Reporter swaps skullcaps with Pope Francis

More than three years have passed since Archbishop Chaput held a little press briefing in the rectory of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul to tell a few reporters – me among them – that Pope Benedict had chosen Philadelphia to host the 2015 World Meeting of Families.

I sometimes liken that moment to a soccer ball kicked at me from across a whole soccer field. It just got bigger and bigger and finally, this week, has thumped me in the head. In July I’d learned I’d be among the journalists traveling with Pope Francis on his trip to Cuba and the United States that ends next weekend in Philadelphia. But it wasn’t until I presented myself to the offices of Sala Stampa della Santa Sede – the Vatican Press Office – in Rome Friday morning, and was handed my credentials and air tickets, that I could really exhale and accept it was going to happen.

The time had come to execute my secret plan.

I took a cab to a little shop just behind the Pantheon. This is the famous Gammarelli’s, tailors to the Catholic clergy since 1798. (It is to Gamarelli that many a newly minted cardinal still turns for his custom-made red choir robes.)
But I was here because there is a nice tradition among Catholic prelates: if you give a bishop or cardinal a skullcap like the one he’s wearing, he will (if he’s a nice guy) swap his for yours. Or, as more often happens nowadays, he will don yours briefly and hand it back. I was here to buy a white skullcap, or zucchetto, for a very nice guy. The Bishop of Rome. Yes: Pope Francis.

And I did buy it for a mere 60 Euros – about double what I’d supposed – and hastened back to my hotel. At 4 p.m. I discovered to my horror that Cuban hotels don’t take U.S.- issued credit cards, which is all I had. And so I had to run around to three different ATMS on the Via Corso di Rienzo to amass enough euros to pay for my next three days on the road. I finished my Sunday story too late to dine in a restaurant, and so had a memorable dinner consisting of two protein bars and a minibar beer, and called it a night.

So. On Saturday morning I took a cab to Fiumicino Airport, arriving at 7 a.m. As instructed, I presented myself to a certain terminal and check-in gate, where I found a small gaggle of Vatican-accredited journalists already queued up. Let’s just say that traveling with a pope is a very fine way to fly. After weighing in, we were each escorted through a special security checkpoint, (it took about 90 seconds) and pointed to our gate. That was IT. And there, at the gate, I joined the large gaggle of journalistas who will be my colleagues for the next nine days.

Couldn’t get a wifi signal, which was maddening, and so gave up trying to tweet. We then boarded our bus a little past 9 a.m., where I found myself next to Cindy Wooten, a reporter with Catholic News Service and a veteran of these papal journeys. “The seats on the plane (an Alitalia Airbus 330) are not assigned,” she said, and urged me to get on board as fast as I could and grab an aisle seat “if you want to shake hands” with Francis.”

Shake hands? I had a zucchetto to swap!

I flew up the stairs and was about 15th on the plane, with a seat on the aisle. We took off at about 10:30 a.m., and at 11:10 Francis appeared in the doorway of our cabin, which is at the rear, wearing his traditional white cassock and – yes! -- skullcap.

After brief remarks (in Spanish) spoken into a microphone, he started making his way down the aisle.
As he got closer I took hold of my zucchetto, and as one of his press aides was introducing me by name, and telling him I’m from The Philadelphia Inquirer, Francis beamed broadly and reached out his hand. I remained seated as we shook hands, but before he could go I held up my skullcap and said something like “This is for you.”

He continued smiling and took it from me, pulled off his own cap, and put mine on. “Un poco grande,” he said, pointing a finger at it, and laughed. I laughed, and said yes, so it seems, and he pulled it off, handed it back, and put his own back on. He then slapped me on the shoulder with a big laugh, and continued down the aisle.

Zow. Just as I’d hoped. And the Cuban reporter sitting next to me, Rosa Elizaldle, got it all on my iPhone.

My Papa Francesco cap sits for now tucked in a Ziploc bag inside my backpack. When I get home it will go alongside another treasured memento of my 20 years on the religion beat: the white silk scarf I presented to the Dalai Lama before interviewing him in Philadelphia in 2008. It’s traditional to present him (and other Tibetan Buddhist high lamas) with a white scarf, called a khata, which they then bless and put over your shoulders. The Dalai Lama did just that, and then to my astonishment pressed his forehead to mine. He, too, is a buoyant, joyful man, quite like Francis.

I hope they meet someday, and exchange scarves and zucchettos.