. Europe can work with forces within Turkey, from NGOs to journalists and human rights activists, to push for democratic change and human rights, but cutting Turkey off from entry into Europe has been damaging.

So where does Europe need to start getting a grip? Answer: First, on its borders. From Lampedusa the Italian island closer to Africa than to Europe (see blog post “Lampedusa –Europe’s Port”) to the Greek Islands of Lesbos, Kos and Samos (all a short boat ride from Turkey) to the Spanish territory of Melilla in North Africa – Europe needs to have a recognizable border with controls handled by a unified European police force and border control.

This is not a proposal for a Trump-style wall to block migrants. Europe needs a common border control system. Europe has a common currency, why not an effective common police force instead of a de-clawed Europol or Frontex?

Police patrolling the airport in Rome following the terror attacks in Brussels.  Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press Photographer Alessandra Tarantino March 22, 2016

Police patrolling the airport in Rome following the terror attacks in Brussels. Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press Photographer Alessandra Tarantino March 22, 2016

We saw this week how lack of coordination between French and Belgian intelligence services led to terror cells slipping between cracks in Europe. Instead of national intelligence services fiercely guarding their information, they need to work together to deter the common enemy.

The second place where Europe needs to get a grip is on the camps for migrants once they are inside European territory. According to the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), as of March 25th, 2016, 164,255 migrants have arrived in Europe this year by sea, 528 are dead or missing. Tens of thousands are living in camps and shelters across Europe.

We have all seen enough horrible scenes of migrants living in conditions ripe for disease with families out in the cold living in tents in the mud and rain. Just this week both the UNHCR and Doctors Without Borders have complained about the degenerating conditions in the migrant camps in Greece. Why can’t Europe build proper camps for these people?

Street scene in Molenbeck, Brussels. Photo by Teun Voeten

Street scene in Molenbeck, Brussels. Photo by Teun Voeten

Third, European leaders need to loosen their grips on their forks at their endless summit dinners and get a grip on the communities such as Molenbeck in Belgium or Seine-Saint-Denis in France where Islamic extremism has festered and grown. These communities have been allowed to become ghettoes with little integration into European societies. Getting a grip does not mean police control. It means engaging the Muslim populations. It means reaching out to the women. How many women end up becoming suicide bombers? Not many. It is fundamental to make sure Muslim women learn the local language, and that all children get into strong public schools and learn important European civic values such as freedom of expression, democracy and equality. Instead of leaving Muslim communities disenfranchised, poor and abandoned, perfect breeding ground for radicalism, Europe needs to reach out to them offering them a better alternative to extremism.

I have spoken to many migrants who land on the shores of Europe and have great hopes and dreams of a better future. Standing on the docks in ports in Sicily they have told me of their plans to find jobs and a decent life they did not have in the home they left behind. Smashing those hopes and dreams by cutting migrants off leads to desperation and extremism.

On Holy Thursday, just three days after the attacks in Brussels, Pope Francis did something that took courage, determination and humility. He went to a refugee center on the outskirts of Rome and got down on his knees and washed the feet of 12 refugees including three Muslim men from Syria, Pakistan and Mali, a Hindu man from India, and three Eritrean Coptic Christian women and one Italian Catholic woman.

Pope Francis washes foots of refugees as Castel Nuovo di Porto refugee center near Rome on Holy Thursday. March 24, 2016

Pope Francis washes foots of refugees as Castel Nuovo di Porto refugee center near Rome on Holy Thursday. March 24, 2016

Before washing their feet the Pope spoke directly about the attacks in Brussels saying:

“All of us, together – Muslims, Hindus, Catholics, Coptics, Evangelicals are brothers, …who want to live together in peace, integrated…”

Muslim man in migrant center near Rome listening to Pope Francis give homily during Holy Thursday foot washing Mass. March 24, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV

Muslim man in migrant center near Rome listening to Pope Francis give homily during Holy Thursday foot washing Mass. March 24, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV

Then he brought up the attacks in Brussels saying, “Three days ago, a gesture of war, of destruction, in a city of Europe, a gesture by people who do not want to live in peace, who want war, not brotherhood.”

He concluded, “We are diverse, we are different we have different cultures and religions but we are brothers and we want to live in peace.”

I think he has the right idea.

Pope Francis reaches up to touch baby in arms of migrant woman after washing her feet. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV. March 24, 2016

Pope Francis reaches up to touch baby in arms of migrant woman after washing her feet. Freeze frame of video shot by Vatican TV. March 24, 2016

Muslim communities should not be marginalized, they need to be integrated. The communities need to be included not excluded. Europe needs to make a huge effort to engage the moderates in the community and get their help in isolating and eliminating extremism.

Finally, what does Europe need to get a grip – Europe needs to harness the anger, fears and frustration over these terror attacks and direct it not at Muslims but at the lack of leadership and determination in Europe. Europe needs to find strong, courageous leaders who can get a grip and create in Europe an effective political union capable of offering effective solutions to crises from migrants to terrorism instead of covering the continent with band-aids.

