The veteran Vatican journalists who routinely travel on the papal plane can become a bit blasé about sitting on an aircraft with the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. But for those who do it rarely - or perhaps only once , as in the case of the local press from the country to which the pope is traveling - it can be a very emotional experience. This point was brought home to me during the last voyage of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
On the Rome-to-Sri Lanka leg, I sat next to three female journalists from the Philippines. They were excited beyond words, asking whether the pope might come to the back of the plane to greet us, and thrilled to hear that it was his custom to do so. When, an hour into the flight, he appeared at the front of the coach section and thanked us for being there, I could see them tear up.
The pope made his way down the aisle, shaking everyone's hand, kissing a cheek here, whispering into an ear there, always affable and smiling. By the time he arrived at our row, tears were flowing down the cheeks of the three Filipino women.
"I never thought this would happen to me," said Cara, my neighbor. "It seems incredible, Pope Francis shaking my hand."
Hours later, the emotion was still evident in their glowing faces.
Pope Francis has charmed journalists from his very first trip abroad, on the plane back from Rio, when he gave his famous "who am I to judge" quote. The veteran group was unprepared for a free-wheeling, ask-anything press conference. Many had worked years without the chance to ever ask a pope a single question. In Francis' papacy, these on-board press conferences have now become routine. But as with anything Francis, the personal touch is always present. On the return trip from Manila to Rome, after answering questions on topics from birth control to Islam, the pope presented journalist Valentina Alazraki with a birthday cake and a gift, and looked on with delight as the press corps sang her happy birthday.
Traveling with the pope is undoubtedly arduous. Days routinely start at 5 a.m. and end in the wee hours of the morning, as journalists begin to file their stories or edit their TV packages after the pope finishes his daily activities. It is a wonder that the pope, a man of 78 years of age, can travel such great distances and yet keep such a schedule. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi says the pope only needs a few hours of rest to recharge his batteries and begin again.
The same cannot be said of the press corps. During these trips, journalists are constantly asking each other, "How are you holding up?" On Monday, upon landing in Rome, a colleague looked around and said, "We look like a bunch of homeless people." Indeed, we departed well groomed and well dressed, and returned bleary eyed and bedraggled ... and looking forward to the next trip.