Sunday 16 June 2019

'Truly remarkable': Ralph Riegel reveals the 'slick operation' inside the Papal bubble

Irish Independent reporter Ralph Riegel got the inside track as he joined a select group of journalists travelling with the pontiff. He describes a slick operation that allowed for very little sleep

Morning, Pápa: Pope Francis talks to journalists aboard the flight from Fiumicino airport in Rome to Dublin last Saturday. Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AFP
Morning, Pápa: Pope Francis talks to journalists aboard the flight from Fiumicino airport in Rome to Dublin last Saturday. Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AFP
Ralph Riegel meets Pope Francis.
Ralph Riegel in the press centre at Croke Park during Pope Francis's Irish visit.

Ralph Riegel

The Volo Papale (papal flight) should perhaps more appropriately be called the stress express, at least for the hard-working Vatican support team travelling with Pope Francis and the small group of journalists admitted to the Papal flight.

While the public last weekend viewed a smiling 81-year old pontiff being greeted at mostly relaxed public engagements around Dublin and Knock, behind the scenes a slick logistical machine was in military-style overdrive to ensure timetables were met, security was always tight, journalists adhered to the strict rules of the papal 'bubble' and all diplomatic niceties were seamlessly complied with.

The Vatican team visited Ireland almost a year before the visit to check all accommodation, routes, event locations and transport. A large, dedicated Garda team provided back-up. Metal detectors and scanning equipment were even installed in the Dublin hotel where all Vatican press pool journalists were required to stay.

The Vatican press team or the Sala Stampa della Santa Sede, whose office is located on the corner facing St Peter's Square by Via della Conciliazone in Rome, understandably have plenty of experience in papal travel. Pope Francis can undertake anything up to eight trips a year - more if you count extended trips across Italy. Ireland was only a whistle-stop visit compared to trips to South America or Africa which can last for almost a week.

Ralph Riegel meets Pope Francis.
Ralph Riegel meets Pope Francis.

Yet even veteran Vatican journalists admitted the packed Irish itinerary was exceptionally demanding and logistically exhausting. Pope Francis had wanted to include a brief visit to Northern Ireland in his agenda before realising, after briefings with Vatican staff, that it was simply impossible given the time frame and the commitments to events in Dublin and Knock.

I found myself part of the papal 'bubble' for the Irish Independent and, to be honest, it will undoubtedly rank as a career highlight. Never have I found an assignment as professionally demanding yet as personally exciting. Viewing Pope Francis at closehand was truly remarkable.

I was most astonished by how energetic and good-humoured the Pope was despite the demands of an agenda that exhausted people like myself who are more than 30 years younger.

That is before you even take into account the undoubted human stresses exerted on the Pontiff of having to face into publicly handling the Church's response to the shocking legacy of Ireland's clerical abuse scandals.

In 34 years in journalism, I've reported on US Presidential visits, repeated Irish trips by the British royals and even celebrity events such as the famous Red Cross charity ball in Monaco which ranked as a veritable 'who's who' of the European rich list.

But nothing prepared me for the stress, excitement, occasional panic as well as emotional and physical exhaustion of a 36-hour papal visit. In three days, the nine Irish journalists lucky enough to be admitted to the papal flight had roughly about ten hours sleep each. It is a pretty accurate guess that Pope Francis had even less sleep.

Ralph Riegel in the press centre at Croke Park during Pope Francis's Irish visit.
Ralph Riegel in the press centre at Croke Park during Pope Francis's Irish visit.

Saturday evening was the only time he displayed tiredness, perhaps wishing like the rest of us weary Volo Papale members that the excellent Croke Park festival event was perhaps just a little shorter.

Saturday's travel demands were so hectic that after on the Alitalia flight to Ireland at around 7am, having been at the airport from just after 4am - my next meal was a snatched burger in Eddie Rocket's on O'Connell Street at midnight. And we knew we had to be up again for further papal travel within three hours.

One starving reporter managed to grab a sandwich at the Capuchin Day Centre where the Pope met the homeless on Saturday afternoon - and was mercilessly teased by his colleagues for the remainder of the trip that he'd taken food intended for Dublin's needy.

When we had all finished filing copy in the early hours of Monday morning at Ciampino Airport in Rome - by tradition, the Pope flies out of one Rome airport (Fiumicino) and returns to a different one (Ciampino) - everyone was shattered.

The most stressful work assignment was the 40-minute papal press conference on the Aer Lingus flight back to Rome from Dublin on Saturday night - which was conducted entirely in Italian and without an English translation from the Vatican until almost 24 hours later. Unfortunately for me, that was some 23 hours after the deadline for Monday's Irish Independent.

I boast English, pretty appalling French and Leaving Cert Irish. My Italian is pretty much exhausted after 'bon giorno', 'aqua frizzante', 'grazie' and 'forza azzuri'.

But a detailed account of precisely what Pope Francis said about his Irish trip was in Monday's newspaper.

This was thanks to the kind assistance of colleagues such as Elena Pinardi who was able to type the translation as Pope Francis was still actually speaking, and reporters from The New York Times and CNN who assisted several of their Irish brethren with translations of what Pope Francis had said about the specific issues arising from his trip. I'll preserve the digital tape recording of the interview as a keepsake for posterity.