Mains et mappemonde

Related posts:

February 29, 2016

Cardinal Pell Takes the Stand in Rome

Cardinal George Pell swears on bible at opening of testimony to Royal Commission, Monday 29 Feb, 2016 during a video link from Rome, Italy at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing. Photo Jeremy Piper (Photo handout from Royal Commission on Child Abuse)

Cardinal George Pell swears on bible at opening of testimony to Royal Commission, Monday 29 Feb, 2016 during a video link from Rome, Italy at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse hearing. Photo Jeremy Piper (Photo handout from Royal Commission on Child Abuse)

Dear Blog Readers,

Last night I had the bizarre experience of sitting through three hours of testimony by Australian Cardinal George Pell, the Vatican’s Chief of Finance, to the Australian Royal Commission on Child Abuse. As over a hundred of us – journalists, survivors, relatives of victims –sat in a hotel in Rome, listening to Pell testify by video-conference to the commission in Sydney, on the other side of the world “Spotlight” the film about a group of journalists in my home town of Boston exposing widespread sexual abuse by priests, was winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

Cameras were not allowed into the conference room at the Hotel Quirinale, so we filmed and interviewed the survivors outside in the pouring rain. Inside the Cardinal sat at a table at the front facing a large TV screen and took questions from the commission’s lead counsel, Gail Furness.

The session started with Pell holding up the bible and swearing to tell “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Shortly into his testimony he set a conciliatory tone for his comments for the evening noting, “I am not here to defend the indefensible. The church in Australia has mucked things up and let people down. The Church has made enormous mistakes and is working to remedy those.”

T-shirt worn by a survivor of priestly sexual abuse in Australia attending the hearing with testimony by Cardinal Pell in Rome. February 29, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

T-shirt worn by a survivor of priestly sexual abuse in Australia attending the hearing with testimony by Cardinal Pell in Rome. February 29, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

A little background. Cardinal Pell has already testified before the commission three times. They asked him twice to come back to testify again in two cases, one called Case 28 involved sexual abuse in the town of Ballarat, and the other Case 35 involving sexual abuse in Melbourne.

The 74-year-old Pell provided medical slips from his doctor indicating he was not in good enough health to take the long flight to Australia, so the Commission decided to set up the video-conference in Rome. His decision not to come to Australia raised a lot of hackles down under and Australian comedian/musician Tom Minchin recorded a song called “Come Home Cardinal Pell” the proceeds of which have gone to pay for some of the survivors to come to Rome to hear Pell’s testimony.   The song is funny and hard-hitting and some people at the Vatican have told me they think it was a bit “below the belt.” But the survivors would surely shoot back that the “bellow the belt” behavior or priests towards children was far worse.

If you are interested in hearing the song, here is the you tube link. Tom Minchin song “Come Home Cardinal Pell”

Since Cardinal Pell has been at the Vatican – he was appointed by Pope Francis to be the Vatican Chief of Economy (Prefect for the Secretariat of the Economy) in 2014–I have heard two Italian expressions used about him, playing on the similarity of his last name with the word for hairs (peli) in Italian. I have heard it said that Pell “non ha peli su la lingua”, which literally means that he doesn’t have hairs on his tongue, but is an expression to indicate someone who is brutally frank, never softens his words, and can be verbally harsh. I think that would accurately describe him. I have also heard said Pell “ha peli sullo stomaco”, which translated literally means he has hairs on his stomach. This expression means a person is extremely tough, the stomach is protected with hairs, in contrast I suppose with a soft underbelly, so they can tough it out in any environment. I would also say this is an accurate description of Pell.

Chrissie Foster, mother of two victims of priestly sexual abuse speaking to the Associated Press in Rome. February 28, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Fanuel Morelli

Chrissie Foster, mother of two victims of priestly sexual abuse speaking to the Associated Press in Rome. February 28, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Fanuel Morelli

Earlier in the day, my colleague Francesco Sportelli interviewed Chrissie and Anthony Foster two of whose daughters were raped by a priest named Kevin O’Donnell. Chrissie Foster told us, “We have three daughters the eldest one committed suicide in 2008, in 1999 our middle daughter Katie who was also sexually abused by a priest had been drinking and ran out onto the road and was hit by car. She spent a year in hospital and, it was almost 15 years ago, and she still requires 24h care”

Anthony and Chrissie Foster went to speak to Pell about compensation and as Anthony Foster testified in an early hearing, Pell showed a “sociopathic lack of empathy.”

Last night’s hearing seemed to crawl by with the chief legal counsel leading Pell through a period in the 1970s. Here are some of Pell comments: “There was a predisposition not to believe the child (when there were complaints about abuse before the 1980s.)

Pell added that “the instinct was more to protect the institution and the community of the church from shame.”

I would say a few people in Boston are familiar with this phenomenon.

At another point Pell admitted that before the 1980s people were “rarely encouraged” to report incidences of abuse to police.”

He said that in the 1970s “if the priests denied such acitivity, I was very strongly inclined to accept the denial.”

