May 30, 2006 -- I guess I imagined the papal plane to be something resembling Air Force One only spiritual, like a news pilgrimage.
I imagined wrong.
The Volo Papale, as it's known in Italian, is more like a Catholic school field trip.
Pope Tour: Lots of Scolding
Disapproving priests shepherd their unruly charges through what should be an educational journey. But to all concerned, the whole thing quickly seems like a chore.
The priests and their helpers have a thankless task. Organizing the media is a bit like herding cats. Except that cats don't complain. The boys on the bus may be following the dress code. Coats and ties are required on the Volo Papale.
But we're still badly behaved. We are all told repeatedly to stay in our seats should the Holy Father come back to say hello, but at the first glimpse of a white cassock we all jump up and surround the poor man.
Clearly these antics try the patience of the Vatican press officials who have mapped out every moment of the day.
Not only do they design a jumble of credentials for reporters to gain access to key events, but they also give careful thought to how they should be worn around the neck -- which one on top, which underneath, etc.
I'm told that for the return journey we will have to wear them on an entirely different string.
The morning as we leave, a respected colleague from a rival news organization receives a tongue-lashing at the Rome airport. He has allowed his credential to flip backside up, as it inevitably does many times during the day.
He's a veteran of dozens of these trips, so he merely shrugs, pretending he doesn't understand what the problem is, and walks away.
My own press badge has a piece of adhesive tape stuck to it with a cryptic message written in block letters, perfect penmanship. "SAVE THIS SLEEVE!" The last word underlined. With an exclamation point.
It has been explained to me that I have what amounts to a criminal record at the Vatican.
Apparently last year I failed to return Vatican property -- the clear plastic sleeve that came with my credentials for Pope John Paul's funeral. Unbeknownst to me, the Vatican press office was very upset by this.
ABC News' Rome producer tried gallantly to smooth things over by handing in another clear plastic credential sleeve. But the sharp-eyed nuns at the press office quickly spotted the forgery. The Rome bureau was told to "denounce" the lost sleeve. In other words, the nuns wanted ABC News to file a police report.
This time the adhesive tape was attached to my new credential to make sure I didn't make the same mistake twice.
Badges and More Badges
The credentials themselves seem to be valid only for 20-minute increments. There are frequent frantic huddles as new plastic cards are handed out. Oddly, each new card seems to be identical to the old one, except for a tiny number stamped in the corner.
The writing is in Polish while the roll call is in Italian.
The only thing obvious and unmistakable is the expression of sublime irritation on the face of the credential man.
Make that a grimace of utter disgust. We see this face a lot on the trip, every time he has to explain yet again that it's essential to remove the old badge -- "No not that one. The middle one!" -- and replace it with the new one -- "No, no, no. Now it must go on top!" It's all right there in The Book!"
All of these instructions are issued in rapid-fire Italian. If you don't speak Italian, that's your problem.
The organizers of our little field trip have little patience with questions.
Simple questions such as, "What time do we have to be in the lobby to catch the bus?" Or, "Is this the right credential for the cathedral event?"
All are met with one exasperated response:
"It's in The Book," snaps the harried man from the Vatican press office.
Will we be positioned on the riser? Or will we be able to talk to people in the crowd? "It's in The Book," he says, shaking his head with disapproval.
"Will there be time to file our stories after the pope visits Auschwitz?" No matter what the question, the official always answers with the same disgusted rebuff.
"The Book" is the Bible for this papal trip. Journalists are supposed to know each chapter and each verse of the slender paperback with the papal seal on the cover.
Lost With No Translation
In the tiniest of fine print, The Book details every minute of the day, who has to go where and when, and what to expect once you get there. The text is color-coded: blue for the pope; red for the journalists; black for procedures, instructions and editorial details.
It is, quite simply, the liturgy of our pilgrimage with the pope. Trouble is The Book is in Italian. No English translation at all.
Some procedures seem to be thought through better than others. For instance, specific line items in The Book include not just the details of an event, but also the names of individual reporters expected to cover them.
Reporters on the Volo Papale are issued three luggage tags for the trip -- one for a computer case, one for a carry-on, one for a checked bag. Each of these tags is of souvenir quality, embossed with the papal coat of arms, printed not just with our names and the names of our news organizations but also with our room numbers in Krakow and Warsaw. Somebody thought this thing through.
Another item: the telegrams.
Tradition has it that the pope sends a message to the leader of every country his plane passes over. Sure enough, as we taxi down the runway, we are handed a thick envelope full of telegrams. Several of us wonder whether they plan to drop them out the window as we pass over each country.
