On the flight from Rome to South Korea, 40 minutes after take-off, a smiling Pope Francis came to the back of the plane to greet the 72 journalists from 11 countries, including 10 from South Korea, who were traveling with him.
He was greeted with applause and smiles, but then a shocked silence descended as the Director of the Vatican Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, after welcoming the pope, informed him that a colleague, an AP cameraman, Simone Camilli, had been killed some hours earlier in Gaza as he was taking photos of three Palestinian security men trying to defuse a missile that had remained unexploded. The bomb suddenly exploded killing all four.
Pope Francis, his face marked by grief at the news, said he had not known this. He then proposed that everyone pray in silence for a minute for Simone and the others “who died in service.” He bowed his head, closed his eyes and prayed. A total silence descended. The only sound to be heard was the flash of the cameras and the motors of the plane. It was a profoundly moving beginning to this papal trip to Korea.
“These are the consequences of war!” the pope remarked when he finished his prayer. “Spread the message of peace. War is ugly,” he urged the international media.
He then thanked all the media operators present for the service they are doing by reporting on his journey to Korea. “This will not be a tour, it will be very demanding in the heat of the summer. Thank you very much for your work!”
Then, in a totally tranquil and normal way he greeted all the journalists, individually. Each one went up and shook his hand. Some spoke privately, asking him to pray for a family member who was sick, or for some other need. A young Japanese woman reporter asked if she could take a ‘selfie’ with him, he agreed with a big smile. “He so human, so normal, I really like him,” she told me afterwards.
Several others followed suit and took selfies with the Pope. Cristiana Caricato, an Italian woman journalist from the Catholic TV 2000 channel, asked him to greet her colleagues back in the studio in Rome, using her iPad.
Jungsoo Park, a cameraman for Korea’s MBC TV, whose wife is Catholic, showed him a photo of their one-year old child and told him “We’d like you to suggest a religious name for him.” The Argentine pope didn’t quite understand what he had said but blessed the photo of the child and smiled. Afterwards, the Korean told me, “Since he didn’t suggest a name, I think we’ll call him Francis! I really like him.”
Francis was in no hurry, he greeted the journalists in a most relaxed and informal way, sometimes cracking jokes. Each one could say or ask whatever they wished. A number of reporters handed him personal letters, others gave him books.
At the end of an half-hour in which he made everyone feel happy, Pope Francis bade farewell to the journalists but promised that “like Daniel” he would “return to the lion’s den” for a press conference on the return flight to Rome, August 18.