David Ridsdale, victim of sexual abuse by his uncle Father Gerald Ridsdale, speaks to reporters during a break in the hearing. February 29, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

David Ridsdale, victim of sexual abuse by his uncle Father Gerald Ridsdale, speaks to reporters during a break in the hearing. February 29, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press Cameraman Gianfranco Stara

Among the survivors present at the hearings was David Ridsdale, nephew of former pedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale. Another nephew, also abused by Ridsdale, Domenic Ridsdale was also attending the hearing. Father Ridsdale was moved from parish to parish in Australia for years by then Ballarat Bishop Ronald Mulkearns. Pell was an adviser to Mulkearns. Ridsdale was eventually convicted of abuse of 54 children.

In 1996 when Pell was bishop, he set up a program called “Melbourne Response” giving victims compensation money. Victims accuse him of using aggressive tactics to give them money to shut them up.

Survivor of sexual abuse, Peter Blenkiron speaks to reporters in break in testimony by Cardinal George Pell to the Australian Royal Commission on Child Abuse. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara. February 29, 2016

Survivor of sexual abuse, Peter Blenkiron speaks to reporters in break in testimony by Cardinal George Pell to the Australian Royal Commission on Child Abuse. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Gianfranco Stara. February 29, 2016

Last night survivor Peter Blenkiron explained it briefly to me outside the Hotel Quirinale. “The Melbourne response was a once off, here’s some money, see you later, in the early days you even had to sign a disclosure saying you weren’t allowed to talk about it with anybody.”

David Ridsdale has accused Cardinal Pell of asking him how much he wanted to keep quiet. Pell denies these accusations, although the commission did not get to this period last night.

Last night, speaking about Father Gerald Ridsdale, Cardinal Pell said, “the way he was dealt with was a catastrophe for the victims and a catastrophe for the church.”

I think everyone can agree on that.

The hearings will go on for the next two nights—Tuesday and Wednesday, and possibly even Thursday if they do not get through the questioning. Last night, the line of questioning was focused on the 1970s when Cardinal Pell was not in a position of power, the next few nights are sure to tackle the later periods.

Related posts:

February 26, 2016

Fences, Barbed Wire and Walls – In Juarez with Pope Francis

A poster welcoming Pope Francis on the wall of the Cereso N. 3 Prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. February 17, 2016

A poster welcoming Pope Francis on the wall of the Cereso N. 3 Prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. February 17, 2016

In one day the Pope went behind the walls of Cereso N. 3, one of the more violent, dangerous prisons in the world where he hugged prisoners and urged them to “write a new story” and “move forward,” telling them that “we know what is done, is done.” He prayed before the imposing border fence along the US-Mexico border and spoke to hundreds of thousands of people at a Mass 100 meters (yards) from the border. Pope Francis spoke of migrants noting they are often “the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted” and reached out to the people who are “persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.” Francis ended the day as the papal plane flew over the US back to Rome by making a powerful verbal jab at the leading Republican candidate for President of the United States, Donald Trump, calling him “not a Christian” because he wants to build a wall between Mexico and the US. Needless to say it was a long day for a journalist covering the Pope.

The shadow of the plane carrying Pope Francis as it lands in Cuidad Juarez February 17, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The shadow of the plane carrying Pope Francis as it lands in Cuidad Juarez February 17, 2015. Photo by Trisha Thomas

As our plane descended towards the airport into Juarez a week ago, I was struck by how ugly it was – flat, dry, with low, square cement buildings, and hardly any trees. Not an easy place to live. But the poverty and the climate are not the problem; it is the drug cartels that suck the life out of the city, killing people, kidnapping women, and moving drugs across the border.

On landing, once again I was lucky to find myself in the “molto ristretto” pool that got to accompany the Pope in the Cereso Number Three prison (Cereso stands for Centro de Readaptacion Social Estatal). The prison is close to the airport and it only took us about 10 minutes to reach its high beige walls with rings of barbed wire on the top. Our vans cruised through the large metal gates and soon we were unloaded into a courtyard. From there we were hustled through more gates and into a huge prison yard where 700 men and women prisoners in matching grey sweat suits were seated in the hot sun, in tight lines in a squared off area enclosed by metal barriers. Prison guards stood along the barriers and would not allow us to speak to the prisoners. AP Television video-journalist Paolo Santalucia and I moved around the edges of the square trying to get photos and video as the prisoners listened to the Pope.   Some of the male prisoners looked pretty scary with tattoos on their shaved heads, faces and necks.

Prisoner with tattoo on his face in group listening to Pope Francis at Cereso N. 3 Prison in Juarez. Freeze frame shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 17, 2016

Prisoner with tattoo on his face in group listening to Pope Francis at Cereso N. 3 Prison in Juarez. Freeze frame shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 17, 2016

Many Mexican prisons are run by rival gangs in cohorts with drug cartels and tensions between them sometimes explode into deadly riots. A riot in the Topo Chico prison in Monterrey, Mexico just before the Pope’s arrival left 49 inmates dead. The riot broke out when rival gangs went out each other with whatever weapons they could find hammers, improvised knives and cudgels.