The papal visit started for journalists, photographers and TV crews in Rome last Thursday week. Irish media had to collect press accreditation at 10am on Friday - which meant flying to Rome the night before - and then have a two-hour briefing from Vatican press officials about precisely what was involved in working with the papal media team.

Each journalist received two large plastic badges which were to be worn at all times around your neck - a Stampa or press pass and a purple VAMP (Vatican-accredited media) pass. The latter was the pass required for the special fleet of papal entourage buses which had Garda motorcycle escorts everywhere they went.

Some events such as the Croke Park festival for the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) and the Phoenix Park open air Mass had all journalists in attendance. Others, such as the Capuchin Day Centre, were restricted to just two newspaper reporters because of the size and nature of the events. Other private events - such as the meeting of Pope Francis with abuse survivors in the Papal Nunciature on Saturday afternoon - were not even referred to on the papal itinerary.

Journalists had to supply the serial number of every electronic item they were bringing - from digital tape recorders and phones through to laptops and TV cameras. Their luggage was fast-tracked through whenever the Pope was travelling.

Roughly an hour into the flight, Pope Francis adhered to a tradition he follows of personally greeting every reporter who is covering a papal trip for the first time. He likes to offer a special greeting to the media contingent from the host country and will also personally greet the flight crew. Irish reporters were warned that the protocol was not to ask a question or attempt to take a selfie, something the pontiff specifically dislikes.

All questions were restricted to the press conference on the flight back to Rome from Dublin. Photos with Pope Francis were permitted but, we were told, should be taken by a colleague seated near you.

Reporters were also told they could bring personal issues to the attention of the pontiff - a prayer for a sick relative or a request to have special items such as religious medals blessed.

In my own case, an entire section of my computer bag was packed with rosary beads and medals which friends, neighbours and relatives had given me for a special blessing.

When my turn came to meet the Argentine-born pontiff, it was simply a few words of greeting, a smile, a handshake, the blessing and a rather dodgy photo of the occasion taken by an Italian colleague.

Generally, during flights, the first third of the aircraft cabin is strictly reserved for the papal party and a curtain is drawn between it and the back two-thirds where the media and Vatican press team travel. The curtain is only withdrawn for the press conference and when the aircraft takes off and lands.

As we flew toward Dublin, Italian and Spanish reporters pestered their Irish colleagues about what kind of reception Pope Francis would receive. It was clear that Ireland was effectively seen as the epicentre of a clerical abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic world to its core.

Six of the Pope's Irish events would include references to clerical abuse - and, in his private meeting with abuse survivors, he stunned even his own translator by referring to clerics who abused children as 'caca' or 'shit'. However, at 10.29am on Saturday as the papal aircraft appeared in leaden Irish skies, this was all ahead of us.

Once the flight touched down, the papal entourage sprang into gear. The Swiss Guard security team which surrounds the Pope ranks as one of the elite personal protection teams in the world, training alongside top police security teams in Italy, France and Germany. No journalist dared move from their seat until this team had left the aircraft and set up their perimeter.

Among the most incongruous moments of the papal trip was seeing the security team and advisers travelling in black BMW 5 Series cars, while Pope Francis insisted on travelling in a small blue Skoda Rapid.

One word of Italian I quickly picked up was 'peccato' which means 'sin' - and missing or being even late for one of the VAMP buses was pretty close to a mortal offence for any journalist.

You also learned that when the Vatican press team told you to move, you ran. Media and security had to be at scheduled events before Pope Francis - and then had to leave before him to ensure being at the next location.

The press centres set up at Dublin Castle and the Phoenix Park were huge given the fact that around 3,000 media members were involved in various aspects of the Papal coverage.

World events and clerical abuse scandals in the US, Australia and New Zealand meant there was enormous global interest in what Pope Francis was going to say about the controversy. TV stations represented included Sky, BBC, RAI, Televisa, EBU, US Pool, CNN, TV 2000 and AP-Reuters as well as Ireland's own RTÉ and TV3.

Highlights of the weekend for me were the Capuchin Day Centre and the Croke Park WMOF festival. The former showed Pope Francis at his happiest; the Argentine boasts a personal warmth and magnetism that is compelling to see at close quarters and stands in contrast to the aloofness of other pontiffs. At Croke Park, I was more than a little proud to see the impressed reaction of Vatican reporters to the key 'Riverdance' segment.

But Croke Park seemed a lifetime away as the weary Irish press corps departed the Vatican 'bubble' for the final time in the early hours of Monday morning at a near deserted Ciampino Airport. From the excitement of VAMP buses and police motorcycle escorts, it was back to the reality of shared taxis and, in my case, a €5.80 airport shuttle bus to Termini in Rome city centre.

As our little group went its separate ways after tired goodbyes, one journalist asked a colleague if he would like to cover another papal visit?

"I'm not sure - ask me again in 39 years' time," he replied.

By numbers: The Pope and the media


Number of media people associated with the papal visit

1 million

Number of Irish people who watched the Papal Mass on RTÉ


Number of global broadcasters who took an RTÉ feed of the papal visit


Countries where people viewed the Pope's Irish visit online

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