April 14th, 2008
12:22 PM ET

Pope's visit: Behind the scenes on 'Shepherd One'

Pope Benedict XVI

When Pope Benedict XVI touches down at Andrews Air Force Base tomorrow for the start of his April 15-20 pastoral visit in the United States, TV and radio commentators setting the scene are likely to refer to his plane as “Shepherd One.” The implied comparison to the U.S. President’s “Air Force One” is clever, but, alas, largely misleading.

In truth, there is no “papal plane” in the sense of a jet owned by the Vatican and used exclusively for papal travel. Instead, the pope flies on a regular commercial jet belonging to Alitalia, the Italian national airline, chartered by the Vatican for the period of a given trip. The pilots and crew are all Alitalia personnel.

Most of the passengers aboard the papal plane are actually journalists, representing a cross-section on the world’s major secular and Catholic media outlets. This time, 70 journalists are accompanying Pope Benedict to the United States, a figure which includes print reporters, TV and radio correspondents, producers, cameramen and photographers.

Journalists pay top dollar to fly with the pope – the roundtrip airfare this time is roughly $4800, comparable to a full-fare business class ticket for what usually amounts to economy class accommodations.

Media outlets are willing to spend that kind of money in part in hopes of privileged access to the pope. It’s customary for the pope to speak briefly with reporters aboard the plane on the outbound leg of the trip, usually shortly after takeoff. Under Benedict XVI, these have usually been fairly scripted affairs, with the pope’s spokesperson collecting questions in advance and then reading them to the pope, who provides an answer without the possibility for follow-up.

The lone exception was Pope Benedict’s May 2007 trip to Brazil, his only other trans-Atlantic journey so far. Since that flight was fairly long, the pope came back and conducted a real press conference. He took 11 questions from reporters, including queries about the excommunication of pro-choice politicians, liberation theology, and the beatification of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. The questions had not been submitted in advance, and the pope’s replies were extemporaneous. From start to finish, the exchange lasted about 26 minutes.

Since the flight from Rome to America is of comparable length, reporters had been hoping for a similar exchange this time. Instead, however, the Vatican spokesperson sent out a request for proposed questions for the pope via e-mail. The plan is for the Vatican to pick five in advance, and then have the pope give answers on the plane. There’s unlikely to be much chance to ask follow-up questions or to press for additional comment.

From the outside, that might seem a curious choice, given that there’s plenty of time for a real press conference, and given that Benedict XVI is a veteran university professor who relishes intellectual give-and-take. Yet Vatican officials have long memories, and they recall well what happened on the Brazil flight. Pope Benedict answered a question about possible excommunication of pro-choice Catholic politicians in Mexico, seeming to endorse a hard-line position. That became the dominant day-one story of the Brazil trip, effectively blotting the pope’s formal message out of the sky.

This time around, it would seem that trip organizers are determined to keep the pope “on message” as he enters the world’s premier sound-bite culture.

Of those 70 journalists on the plane, 11 are Americans representing the following press outlets: the National Catholic Reporter; the Washington Post; Fox News; the New York Times; Inside the Vatican; Time; the Newark Star-Ledger; ABC News; the Associated Press; the Catholic News Service; and the Los Angeles Times.

(Yours truly is doing double duty as the National Catholic Reporter correspondent on the trip and also Senior Vatican Analyst for CNN.)

– John L. Allen Jr., CNN Senior Vatican Analyst, National Catholic Reporter

Filed under: John L. Allen Jr. • Pope Benedict
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Brad Collins

    Sounds like Joseph Kowalski lets Chris Hitchens and Bill Mahr do his thinking for him...

    There are more abuse cases in public school systems, btw (close to 10% of students reporting abuse). The media just likes to try to have a gotcha moment with Catholics.

    April 15, 2008 at 4:20 am |
  2. Annie Kate

    I'm not surprised that the pope would prefer questions ahead of time; having the time to review the question and frame his answer will allow him to give a fuller more meaningful answers. I'd rather have it where he can his answer through before hand than giving an answer off the cuff that may prove to be a misstep that will require endless explanations and apologies later. We get enough of that from our political candidates – we don't need it from our religious leaders.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    April 14, 2008 at 9:05 pm |
  3. Tammy

    I saw Pope John Paul II at a Papal Audience at the Vatican and felt I was in the presence of holiness. I stood in mourning at his open casket in St. Peter's after he died and again felt holiness. And I will be at St. Peter's for his canonization one day God willing. He ordained my cousin as a priest in St. Peter's, was a friend and mentor to him, said private Mass for our family on several occasions, and was so good to my cousin and us. His loss was personal. Pope Benedict XVI was Pope John Paul II's hand picked successor. He chose him before he died. That's all the credential I need. I look forward to watching his visit this week. I think it is awesome he's coming and that President Bush is taking such a personal interest in him. I hope CNN gives this visit adequate coverage. I already had to watch the special about his visit on Fox. I guess Pope loving types aren't in the demographic. We should be. If you can waste time on She Who Shall Not Be Named, you can show the Pope. I hope this trip is all it should be.

    April 14, 2008 at 7:21 pm |
  4. Peter Parker - Miami, FL

    I admire Pope Benedict XVI, he is a very solid theologist (probably the best in the world). To compare him with John Paul II is unfair. Is like comparing the high school baseball team to the Yankees.

    April 14, 2008 at 5:28 pm |
  5. Ruby Coria, LA., CA.

    John, I'm not surprise that the pope dosen't get that much coverage, but I will be watching to see him wave. In any other country this would be huge!, here Obama and his beloved Rev.Wright get more play.

    April 14, 2008 at 3:48 pm |
  6. Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA

    Someone should ask the Pope why he and his predecessors have allowed child molestation to go on within their churches for so many years, oftentimes actively trying to hide the abuse and moving the offending priests to other parishes to continue their crimes.

    To me, there is little difference here between the child abuse going on within the Roman Catholic Church and the child abuse going on in the Mormon cults of Warren Jeffs.

    The only difference is the power and money of the Roman Catholic Church.

    April 14, 2008 at 3:24 pm |
  7. Kelly

    Does his eyes (facial feature) look scary to anyone else? Maybe just to me..

    April 14, 2008 at 3:15 pm |
  8. Julie San Diego, CA

    He's not JP II.

    Ask Pope Benedict what he thinks about the Nostradamus and St. Malachy prophecies forseeing the decline and end of the papal system.

    Benedict will never be able to live up to his predecessor (John Paul II ) whose real legacy was his behind-the-scenes work in quietly helping to end communism in much of eastern Europe – even though Reagan took the credit for symbolically knocking down the Berlin wall.

    From JPII's Wikipedia bio: "Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once said the collapse of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II."

    Benedict's got big shoes to fill if he wants to be more than just a footnote in history.

    Personally, I believe JPII was a saint. I had the fortune of being in the right place at the right time and was 10 feet from the guy. All those halos you see in the religious artwork are accurate – John Paull II's whole body glowed with a light from within.

    April 14, 2008 at 1:13 pm |
  9. Chelci

    It doesn't seem strange to me that the pope would not do direct questions or follow ups seeing as though he got in a bit of trouble the last time that he did. But I would like to think that he'd have taken more than just five questions. That is really nothing at all. If he is getting to pick and choose from the ones that were emailed in why not do more and get more points across. He still won't have to do follow ups. I mean really what else does he have to do while flying here?

    April 14, 2008 at 12:39 pm |