The CeReSo N. 3 prison jumped to the headlines in 2009 when 20 people died and many others were injured during a prison riot pitting two rival gangs the Barrio Aztecas and Los Mexicles representing the Juarez and and Sinaloa Cartels against each other.

A female prisoner at Cereso N. 3 Prison in Juarez gives a peck on the cheek to Pope Francis.  Note: At the center is Domenico Giani, Chief of Vatican Security.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. February 17, 2016

A female prisoner at Cereso N. 3 Prison in Juarez gives a peck on the cheek to Pope Francis. Note: At the center is Domenico Giani, Chief of Vatican Security. Freeze frame of video shot by AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia. February 17, 2016

That said, everything seemed perfectly calm and under control when we were there, although I was happy to know my stay would be brief. The Pope encouraged the prisoners at Cereso Number 3 to look forward to a better future saying, “We know that we cannot turn back, we know what is done, is done…but it does not exclude the possibility of writing a new story and moving forward.”

When it was time to go we piled back into our van, and headed for the gate.  At the gate, we were stopped by a guard who checked around inside our van to see if we were hiding any prisoners inside.

Visits to prisons have been a hallmark of this papacy. Francis paid his first visit to a prison in Rome shortly after he was elected Pope, and then on almost every foreign trip he has a meeting with prisoners. I was covered his visit to the Curran-Fromhold prison in Pennsylvania last September. See blog post: Hacks in Black.

From the prison we headed to the press center, a palatial structure with a “Gone with the Wind” staircase and glittering chandeliers. We joked that it must be where el Chapo holds his children’s first communion parties.

It was then on to the border for the afternoon Mass. We were driven along the border road where we could see the El Paso water tower and the houses on that side of the border. Finally we were dropped off at the Mass site and taken on foot to the spot with four crosses where Pope Francis was to pray.

Camera crews on the right near Mass site waiting for Pope Francis to arrive to pray at the cross on the left next to the US-Mexico border fence. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 17, 2016

Camera crews on the right near Mass site waiting for Pope Francis to arrive to pray at the cross on the left next to the US-Mexico border fence. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 17, 2016

It was interesting seeing the people of Cuidad Juarez packed into the Mass site on one side and the police cars lined up on the US side.

The Pope came quickly in the Popemobile and briefly prayed in front of the one large cross and three smaller crosses placed at the border in honor of migrants who have lost their lives attempting the journey. He then left some white flowers on the spot.

Pope Francis praying at cross honoring migrants near border fence between Mexico and the United States. February 17, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio   Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis praying at cross honoring migrants near border fence between Mexico and the United States. February 17, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

During the Mass he made his strongest denunciation of the injustices faced by migrants and the suffering of the Mexican people due to drugs. I will copy below a hefty portion of the speech because I like the way he said it.

“Here in Ciudad Juárez, as in other border areas, there are thousands of immigrants from Central America and other countries, not forgetting the many Mexicans who also seek to pass over “to the other side”.  Each step of the journey is laden with grave injustices: the enslaved, the imprisoned and extorted; so many of these brothers and sisters of ours are the consequence of the trade in human beings.

We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant migration for thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones.  The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today.  This crisis which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families.  They are the brothers and sisters of those expelled by poverty and violence, by drug trafficking and criminal organizations.  Being faced with so many legal vacuums, they get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest.  Not only do they suffer poverty but they must also endure these forms of violence.  Injustice is radicalized in the young; they are “cannon fodder”, persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs, and what about the many women whose lives have been unjustly torn apart?”

(A little aside here. The Pope just made that small mention of women at the very end. I think he should have said more about women. Hundreds of women have disappeared in Juarez since the 1990s. The reports of what has happened to them are grim. Some were forced into prostitution, others forced to work in illegal conditions in factories called maquilladoras, others obliged to work for the drug cartels and others killed and their organs sold. Many bones of the disappeared women have shown up in the desert.   Families of these girls have formed organizations to work together to get answers about what happened to their loved ones. They complain of little effort being made by the Mexican authorities. The Pope tackled so many tough topics while he was in Mexico, I think he should have hammered away on this one too. )

I was struck by the sadness on this woman's face compared to the joy on the face of the little girl behind her.  They were waiting for Pope Francis at the Mass site near the border in Juarez. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 17, 2016

I was struck by the sadness on this woman’s face compared to the joy on the face of the little girl behind her. They were waiting for Pope Francis at the Mass site near the border in Juarez. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 17, 2016

We were hustled back on our bus before the end of the Mass and taken to the airport to board the plane for the trip back to Rome.   We were all so exhausted we were hoping the inflight press conference would be quick and easy. But that is not Pope Francis’ style. Shortly after takeoff he came back for a long, rambling press conference in which he gave lengthy answers to 12 questions posed by journalists from Mexico, the US, France, Spain, and Germany. I am sure he knew he would make headlines with his swipe at Donald Trump when he said, “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

We all knew his response to a question about the mosquito-borne illness Zika would also be news when he implied that contraception could be acceptable saying that in certain cases “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”

He spoke about the so-called John Paul II “love letters” pointing out that “A friendship with a woman is not a sin, it’s a friendship…the Pope is a man. The Pope needs the input of women, too. And the Pope, too, has a heart that can have a healthy, holy friendship with a woman.”