But while much attention has clearly been paid to these and other details, no one at the Vatican press office seems to have paid any attention whatsoever to the most important thing: actually getting the story on television or in the newspapers.
Apparently it has always been this way.
The Church, as they constantly remind us, tends to think in terms of millennia, not news cycles. They seem not to care whether we file a story or not, just so long as we're there, armed with the proper credential properly displayed, at the appointed time.
During the recent papal trip to Cologne, Germany, the Pool Zero -- the tight group allowed to shadow the pope up close -- was not provided a proper escort to the open air mass. They were stuck in traffic for hours, and no one got to take a single picture.
On this trip, the big event was the pope's visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau -- clearly the most moving and newsworthy moment of the trip. Dead last in the schedule. The schedule called for immediate departure to the airport and a brief farewell ceremony. The problem: No provision had been made for reporters to file their stories.
That means no satellite dish, no computer hookups, not even a working pay phone.
Not only that, but journalists were given no time to file -- the short window required to digest an event, write the story, and submit it to our news organizations.
In fact, the merciless schedule required the Vatican press corps to mount buses when the event had barely started in order to make our way to the airport -- where, it turns out, there was no television or Internet connection to the departure lounge.
The whole point of being here is to witness the pope's historic visit and report back for our viewers and readers.
And it's impossible.
All of us had to take a leap of faith. We wrote our stories in advance, and filed them praying the news would not change. If it did, there'd be a last-minute scramble in Rome after the Volo Papale touched down. Which, if my watch is correct, would have been about the time ABC's "World News Tonight" went on the air.
Under the circumstances, the logical thing would have been for reporters to stay in Krakow and take a later commercial flight. That way we'd be able to cover the story properly and our bosses would be happy with us. But that would have made too much sense for the Vatican press office to agree to. Apparently as far as the Volo Papale goes, once you're in, you stay in.
No cancellation. No refunds. And no no shows.
When Pope John Paul II visited Australia, journalists from that country actually flew all the way back to Rome on the Volo Papale, only to return immediately to Australia.
"The rules are quite clear. Just read The Book!"
No one seems willing to test the policy and risk excommunication -- at least for your news organization.
His Holiness Beware: Thirsty Journalists Ahead
My trip is coming to an end, and there's a mutiny brewing.
We are an hour into the flight, and the flight attendants have still not served so much as a stale bread roll. A heavily-laden drinks cart has twice made its way up the aisle, only to disappear behind the curtain that separates us from the papal entourage.
Poland took its time saying goodbye to the pope. Two hours on the tarmac. Seems like filing time should not really have been so much of a problem. All that while the Polish Lot flight crew refused to serve any drinks.
Krakow had imposed prohibition until midnight after the pope had left town. The flight attendants assured the thirsty journalists they would serve up the beer as soon as the wheels were up.
An hour later, there was nothing except for a tantalizing menu, handed out just after takeoff. It seems the cardinals were enjoying quite a feast up front with several bottles of Pinot Grigio being passed around. Still nothing for the gang at the back.
It's understandable that the papal entourage gets royal treatment. They are, after all, princes of the church, and we are mere hacks but the irony is that the hacks paid for the plane.
A ride on the papal plane is not free. Each seat costs about as much as a business-class ticket would on a normal flight. I wonder who pays for the cardinals to fly, and how much.
Some of the Vaticanistas are now showing their teeth.
The elder statesman of the bunch, a BBC correspondent with a quiet gentlemanly air, returned to the galley shouting at the flight crew.
"We are tired, and we are hungry!" he pleaded. "Would you please give us something to drink!"
Others shouted in Polish, German and Italian.
The flight attendants didn't pay much attention.
They were too busy warming up the cardinals' second course. Eventually the flight crew rewarded the BBC man with a single can of beer just to shut him up.
Then the cabin erupted. The equivalent of a prison riot had broken out. Reporters in every row rang the flight attendant call buttons over and over, like inmates banging their knives and forks on the table.
Bang, bang. Bang, bang. Bang, bang.
It can be downright dangerous getting between a journalist and the bar at the end of an assignment -- on the Volo Papale, there were 72 of us.
The Lot flight crew was horrified. With all this racket, the folks up front must have been aware of the protest. What will His Holiness think?
Interestingly, the Vatican press officials were nowhere in sight. Having discharged their responsibility to this unruly bunch, they had now disavowed us.
Presumably, they were up front, enjoying a glass of bubbly.