Pope Francis listens to a question from Romanian journalist Cristian Micaci aboard his flight from Sibiu, Romania, to Rome June 2. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Plane speaking: Behind the scenes of the Pope's in-flight press conferences

By 
  • June 13, 2019

VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis’ in-flight news conferences are arguably less newsy than when his pontificate began, mostly because he has been insisting the past few years that most of the questions refer to the trip that is concluding.

But, looking back over the news conferences just this year, there are tidbits that reveal things about Pope Francis. They did not make the “news,” but they are included in the transcripts, which the Vatican posts online.

For instance, not even touching the debate about citizenship based on place of birth vs. parentage, Pope Francis told reporters travelling back from Romania with him June 2 that as the child and grandchild of Italian immigrants, he qualified for an Italian passport.

“My brothers and sisters all had citizenship,” the Pope said. “I didn’t want to have it because at the time they acquired it I was a bishop and I thought, ‘No, the bishop must be of the country,’ so I didn’t want to get it, which is why I don’t have it.”

Italian journalists frequently ask questions related to Italian politics, and while he said, “my blood is Italian,” he also repeated what he often tells them, “I don’t understand Italian politics.”

Pope Francis told reporters at the beginning of his pontificate in 2013 that he did not expect to travel much. But, a little over six years into his papal ministry, he has made 30 trips outside of Italy.

And just in the first six months of 2019, he has made five trips, travelling 36,839 kilometres (according to the Vatican) and spending 13 days, 17 hours and five minutes on travels abroad.

Journalists try on every trip to ask questions about neuralgic issues in the life of the Church or Church-state relations. But beginning with the news conference Dec. 2, 2017, at the end of his trip to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Pope Francis has been increasingly insistent that most of the questions focus on the trip.

“I would like some more (questions) about the trip because otherwise it would seem as if it hadn’t been very interesting, wouldn’t it?” he asked reporters flying back to Rome with him from Bangladesh.

Accepting only trip-related questions is no guarantee that the Pope can avoid tough questions. For instance, the trip after Myanmar and Bangladesh was to Chile and Peru in January 2018. All of the questions during the news conference were related to the trip and fully half of the queries were about the clerical sex abuse scandal.

When the questions are not trip-related, sometimes Pope Francis responds, but other times he’ll do a general call for “any other questions about the trip?” first.

On flights longer than four or five hours, the Pope will spend anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes taking questions. But on the shorter flights, he is with the media for about 30 minutes and may take only four or five questions.

In every pontificate, as time goes on the popes start repeating themselves and Pope Francis is no different: on gossip, on bridges instead of walls, on the importance of relations between young people and their grandparents, on dialogue as an outstretched hand.

He makes those points in talking to reporters and in speeches and homilies.

A fair percentage of the formal speeches he makes are at least based on drafts written by staff members. Sometimes he sets the drafts aside, sometimes he adds to them and sometimes he reworks them completely.

A good hint that someone else was involved in the speech’s preparation is a direct quote from the Pope himself, complete with the name of the document and paragraph number. However, the Pope remembers what he has said, especially in major speeches.

So, when asked on the flight back from Romania June 2 about European unity, the Pope basically referred the questioner to three in-depth speeches he had given on the subject in the past.

But he prefaced his remarks by saying, “Forgive me for citing myself; I do it without vanity only for its usefulness.”

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