There was much more. He spoke about the 43 missing students from Guerrero State and why he did not meet with their families. He spoke about the problem of priestly pedophilia. He spoke about his meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and how that meeting was creating tension with the church in Ukraine. He spoke about communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. He spoke about an upcoming parliamentary vote in Italy regarding same sex unions, he spoke about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and his dream of travelling to China.

When the press conference finally wrapped up we all opened our computers and began to start our various tasks. I had to prepare three separate edits with all the most significant soundbites, transcribe them and write shotlists and stories. Anna Matranga, the US pool producer, began handing out assignments to 11 different journalists on the plane, each one of us had to translate a soundbite that Anna complied so each of us could work off a completed translation of the entire press conference. (Thank you Anna!!)

The stewards brought around dinner and we all ate and worked. When dinner was over, those who could went to sleep. I continued editing throughout the night. On my third edit, I was so tired I began getting everything mixed up. I was moving pieces of video and quotes around in different files in my computer and it was all becoming one mush in my mind. Finally I gave up and slept for a few hours. Luckily we all agreed that we would have a three hour embargo after the plane landed before we would report the news.

If any of you blog readers have managed to get all the way to the end of this last of my four-part series on Mexico, you may be wondering why I have not put in any of my personal, sometimes silly, behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

Here are a few.

PERSONAL- At the end of a Papal trip, the Pope’s spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi gives each journalist a medallion from the trip and a rosary. On this trip we got a special Vatican Stamp issued in honor of the trip as well. I have made 21 Papal trips and given them all away, mostly to elderly Catholic women –grandmothers, doorwomen, and cleaning ladies – they all seem to treasure the items so much more than I ever would. On our flight to Mexico, a very kindly Alitalia steward asked me if I could ask for a medallion for him. Instead I said I would send him mine. He was so appreciative. I put the medallion, rosary and special stamp in the snail mail Monday and am hoping the package will arrive soon. He lives in the Piedmont region of Italy but the postal system here is painfully slow.

A NEW ACQUAINTANCE – One of the pleasures on this trip was getting to know Father Antonio Spadaro who was sitting near me on the Papal Plane.  He is a Jesuit priest and editor of their magazine Civilita’ Cattolica.  He was the first person to interview Pope Francis after he was elected.  (See my blog post on that: The Pope Interview ) Father Spadaro was always willing to share information and helped keep us all informed with his frequent tweets throughout the trip.

EMBARRASSING – On February 14th, Valentine’s day, after getting back late to our hotel in Mexico City (the Presidente Intercontinental)  I went out for a quick bite to eat with a colleague in a restaurant across the street from the hotel. It must have been 1030pm when I got back to the hotel and rushed to the elevator, eager to get up to my bed knowing I had a 4am wake-up call. There was a young couple dressed to the hilt also waiting for the elevator. She was all decked out in a spaghetti-strap mini-dress and spike heels, and he was in a tux. The elevator door opened and I jumped in, stood by the buttons, and pressed 23 for me. They came in pressed 35 and moved to the back corner and began making out. I do not know Spanish but it is close enough to Italian for me to understand that he was saying to her, “I want you, I want to make love, let’s make love here.” The woman put up some sort of vague resistance saying “Just wait, there is someone else here” and he said something like “Who cares about her, she won’t notice anything.” I felt like the world’s biggest Valentine’s Day LOSER as I kept my eyes on the numbers and urged the elevator to get to 23.   When the elevator arrived I rocketed out and left them to their amorous, Valentine’s day evening.

SILLY – The one person who was always in perfect shape throughout the trip seemed to be the aforementioned Matteo Bruni, the Assistant Director of the Vatican Press Office, and the Vatican Press Corps’ fearless leader. He has to get us in and out of every event throughout the trip and does it with aplomb. Paolo Santalucia (the AP video-journalist working with me) – in his spare time on the bus—decided to make a Mystery Movie starring Matteo and various characters on the Papal Plane. Every free moment we had on the bus, he dedicated to the mini-mystery film which was eventually edited to the 007 James Bond theme song and Mission Impossible Theme song.

I do not know how to insert the video which is hilarious, but I will copy some freeze frames below with some of our Vatican Press Corps Stars:

The star is Matteo Bruni of the Vatican Press Office as Agente Bruni:

Matteo Bruni getting of the Helicopter in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, February 15, 2016

Matteo Bruni getting of the Helicopter in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, February 15, 2016

Phil Pullella of Reuters is our murder victim

Phil Pullella of Reuters taking a rest in a bit of shade during the Papal Mass in Ecatepec, Mexico. February 14, 2016

Phil Pullella of Reuters taking a rest in a bit of shade during the Papal Mass in Ecatepec, Mexico. February 14, 2016 (The words in Italian say “A Body, A Flag”)

The glamorous Francia Giansoldati, Vaticanista for the Italian daily “Il Messaggero” plays the mystery woman with “no name and no scruples”

Franca Giansoldati, Vatican correspondent for the Italian daily "Il Messaggero" was wearing some cool shades as she walked near a fence in Juarez.  We quickly decided to make her our mystery woman.

