Striking up a conversation with Pope Francis in mid-air

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Sunday, May 14, 2017

Pope Francis waves as he leaves his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 3. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Walking past the smiling Alitalia stewards and onto the papal plane, I knew it was important to get an aisle seat. This, I worked out, offered me the best chance of some quality face time with Pope Francis when he came back to greet the 70 journalists traveling with him last month to Cairo, Egypt.

One of the major bonuses of traveling aboard "Shepherd One" is the chance to meet the pope personally on the flight out, and then to take part in the mid-air press conference on the way back.

Journalists and cameramen sit at the back of the plane, with Francis and his party at the front. On the way to Egypt, the Argentinian pontiff was in aisle seat 1C with an icon of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus in front of him.

For any reporter covering the Vatican, having a "one-on-one" with the Successor of St. Peter in an intimate setting is valuable, and under Francis, who places much value on "personal encounter," it can be fruitful. Some have been known to secure interviews with this pope after meeting him on the plane.

Although I had already met him on a number of occasions, this time I was keen to see whether I could strike up a rapport with him, perhaps even share a joke. What I knew about Francis was that he thrives on ordinary back-and-forth conversation, even with journalists.

As the plane reached high altitude, there was a flurry of activity around the entrance to the economy section, and a Vatican security guard walked past us to the back of the plane. Then, suddenly, the curtain was pulled back and the man in white appeared. Francis greeted everyone, thanked the media for their work and then started making the rounds.

Before I knew it, the pope was in front of me with his hand out and with a smile on his face.

"This is Christopher Lamb," an official announced, "from the Tablet" (My other gig. He must have forgotten to mention Chicago Catholic).

Moving fast, I presented him with a copy of the latest edition of the Tablet, for which I’m the Rome correspondent, and then told him a bit more about myself.

"I’m an English Vatican journalist," I explained, and then added as a joke: "But please don’t worry, I’m not a Knight of Malta."

I hoped the pope would see the funny side, particularity given that Francis has been embroiled in a battle to reform the Order of Malta — an ancient, aristocratic Catholic order. This had led to the resignation of former Grand Master, Fra’ Matthew Festing, an Englishman who had been involved in a bruising public row between the order and the Vatican.

Thankfully, the pope burst out laughing at my remark. "Sei cattivo," he told me in Italian, "you’re wicked."

After the joking on the flight over, Francis quickly got down to serious business during his 27 hours in Cairo.

The visit will go down as a historic moment in Christian-Muslim relations, one in which the papacy started to work with Islamic leaders to combat religiously inspired violence. It saw Francis embrace the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the most important centers of learning in the Muslim world, and denounce acts of terror carried out "in the name of God." Francis opened his talks with the traditional Arabic greeting of peace and Muslim sign of respect, "as-Salaam-Alaikum," which drew applause from the crowds.

How to respond to the growth of Islam and extremist versions of that faith is something increasingly on the agenda of popes. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI took on the issue during a 2006 address at Regensburg University, Germany, where he had worked as a professor decades before. This address was a scholarly reflection on the relationship between faith and reason but angered Muslims for quoting a 14th-century Christian emperor who claimed that the Prophet Muhammad had only brought the world things that were "evil and inhuman."

While Benedict XVI was praised for addressing the difficult topic of violence within a religion, Francis has chosen to build bridges with the Islamic world and his visit to Egypt was the seventh he’s made to a Muslim-majority country in four years. A papal trip to Bangladesh, where almost 90 percent of the population are followers of Islam, is planned for later this year.

So far Francis has won the respect of Muslims on the ground, with Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb praising the pope for refusing to link terrorism with the faith of Islam. For its part, Al-Azhar, founded in the 10th century, is trying to combat extremism from within.

The pope’s trip was aimed at helping in that endeavor while continuing his strategy of building friendships with Islamic opinion leaders. It’s not clear whether Francis’ approach will pay off, but if he succeeds, it will make the world a safer place.


  • pope benedict xvi
  • pope francis
  • islam
  • muslim-christian relations

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