ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis proved anew on Friday there’s something about him that inspires even the most seasoned journalists to drop their professional cool and ask him for blessings, give him cookies, and even shine his shoes.
The pontiff was on board an Alitalia flight carrying him and the Vatican press corps from Rome to Havana, Cuba, where he’s scheduled to meet the Russian Orthodox patriarch Friday afternoon, and then on to Mexico City for the start of a five-day trip.
As Francis made his way around the press compartment, even normally cynical journalists seemed to melt.
Rosa Flores from CNN, for instance, gave Francis a set of letters written by Mexican immigrants from Chicago. The pope welcomed the gift, saying: “I really enjoy reading letters from children!”
Anne Thompson of NBC presented the pontiff with a gift that might have been of more immediate use during his long 12-hour flight — a basket of homemade cookies.
Valentina Alazraki, dean of the Mexican journalists covering the Vatican, gave him a Mariachi hat which had been presented to her during Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba last September.
A Mexican family with a long tradition in the hat industry, she explained, had traveled to the island nation to give it to him last September. When they didn’t succeed, they asked her to deliver it instead, and on Friday, she did.
This was the third hat Alazraki has given to a pope. She presented the previous two to St. John Paul II, one during his 1979 trip to Mexico, the first trip of his papacy and her first time on board the papal plane, and another in 1999.
When Benedict XVI visited the country of tequila and mariachis in 2012, Alazraki said, she didn’t give him a hat because it had already been arranged for him to get one in Guanajato.
“He wore it for protection from the sun,” Alazraki told Francis.
During these flights, the pope and his Vatican delegation — which, this time, included a firefighter — sit up front. Several rows are left empty as a security precaution, and at the back sits the group of about 75 journalists covering the pope.
Since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate, the tradition has been that during his outbound flight he goes to the back, briefly greets the press corps, and then walks around the aisles shaking hands.
When the time came for TV journalist Noel Diaz to greet Francis, he got down on his knees and shined the pope’s black orthopedic shoes.
Diaz was born in Tijuana, on the US border. When he was 17, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a successful employee in the optical industry and founded the Catholic network “El Sembrador,” the news outlet for which he’s covering this trip.
“I’m the son of a single mother, and when I took my first Communion, we couldn’t afford the clothes,” Diaz told Crux. “So I started shining shoes in the streets of Tijuana to pay for them.”
Diaz is a married, active Catholic who said he helps other Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles. During his 15 seconds of face time with Francis, he asked him what can the laity do to help the Church.
“Continue working … I need for you to get out of the caves,” he said the pope told him.
(“Getting out of the cave” is a phrase used in Spanish to ask someone to leave a comfortable position in pursuit of something greater.)
Colombian journalist Nestor Ponguta, who traveled on the papal plane when Francis went to Uganda, Kenya, and the Central African Republic last November, gave the pontiff a pack of coffee.
The pope told him back then that if Ponguta gave him a bag of famed Colombian coffee, he would visit Colombia, a country that for the past several decades has seen thousands of people killed in a bloody civil war.
Welcoming the gift, Francis told the journalist that when the ongoing peace process between the local government and the guerrillas is “consolidated and strong, I promise you, I’ll go to Colombia.”
According to Colombian officials, plans for such a trip have already started. On Thursday, President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted: “News that makes Colombia happy: I’ve received official confirmation of the visit of @Pontifex_es in the first part of 2017.”
(@Pontifex_es is the Spanish Twitter account for the pope).
Although empty-handed, another journalist asked Francis, “When will you take us to Russia?” to which Francis answered: “Russia and China, I carry them here,” touching his heart.
“Pray for it!”
The pope has shared his wish to visit both countries several times. If he manages to go to either nation, he’d be the first pope since the beginning of the modern era to do so.