Franca Giansoldati, Vatican correspondent for the Italian daily “Il Messaggero” was wearing some cool shades as she walked near a fence in Juarez. We quickly decided to make her our mystery woman.

Throughout the trip we kept our eyes out for shady-looking characters to film for our mystery. This pink-shirted fellow filled the bill.

A guy in a pink shirt near the airport in Morelia was perfect for our thriller.

A guy in a pink shirt near the airport was perfect for our thriller. (In Italian is says “But in Juarez there are eyes everywhere”

Agente Bruni wouldn’t be able to do his job without his faithful side-kick, Salvatore Scolozzi from the Vatican Press Office.

Salvatore Scolozzi of the Vatican Press Office talking to Mexican security at the  Mass Site in Cuidad Juarez.  (In Italian it says Scolozzi Unleashed)

Salvatore Scolozzi of the Vatican Press Office talking to Mexican security at the Mass Site in Cuidad Juarez. (In Italian it says Scolozzi Unleashed)

Finally, who would be better for an assassin than the baby-faced cameraman for Italian state Television RAI, Marco Sanga.

 

Marco Sanga, cameraman for RAI, Italian State Television on the border between Mexico and the US realizes he's become our assassin.

Marco Sanga, cameraman for RAI, Italian State Television on the border between Mexico and the US realizes he’s become our assassin. (In Italian it says, “the culprit has his hours numbered”

Now if anyone really wants to see this video, let me know and I will see if Paolo can upload it into my blog for me.  I certainly hope none of our protagonists will be offended.

 

Related posts:

February 24, 2016

Into the Tierra Caliente with Pope Francis

Performance of traditional dances for Pope Francis at a meeting with young people in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 16, 2016

Performance of traditional dances for Pope Francis at a meeting with young people in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 16, 2016

Dear Blog Readers — You may all be getting terribly bored with my Mexico posts but at this point I am completing them as a diary for myself.  Otherwise I will get involved in other news and forget all the details of this incredible trip.

On his fifth day in Mexico, the Pope traveled to the Tierra Caliente – the hot land, known not just for his hot temperatures but for the extreme levels of narco-trafficking related violence. The area has been plagued by fierce drug cartels who produce methamphetamine and terrorize the population. We flew to the beautiful Spanish colonial city of Morelia where on the surface one would never guess there were any problems.

By this time all of us journalists – getting by on just a few hours of sleep per night—were starting to get silly and stir-crazy. We checked in for the flight for Morelia at 4:15 am in our hotel and then got on the bus for the airport. My colleague Paolo Santalucia somehow got everyone singing “La Paloma” inspired by Spanish correspondent Paloma Garcia Ovejero of Cadena Cope. Encouraged by his success, Paolo got on the microphone at the front of the bus and sang “La Vie in Rose” and “La Bomba” as the Papal Press Corps dissolved in hysterical laughter at 5 in the morning. The Mexican bus driver and security guys probably thought we were completely nuts.

Dancer putting on a fish costume to perform for Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016.  Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dancer putting on a fish costume to perform for Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

When we arrived in Morelia dancers in fabulous outfits, including a man wearing a fish costume, were preparing to perform for the Pope, but we could not stay – we were hustled into vans and escorted into the stadium in Morelia for a Mass with priests, nuns and seminarians.

Police escorting our van into Morelia. February 16, 2016.  Photo by Max Rossi

Police escorting our van into Morelia. February 16, 2016. Photo by Max Rossi

At the stadium it seemed like the annual FIESTA day. There was a band of priests and seminarians who were winding up the crowd with lively tunes.

Priests, Seminarians and Nuns kick up their heels in lively dancing while waiting for Mass with Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia

Priests, Seminarians and Nuns kick up their heels in lively dancing while waiting for Mass with Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia

Up in the stands I noticed a huge group of nuns with blue and white cheerleader pom-poms. A group of priests and nuns were dancing in a conga-line.

Nuns looking like cheerleaders with pom-poms sing, dance and cheer while waiting for Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

Nuns looking like cheerleaders with pom-poms sing, dance and cheer while waiting for Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

At one point, I was taking some photos and a nun rushed over and started tickling me all over. I was momentarily taken aback but then realized it was part of the song.

Then all of a sudden the singing stopped and the seminarian-singer told the crowd they were going to count out loud to 43 in honor of the 43 Mexican college students who disappeared in the nearby Guerrero State stopped by the police and then dragged off by thugs from drug cartels, never to be seen again. “Uno, dos, tres…” all the way up to 43 they recited solemnly and then BABOOM, right back to the peppy music. I found that to be typical of Mexico – an ability to recognize the pain, suffering and difficulties but not to let it drag them down. “Alegria” (happiness) was a word I heard often during my day in Morelia.

The Pope did not seem to get caught up in all the “alegria”, instead delivering a stern homily urging them not to let “paralyzing injustice” lead them to “resignation”.

