Thursday 24 January 2019

My exhausting trip of a lifetime in the papal 'bubble'

Fermoy journalist Ralph Riegel was among a nine-strong team of Irish media that escorted Pope Francis from Rome to Ireland, and back again in a 36-hour tour

Bill Browne

While the eyes of the world were firmly focussed on Pope Francis during his recent visit to our shores, behind the scenes a well-oiled machine was in place to make sure that the visit went off without a hitch.

Among the entourage that followed the Pontiff's itinerary was a small group of Irish journalists who had travelled on the Papal flight from Rome and whose job it was to report his every move and utterance. Embedded within the cohort of Irish media was veteran Fermoy journalist Ralph Riegel, who, despite the fact that he has covered numerous high-profile events during his long and illustrious career, had previously conceded to The Corkman that the prospect of covering the Papal visit was "a bit daunting." 

"This is the kind of experience that will only come along once in a lifetime. I have covered many high-profile events but for me this will rank much higher as a Papal visit is such a rare thing. That is why I hope to savour and enjoy every minute of the experience," he said. 

Roughly an hour into the flight from Rome to Ireland, Pope Francis adhered to a tradition he follows of personally greeting every reporter who is covering a Papal trip for the first time.

"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, reporters 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.

"My Fr Ted-esque moment was having an entire section of my computer bag packed with Rosary beads and medals which friends, neighbours and relatives had given me for a special papal blessing," he smiled.

"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."

Ralph admitted that while finding himself as the centre of the 'Papal bubble' for the hectic visit was exhausting, as he had to file copy for the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent, Evening Herald and along the way, yet it was an experience that will "undoubtedly rank as a career highlight."

"Never have I found an assignment as professionally demanding yet as personally exciting. Viewing Pope Francis at close hand 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," he said. 

"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." 

Ralph said that over his more than 30-year career in journalism he had 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 had 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 than that," said Ralph.

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

He said that by the time the Irish press corps had finished filing copy in the early hours of Monday morning at Ciampino Airport in Rome each of them was "physically shattered", with one cameraman even falling asleep beside the baggage claim carousel.

Ralph said there were so many personal highlights during the Papal visit it was very difficult single any out.

"But, if I had to choose two they would be the Capuchin Day Centre and the Croke Park World Meeting of Families WMOF festival. The former because it showed Pope Francis at his happiest - meeting ordinary people, sympathising with their problems and trying to offer them comfort and support. 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," he said.

"As for the Croke Park festival, the cynics had been trying to dismiss the event and ridicule the entertainment programme. In truth, I found it fascinating and was more than a little proud to see the impressed reaction of Vatican reporters to the key 'Riverdance' segment. I was also astonished by the bold decision to use music by such artists as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and REM, which seemed perfectly suited to the occasion and its themes."

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 being a part of one of the most high profile events on Irish shores for years, being driven around in buses accompanied by police escorts, it was back to  the reality of shared taxis and, in Ralph's particular case, an airport shuttle bus to Termini in Rome city centre.

"The mood was summed up when, just 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," said Ralph. 'I'm not sure - ask me again in 39 years time,' was his reply."