Following Francis: Up close and dead tired

Reporter David O'Reilly swapped skullcaps with Pope Francis, but the pope laughed and handed it back. “Un poco grande," he said.

For better or worse, my “Following Francis” blog was always intended to be short-lived, built around my travels with Pope Francis on his trip to Cuba and the United States in late September. And now that the trip is over, the time has come to wrap things up.

I was on board Francis’ planes throughout the voyage, and had direct access to many of the venues he visited. And so my plan was to take readers along for the ride, describing in this blog how it looks and feels to be up close to Papa Francesco. Our schedule turned out to be quite punishing, though, and it proved harder to find time to blog than I’d supposed. So now, before closing the blog, I will spin a few tales.

With six cities visited in eight days (or eight in nine days if you count the trips to Rome to start and finish), it was a trip lived out of airports, hotels, buses, a suitcase and a backpack, with much packing and unpacking of my laptop, thumbing clumsy tweets from iPhone, or toggling between it and my iPad in desperate search for a wifi signal -- especially in Cuba. Dinner was often a two protein bars and tap water from the bathroom sink. Or, on a good day, a solitary beer from the minibar.

Our days typically began 5 a.m. when we reporters (and the TV producers) would migrate groggily from our hotel rooms to fetch that day’s embargoed texts of the pope’s various addresses. We’d make our way to the lobby or the room of the Vatican Press Office’s attaché, where the speeches were laid out on tables, color-coded by language: English was always in yellow..

Ideally you got time to read the texts over breakfast and get a sense of what he would say and what your stories might look like. But we’d been abjured from transmitting the texts to anyone, which I understood to mean my own editors at The Inquirer. So all I could do at, say, 6 a.m. was send an email saying “Independence Mall address big on religious freedom light on immigration” or, “He doesn’t say much about climate change in the talk to Congress.,” Then it was time to appear in the lobby. Our very capable Vatican handler (who has asked not to be named or used as a source) would then call out a roll call, and we’d head for the bus.

Sometimes the bus was taking us to Francis’ first public appearance of the day. Other times we were headed yet again to an airport. After the 12-hour flight to Cuba we spent two days Havana, then it was off to the airport. A half day in Holguin, then to the airport. An overnighat in Santiago de Cuba, then to the airport and on to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington. We luxuriated for two and a half days in DC, then flew late afternoon to JFK in New York, where we spent one full day. Then the alarm clocks went off at 3:45 a.m. for the flight to Philadelphia, where we spent two days before returning to Rome.

Even though my house is 10 miles from the altar where Francis said his final Mass, I was obliged (as we all were) to return with him to Rome – a detour for me of 9,000 miles. It was worth it, though; I was able to interview him at his on board news conference. I will visit that in a subsequent post.

Throughout the journey I never unpacked my suitcase, just rummaged around in it for whatever I needed. And my plan for getting laundry done at this hotel or that proved laughable. “I’m sorry sir; all laundry must be delivered by 9 a.m.” “I’m sorry sir, we are not providing laundry service at this time.” Yikes. I got three shirts cleaned at the Hotel Nacional in Cuba, and my rumpled suit steamed at the Washington Marriott in time for Francis’ address to Congress. But then you find yourself ironing that shirt you wore on Tuesday and wearing those striped socks you hope no one notices.

The point of my lamentation, though, is that these early risings, multiple venues and repeated flights left me, and most of my colleagues, in a state of perpetual fatigue. And I, for one, found it difficult to write as well or as “big” as I had hoped. In truth, I felt off-balance much of the time. While we were often quite close to Francis, our writing time was often truncated, and it became a challenge to step back and put what he was saying or doing into a larger context.

For example: knowing that Francis often visits prisons on foreign trips, and has done several Holy Thursday foot-washings at prisons, I had in the weeks before this trip taken extensive notes on his remarks at prisons and his broad critique of criminal justice systems. His addresses were astonishingly good, filled with compassion and encouragement for prisoners, and sternly critical of societies that use prisons to isolate and punish rather than rehabilitate.

So I felt well prepared when we got to Curran-Frumhold Correctional Institute in Philadelphia on Sunday morning and were led to risers at the back of the prison gym. Like my colleagues, I was taking notes and tweeting (with photos) on the scene before me: the stately walnut chair for Francis that the inmates had built, the blue vinyl seats they took as they entered, how they were dressed, etc. I also noted one inmate wearing several rosaries around his neck and figured I’d interview him afterwards.

Then Francis arrived, all smiles as he made his way to the chair, and read his address in Spanish, which I was following in the English translation. It was brief but quite touching, and urged his audience of 57 male prisoners and 11 women to view their time here as a time of growth. He then came down to shake hands with about 30 of them.
But now came a whispered callout from our Vatican handlers: Time to go! NOW! Next thing I knew I was was scooping up my laptop and iPad and spiral-bound notebook, patting my pockets for my phones, and scurrying with my Vatican colleagues for the door. (Or doors. Steel. Sliding. Lots of them.)

Meanwhile, those journalists not with the Vatican stayed put. And as they were interviewing prisoners, we were rocketing in a van down virtually empty Route I-95, led by a police van and two police motorcycles with lights flashing. We were being treated like visiting royalty, which we certainly are not. (More on that in another post) All I can say is: I’d rather have been talking to the prisoners about what Francis’ words and presence meant to them.

In the van and back at the hotel I was able to put together a short story on the prison visit that was fairly descriptive of the scene, and which conveyed a fair bit of his remarks. But it had the voice of no prisoner saying if he or she had been touched or transformed by the man in white. Alas, my ambition to frame it in the context of Francis’ broader message of compassio for the marginalized was reduced to a few sentences.

I began to joke to myself that instead of calling this blog “Following Francis,” I should call it “The Boy in the Bubble.” But my fellow travelers – 34 print reporters, 34 TV reporters and producers, plus still and video photographers – were all similarly constrained.

My experience at Curran-Frumhold is an extreme but illustrative example of what the whole trip often felt like: An early rising, followed by rushing to an event, security checks, being physically close to Francis yet isolated within the venue, and then writing on the fly as we made our way to our next event.

But the experience I’ve described reflects not just life as a reporter traveling with the pope It says something about contemporary journalism. While I didn’t get to put together a long piece on Francis’ ministry to prisons, my tweets took readers into Curran-Frumhold for his visit in real time, and my story was online within the hour.

And, of course, with a blog I get to describe and deconstruct the reporting process itself. On the September 19 flight from Rome to Cuba, for example, I presented Francis with a white papal skullcap, or zucchetto, He took his own off, put mine on his head, joked it was too large but would “give me energy,” and handed it back with a laugh and a clap on my arm. My seatmate got a video of it all (29 seconds) on my iPhone, which I transmitted that night from Havana along with a lengthy (ahem) blog post.

Was it “journalism?” Not as I traditionally understand the term. And yet it took Inquirer and Philly.com readers onto the plane, and caught a side of Francis, that all my reporting and well-wrought phrases could not have. Then, on the return flight to Rome eight days later, I was able to ask him a question at his onboard news conference that had meaning, I believe, for many readers in Philadelphia. And I had time in Rome to write the kind of long story the news conference deserved.

So: There’s something lost and gained in traveling up close with the pope for a week and a day. At times I felt I was just breaking pieces off pieces of the day. But the pieces contained Francis, who I’m pleased to report seems, up close, as authentic and unpretentious and caring as the man most of us only see on TV.

I’m glad I did it. And I have a white zucchetto with many stories to tell.