Pope Francis processing into Mass with religious  at stadium in  Morelia, Mexico. February 16, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis processing into Mass with religious at stadium in Morelia, Mexico. February 16, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

“What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity, and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability…. Faced with this reality, the devil can overcome us with one of his favorite weapons: resignation.”

He urged them not to let “resignation” “thwart our desires to take risks and to change.”

A security guard and a cook waiting for Pope Francis on a rooftop in the center of Morelia, Mexico. February 16, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

A security guard and a cook waiting for Pope Francis on a rooftop in the center of Morelia, Mexico. February 16, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

After lunch I was lucky to be in the “molto ristretto” pool that got to cover the Pope in the Cathedral of Morelia. The Pope did not do very much in the Cathedral, but it was a great opportunity for us to see the center of the city and in my hour there I could see why Morelia has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Panoramic photo of crowd on street in front of Morelia Cathedral waiting for Pope Francis. Photo by Trisha Thomas. February 16, 2016

Panoramic photo of crowd on street in front of Morelia Cathedral waiting for Pope Francis. Photo by Trisha Thomas. February 16, 2016

Throughout the day we kept on noticing images of monarch butterflies. Plastic Monarch butterflies on trees, and Monarch Butterflies painted on signs. We finally discovered that Morelia is home to the Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve) a 200-square mile reserve where millions of Monarch butterflies migrate to every year from North America. During the afternoon the Pope had a meeting with young people where there were a series of fabulous performances, but my favorite was the monarch butterfly dancers.

Girls dressed as monarch butterflies perform as Pope Francis meets with young people at the Jose Maria Morelos Pavon Stadium in Morelia, Mexico, Feb. 16. The area is host to monarch butterflies who migrate from Canada during the winter. Feb. 16, 2016. Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service for Mozzarella Mamma

Girls dressed as monarch butterflies perform as Pope Francis meets with young people at the Jose Maria Morelos Pavon Stadium in Morelia, Mexico, Feb. 16. The area is host to monarch butterflies who migrate from Canada during the winter. Feb. 16, 2016. Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service for Mozzarella Mamma

As we stood in the stadium watching the event, the sun beat down on us. Men came around with plastic buckets with small, transparent plastic bags filled with water. Despite, being warned not to drink any water that was not bottled in Mexico, I bit off a corner of the bags and drank several. Many colleagues did the same.

Again the key word for the event would have been “alegria”, but the Pope was grim telling the crowd, “I understand that often it is difficult feel your value when you are continually exposed to the loss of friends or relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, or criminal organizations that sow terror.

He concluded:
“Jesus would never ask us to be hitmen…he would never send us out to death…”

We were hustled out of the stadium and back on to our bus for the airport before the Pope delivered his speech and missed the end of the event. It was then that the Pope was apparently pulled by someone in the crowd and toppled onto a handicapped child. The Pope lost his temper and scolded the person saying “don’t be selfish, don’t be selfish”. The few seconds of video had made its way around the globe before we had even gotten back to Mexico City.

Police woman at the airport in Morelia, Michoacan. February 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Police woman at the airport in Morelia, Michoacan. February 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

When we arrived on the plane, we found the overhead compartments packed with unusual gifts given to the Pope. There was a huge basket of avocadoes, a black wooden Jesus on a cross, a giant black sombrero, and a carved silver dove. We were all hoping wondering what would happen to all those avocadoes and were hoping someone might whip up some guacamole to serve to us. I figure the rest of the gifts will probably end up in a closet at the Vatican.

So there we were back on the plane, hot, sweaty, exhausted and getting silly again. During the flight back to Mexico City a frenzied pillow fight broke out in the journalists’ section of the plane. It started among some photographers and spread back with little white pillows with the Pope’s coat-of-arms emblazoned on them flying back and forth. Finally Phill Pullella of Reuters stood up and announced “Didn’t the Pope say we are not supposed to be hitmen??” and then promptly bombarded Father Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit Director of Civilita’ Cattolica with about six pillows. Even the Chief of Vatican Police Domenico Giani got a pillow thrown at him when we landed and he came rushing back.

We all agreed not to post any photos or videos of this on social media, but I think a few slipped through the cracks.

Related posts:

Following Pope Francis in Chiapas for AP Television

Woman at Papal Mass in Chiapas.  She was one of the many people there who did not speak Spanish, so I had trouble trying to interview her but she had such a friendly manner and lovely smile. February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Woman at Papal Mass in Chiapas. She was one of the many people there who did not speak Spanish, so I had trouble trying to interview her but she had such a friendly manner and lovely smile. February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dropping down into San Cristobal de Las Casas in a helicopter and seeing all the beautiful faces and traditional clothing of the indigenous people there waiting for Pope Francis was for me the most exhilarating moment of the Papal trip to Mexico.

