“I have Russia and China in my heart,” Pope Francis said on the flight from Rome to Havana and Mexico City on Feb. 12. He also had words of praise for German Chancellor Angela Merkel and described her as “a person of good will.”
He made these comments in response to questions from individual reporters as he moved among the 76 journalists, photographers and TV cameramen from many countries (including 10 from Mexico) who are accompanying him on the Alitalia Airbus 330, and greeted each of them individually.
Following a tradition that he has created, Francis came back to greet each of the media personnel accompanying him on this 15-and-a-half-hour flight to Havana and Mexico City.
His remark about Russia and China came when Elena Pinardi, a television producer for EBU-UER, asked whether we would soon be traveling with him to Moscow, a city no pope has ever visited. He concluded by joining his hands together, and said, “I pray for this!”
He had much to say about Chancellor Merkel when Ludwig Ring-Eifel, head of the German Catholic news agency CIC, asked him not to forget Germany and Merkel in his prayers. “I pray for Chancellor Merkel. She is a person of goodwill. I respect her. I love her.” He has had private conversations in the Vatican with Ms. Merkel on at least two occasions, and informed sources say the two get-on well.
His comment today was also seen as a response to a recent story in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily, which carried a report saying she had been angry at Francis when, in his speech to the European Parliament, he had referred to Europe as “a grandmother.” The paper alleged that she had phoned him to express her displeasure. The Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, S.J., had already denied the story but the pope’s words today went much further, and came at a time when the chancellor is under attack from political forces in Germany over her more open stance on the immigration question.
Later, responding to a question from the Colombian radio journalist, Nestor Ponguta’ Puerto, Francis confirmed that he would go to Colombia in 2017 if the government and the rebel forces (FARC) sign the peace accord and bring peace to the country.
Before greeting the media personnel individually, Francis spoke briefly to the group. He began by thanking them for being with him and for the good work they are doing and will do in these days on what he described as “a demanding visit,” first for some hours in Cuba and then five days in Mexico where he arrives this evening at 7:30 p.m. (local time).
He said he had “much, much wanted” to meet “my dear brother Kirill” and to visit Mexico, and he expressed his great joy that he is now on the way to realizing both wishes. He then revealed that his “deepest desire” is to spend time in prayer before the famous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which no amount of studies have been able to explain because it is something from God. He noted that even atheists in Mexico describe themselves as belonging to Guadalupe. Tomorrow afternoon he will fulfill this desire when he will have the opportunity to pray in silence before that miraculous image.
Francis also sent a special greeting to Mother Angelica, founder of EWTN, after the network’s correspondent, Alan Holdren, informed him that the 90-year-old sister is now seriously ill. In a brief recorded message to her, Francis said in English: “Greetings Mother Angelica. Pray for me!”
As he moved among the journalists, he received many gifts. Joshua McElwee (National Catholic Reporter), for instance, gave him a gift of a small book he has just written, 10 Things Pope Francis Wants You to Know About the Family (Liguori Press). The Mexican TV reporter, Valentina Alazraki Crstich (Televisa), who has been on almost all papal flights since 1979, gave him a sombrero made by Mexicans in Cuba. She had given a sombrero also to John Paul II and Benedict XVI when they visited her homeland.
Perhaps the most unusual gift came from a Mexican TV reporter, Noel Diaz, the son of a single mother, who had once been a shoeshine boy, and was twice deported from the United States, but now lives in Los Angeles and has his own TV channel and six radio stations. He spoke with Francis for some minutes, recounting his life story and then gave the pope his shoeshine kit.
Pope Francis has a special devotion to Saint Therese of Lisieux and he once revealed that when he has a problem or needs help he frequently asks her intercession, and she invariably sends him a white rose if his prayer is heard. We do not know what Francis has asked for on this long journey to Havana and Mexico but we do know that on the plane today he received not one, but two white roses.
Francis is now on his way to Havana to meet Kirill. He is due to arrive there at 2 p.m. (local time).