ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Whenever Pope Francis travels, journalists who are with him get to shake his hand, deliver books, letters or ask him to bless a picture of a family member. More often than not, there are a few “anecdotes” coming from those short greetings, especially from regulars.
The 11-hour flight to Thailand was no exception, especially with a pontiff who preferred a more relaxed tone when journalists tried to bait him by asking questions such as, “When are you going to Argentina?” (His response was a shrug of his shoulders accompanied by the Spanish version of, “Ask God.”)
During the flight to #Thailand Pope Francis was asked “When are you going to #Argentina?”
He answered with a very clear “I don’t know” expression, and then told the journalist “ask the Allmighty.”
(“Pregúntale al Padre Eterno “ in Spanish.
Pics by @lavanga pic.twitter.com/6wVSA551NX
— Ines San Martin (@inesanma) November 19, 2019
This time the biggest laugh of the outbound flight was generated by Father Antonio Pelayo, a Spanish journalist-priest who’s been in Rome for decades and has more papal trips under his belt than he cares to count.
The priest told Francis that two days before embarking for the Nov. 19-26 trip to Thailand and Japan, his ability to travel was “hanging by a thread” as he suffered a sciatica attack that left him almost bedridden.
The Argentine pontiff has long suffered from the same condition, which produces pain radiating along the sciatic nerve running down one or both legs from the lower back.
Francis had a four-word remedy for the priest: “A glass of cognac.”
This led to a personal story about a lunch organized by the late Spanish Cardinal Antonio Maria Javierre, a former prefect of the Vatican’s Divine Worship office, who had invited then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and asked Pelayo to join them.
At the end of the meal, the host, who died in 1997, offered a glass of cognac to the future pope, who reportedly initially refused.
“But it’s a good one,” Javierre allegedly said. “It’s Cardenal Mendoza.”
For those with little Spanish literacy, Cardenal Mendoza is perhaps the country’s best cognac. Pelayo couldn’t tell if Ratzinger knew the drink, but he couldn’t refuse having a glass, quipping that Mendoza is “the only cardinal who causes no damage.”
To this, Francis could do nothing but laugh, which he did, wholeheartedly.
As he was heading back towards the front of the plane where he and his entourage travel, another Spanish journalist exchanged an “alcoholic” moment with Francis who had a different distilled beverage to recommend as a sleeping aid.
When Cristina Cabrejas from the Spanish news agency EFE told him, “Have a good flight,” the pontiff answered saying, “You too. Sleep well … have a glass of whiskey!”
Asked if he was going to follow his own advice, the pope rapidly said “No, no.” When the question posed to him became “Will you have a glass of cognac?” the pope simply laughed.
When the time for the in-flight meal came, some journalists were disappointed to find out that following the pope’s advice on Alitalia flight AZ 4000 would be hard: They could choose from a nice selection of Italian wines, but no whiskey. (Though by insisting the “pope told us to do so,” both this reporter and Pelayo got a glass).
Often a high-intensity endeavor, there’s usually little time for relaxing with a glass of whiskey on a papal trip.
However, there have been some exceptions. On Francis’s 2017 trip to Mexico, home to the world’s best tequila, some 70 thirsty reporters were welcomed by a team from Aero Mexico with a shot glass filled to the rim.
The small glass, combined with starvation and sleep deprivation, led to a pillow fight. For those who were witnesses, and willing participants, it will probably remain one of the few times when the head of the Vatican gendarmes didn’t object to projectiles thrown at him and other members of the security detail.