Little boy waves as Pope's helicopter arrives in San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. February 15, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

Little boy waves as Pope’s helicopter arrives in San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. February 15, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia and I were chosen along with three other journalists in the Papal entourage to be in the “molto ristretto” pool that would fly into San Cristobal de Las Casas in a helicopter (By the way, “molto ristretto” in this case is not a kind of espresso, it means a tight pool). We flew from Mexico City to Tuxtla Guttierrez, the capital of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. At the airport in Tuxtla there were five helicopters waiting- one for the Pope and the others for a few journalists, members of the Pope’s security and a few Vatican officials.   For once, I was one of the first people to scramble out the back door of the papal plane and we hustled across the tarmac to our waiting helicopter.   Paolo and I climbed in the back of helicopter number four with Spanish journalist Juan Vincente Gonzalez Boo, and a Mexican Security flack. Our fearless leader from the Vatican Press office Matteo Bruni sat in the front with the pilot (more on Matteo in a later post). When we stepped in, the cabin space seemed surprisingly hot and cramped but I was pleased that we could fly with the windows open. The pilot popped his head through the door before takeoff to tell us it would be about a 20-minute ride.

AP Video-journalist Paolo Santalucia filming through window of helicopter as he flies over Chiapas. February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Video-journalist Paolo Santalucia filming through window of helicopter as he flies over Chiapas. February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

And then we were off, the chock-chock-chock-chock as the rotors whizzed around slowly easing us off the ground and up into the air.   We swept quickly across the valley and up into the green, rugged hills. I loved it.

Trisha Thomas with Mexican Security flack on helicopter heading for San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo by Paolo Santalucia. February 15, 2016

Trisha Thomas with Mexican Security flack on helicopter heading for San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo by Paolo Santalucia. February 15, 2016

A little background here on Chiapas. Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico with 76-percent of the population living in poverty according to government statistics and 32-percent in extreme poverty.  Pope Francis’ choice of visiting Chiapas, celebrating the indigenous populations and recognizing their traditions, was apparently met with some resistance by both the church hierarchy in Mexico and the government.

A woman in Chiapas listening to Pope Francis.  Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 15, 2016

A woman in Chiapas listening to Pope Francis. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 15, 2016

As we came down into San Cristobal de Las Casas we could see people rushing to the Mass site in the municipal sport fields. Officials estimated that there were 100,000 people there. It was a feast for the eyes, with men and women in colorful traditional dress and an altar set up with giant wooden statues of jaguars, hens and other animals.

It is not at many Masses that you will find a giant wooden hen sculpture on the altar blocking the view of the bishops and priests. Papal Mass in Chiapas, February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

It is not at many Masses that you will find a giant wooden hen sculpture on the altar blocking the view of the bishops and priests. Papal Mass in Chiapas, February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Paolo and I wandered through the crowd taking video and pictures. Many of the people did not speak Spanish so it was difficult to speak to them. In fact, the Mass was partially conducted in three indigenous languages Ch’ol, Tsotsil, and Tseltal and at the end of the Mass, Pope Francis issued a decree authorizing the use of these languages in liturgical ceremonies.

Indigenous women in Chiapas listening to Pope Francis at Mass in San Cristobal de Las Casas. February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Indigenous women in Chiapas listening to Pope Francis at Mass in San Cristobal de Las Casas. February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Speaking to the crowd, the Pope said, “On many occasions, in a systematic and organized way, your people have been misunderstood and excluded from society. Some have considered your values, culture and traditions to be inferior. Others, intoxicated by power, money and market trends, have stolen your lands or contaminated them. How sad this is!”

Pope Mexico at Mass in Chiapas. February 15, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Mexico at Mass in Chiapas. February 15, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

The Pope then asked for forgiveness.

Man at Papal Mass in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.  Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press Television Video-Journalist Paolo Santalucia. February 15, 2016

Man at Papal Mass in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Freeze frame of video shot by Associated Press Television Video-Journalist Paolo Santalucia. February 15, 2016

In the afternoon the Pope visited the Cathedral of San Cristobal de Las Casas. In an important symbolic gesture, Francis prayed alone before the tomb of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. (See my notes on him in earlier blog post: “Reaching the Ragged Edges in Mexico”). Ruiz, who died in 2011, dedicated his life to working with the indigenous people in Chiapas, learning their languages and ministering to them, even at the risk of running afoul of the Vatican.

 

A wooden jaguar statue on the altar for the Mass in Chiapas with Pope Francis. February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A wooden jaguar statue on the altar for the Mass in Chiapas with Pope Francis. February 15, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Blog Readers – I am going to cut this post short here and leave it just on Chiapas so I have more space for photos. Tomorrow I will write Part III on my Mexico series. Pope Francis Challenges the Narcos in the Tierra Caliente and then Part IV Pope Francis Meets with Prisoners and Visits the Border in Cuidad Juarez.

A big thank you to AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for letting me use some of his extra photos that were not used by AP in this blog post.  Also a thank you to AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia from whose video I have made many freeze-frames.

With my AP buddies photographer Gregorio Borgia and Video-Journalist Paolo Santalucia on the Papal Plane in Mexico. February 2016

With my AP buddies photographer Gregorio Borgia and Video-Journalist Paolo Santalucia on the Papal Plane in Mexico. February 2016

 

Related posts: