We had to check in for the Papal flight to Albania at 4:45 am. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport there were the usual young travellers sprawled out sleeping on the floor and the Vatican Press corps stood out. When we travel with the Pope we dress in black, have big press passes hanging around our necks and drag around lots of equipment — photographers with long lenses and heavy camera bags, cameramen with video cameras and tripods, producers carry back-packs with cables and journalists drag rolling computer bags.
On the plane we drive the stewards and stewardesses crazy because the tripods need to be kept near the exit for the cameramen to grab quickly on arrival, all the journalists want their computers on their laps, and the photographers and cameramen need their cameras with them for when the Pope comes back to speak to us. As soon as we are on board we have to cable up so that when the Pope speaks into a microphone we get the audio (otherwise all we would hear is engine noise).
So yesterday at dawn the stewardesses were rushing up and down the aisles telling everyone to stow their luggage in the overhead compartments, the Vatican technicians were doing a voice check on the microphone, the cameraman were passing cables under the seats and I was frantically photographing the embargoed copies of the Pope’s speeches for the day that I had just been handed to send to my AP wire colleague before the plane took off so she could start preparing her stories. Seatbelts anyone?
Shortly after take-off the Pope breezed back to give us a quick statement. He was smiling and cheerful and this is what he said,
“Albania is a country that has succeeded in finding peace with the different religions and this is a good sign for the world, for dialogue, for peace… I wish you a beautiful day, a hard-working day, and pray for me. Thank you.”
Albania has a population of slightly over 3 million people, roughly 60 percent of whom are Muslim and only 10 percent are Catholic. There is a sprinkling of other religions including Orthodox Christians and Bektashi Muslims. Co-existence and co-habitation was a theme for the Pope throughout the day, and the people of Albania also seemed eager to prove it to the Pope.
Pope Francis chose to go to Albania yesterday for his first trip within Europe outside of Italy– as his spokesman explained to reporters, because in typical Francis fashion it is a trip to the periphery, to the edge, to one of the poorest countries in Europe, with one of the smallest Catholic populations.
When we got off the plane we were driven into the city of Tirana, where banners with pictures of the Christian martyrs fluttered over the boulevard. Albanians lined the road waving the distinctive red Albanian flag with a black eagle emblazoned on it.
At his first stop at the presidential palace, the Pope unleashed his strongest comments of the day, which he would repeat. First he complimented the Albanians on their “peaceful coexistence and collaboration” noting that “The climate of respect and mutual trust between Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims is a precious gift to the country.” Then he turned his attention to places where “authentic religious spirit is being perverted” and “religious differences are being distorted and instrumentalized.”
Although he never mentioned the Islamic State, it was clearly the object of these comments. He continued, “Let no one consider themselves to be the shielded by God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression! May no on use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman…”
Shortly after these comments the Pope made his way in his Popemobile through the tens of thousands of people gathered in Mother Teresa Piazza for the Mass. Mother Teresa’s name is often followed by the words “of Calcutta” but she was actually Albanian , her birth name Ganxhe Bojaxhiu and she was born in Skopje, then part of Albania (now Macedonia).
The Vatican press was taken into the Piazza ahead of time and I snapped some photos of the Albanians waiting for the Pope. They clearly wanted to reinforce the message of peaceful coexistence.
The Pope returned to the theme of religion and violence later in the day in a meeting with local religious leaders. He told them, “Authentic religion is a source of peace and not violence. No one must use the name of God to commit violence. To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman.”
The Popemobile rushed quickly through the piazza not giving the Pope the chance to do his habitual kissing of babies and blessing the faithful. I wondered if the rush was for security reasons, but later the Pope’s spokesman reassured me that there were no concerns or threats, the Pope was just trying to maintain his schedule.
In 1944 communist dictator Enver Hoxha took power and for 46 years cut off his people from the outside world, driving them into poverty and, after declaring the country an “atheist” state in 1967, presided over the destruction of mosques and churches and decades of persecution of anyone who wanted to practice a religious faith. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Albania became a parliamentary republic.
At one event during the day, Pope Francis listened to 84-year-old Father Ernest Simoni who was sent to labor camps and tortured for 28 years for his Catholic faith. In a moving description, he told the Pope how he was arrested in 1963 after holding a Mass following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Father Simoni, unlike many others who were executed, survived to tell his story. Pope Francis was visibly moved by his words and wiped away tears.
Sometimes we have some slow moments on these trips when we are just left standing around waiting outside while the Pope is inside. Here I am with my Vatican photographer buddies.
Pope Francis is the second Pope to go to Albania, the first was JPII in 1993, just after the country emerged from its decades of isolation under communist rule. Pope Francis’ trip to
Albania was a brief distraction that comes of the eve of the long-awaited Synod on the Family at the Vatican which begins on October 5th. Bishops are preparing to discuss such important issues as communion for divorced and re-married couples and it seems the Cardinals are already sharpening the swords for a fierce battle over marriage. Last week five Cardinals came out with a book called “Remaining in the Truth of Christ” which proclaims the indissolubility of marriage and counters the recent comments by Cardinal Kasper, a theologian close to Pope Francis, who has opened up to the idea of communion for divorced Catholics.
Now while the Cardinals are preparing for battle, Mozzarella Mamma has something else to do before diving into the delicate intricacies of Catholic doctrine. I have to go to Venice to cover George Clooney’s wedding. Yes indeed, if you haven’t heard yet the 53-year-old actor will be marrying his gorgeous Lebanese born, Oxford-educated, lawyer for Julian Assange, girlfriend Amal Alamuddin.They are planning a mega-event involving luxury hotels, super-star guests, high fashion, fine food and tons of glamour next weekend in Venice. And I am going. Well, to Venice at least.
Now, dear blog readers, you may think, “oh how lucky you are to be covering such an event.” Well, it is not exactly as though I have an invitation. I won’t be sipping Bellinis on the roof-top of the 7-star Aman Hotel, or accompanying George and Amal on a romantic gondola ride around Venice. Hell, knowing the way AP Television works, you will probably see me in waist high rubber boots standing in the middle of a canal with a cameraman trying to get a shot of George and his guests. It is sure to be a media circus and I must be nice to all my paparazzi friends because they are always the ones who know where to go and what to do.
Just to make you laugh– when Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes outside Rome in 2006, AP Television rented a helicopter and my APTN cameraman colleague Eldar Emric (who learned the cameraman trade during the war in Bosnia) found himself strapped into a harness, hanging out of a helicopter flying over the Odescalchi Castle near Lake Bracciano. Don’t worry George, you won’t see me hanging out of a helicopter over your wedding, AP doesn’t have the budget for that kind of stuff anymore.
More blog posts coming your way soon from Venice….