When Pope Francis landed in Geneva slightly after 10am local time on 21 June for his visit to the World Council of Churches (WCC) in an Alitalia plane with a discreet papal coat of arms, he was accompanied by a 60-strong contingent of journalists collectively known as the “VAMP,” for Vatican Accredited Media Personnel.
Representing news agencies, television and radio stations, and newspapers, the journalists included long-standing Vatican correspondents for whom the trip to Geneva was simply their latest papal journey.
Others were first-timers – some, such as myself, on the flight because of the papal destination to Geneva and the WCC. It was, for me, my personal “ecumenical pilgrimage” to Geneva with Pope Francis.
On arrival at Geneva airport, as the pope descended from the front of the plane to be met by a red carpet and a military guard, the VAMP left the plane from the rear.
A small contingent of VAMP boarded a minibus for the nearby Ecumenical Centre, where the WCC has its headquarters, to be present at the ecumenical prayer service with Pope Francis and WCC leaders, including moderator Agnes Abuom and general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit.
The others were ferried in blue coaches to the VAMP press centre set up for the day by the WCC immediately behind the main building – the first time, I think, I had travelled to the Ecumenical Centre with a police escort.
Once at the press centre, a hasty but good-natured scramble ensued for a workplace, a socket and Internet access. Then, with laptop screens up, frantic typing by dozens of journalists to get their copy sent before being taken out of the press centre by Vatican minders less than 90 minutes later, to board buses to the next appointment, this time at the WCC’s Ecumenical Institute, in the Swiss countryside about 20 kilometres away from Geneva.
While some of the VAMP were able to follow an exchange of gifts between the pope and WCC leaders, others had a stand-up buffet before a press conference with Tveit and the Vatican’s chief ecumenical official, Cardinal Kurt Koch. Then back on the buses for the Ecumenical Centre where Pope Francis would deliver a formal address, and Geneva’s Palexpo exhibition centre for a closing Mass.
The day began for me with an alarm set for 3:30am followed by a taxi and check in two hours later at an almost deserted Fiumicino airport in Rome. Happily, once through the airport security, the first coffee shops had already opened to allow a swift expresso and an Italian pastry.
At the coffee shop at the boarding gate, journalists began to huddle around according to various national or linguistic groups.
Some speculated about what Pope Francis would say in his meetings at the WCC. Journalists from France chatted about French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the Vatican that was to take place five days later. German journalists might have been focused on a document by the country’s Roman Catholic bishops about communion for non-Catholic spouses of Catholics. Each was seeking an angle for their readers or viewers.
As we boarded to be seated in the section reserved for media at the rear of the plane, each of us was given an envelope containing the speeches and addresses for the day under embargo until they were delivered.
Once on board, cabin staff offered us a specially printed folder with details and a map of the papal flight, a breakfast box, and a selection of newspapers. These included the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano, with the headline “Pellegrino ecumenico” (Italian for “ecumenical pilgrimage”) – no mistaking then the news of the day as far as the Vatican was concerned.
Photographers and camera personnel set up their equipment inside the cabin ready to record Pope Francis, when he appeared in the media section of the cabin about 35 minutes into the 90-minute flight.
The trip, said Pope Francis, speaking in Italian, “is a journey toward unity, with the desire for unity.”
He thanked the media for their work, before making his way down the central aisle of the plane to greet each journalist individually. Some offered him a gift, others asked for a prayer, while the pope posed for photographs and “selfies.”
Ecumenical Review editor Stephen Brown with Pope Francis on the papal flight to Geneva.
We had already picked up from the Press Office of the Holy See the previous day not only our accreditation and badges for the trip, but the all-important “work book.” This set out the media schedule with almost military-style minute-by-minute precision, and details of which journalists would be present at which events, and which would follow proceedings on the screens in the various press rooms.
Often the programme calls for VAMP to leave one event before it ends to be present and installed at the next before the pope’s arrival.
Some VAMP – especially from print media – acknowledge that if they only wanted to follow the proceedings, it might be more straightforward to stay at home or the office, and watch the trip on television or via livestreaming.
But belonging to the media contingent offers opportunities to get a feel for how a visit is going, to try and catch an aside, to be privy to any briefings during the programme, and to share in the camaraderie of being part of a larger group. And a dateline from the destination offers authenticity to the reports.
Being part of the VAMP also means being present at the now traditional press conference on the return flight to Rome, and maybe even being one of the few chosen to ask a direct question of the pope.
This time, the first question came from Switzerland. What images, important or powerful moments struck Pope Francis the most during the day in Geneva and Switzerland.
“It was a day of encounters,” said Pope Francis, speaking again in Italian. “The right word for the day is encounter, and when a person encounters another and feels pleased with the encounter, this always touches the heart.”
He was asked about the paper by the German Roman Catholic bishops on communion for non-Catholic spouses, refugees and migrants, and whether it was time for the Roman Catholic Church to join with “peace churches” to set aside the theory of “just war.”
The Pope finished the half-hour press conference with a spontaneous comment: “I would just like to say one word clearly: that today was an ecumenical day, truly ecumenical.”
When the plane touched down at about 9:30pm local time at Rome’s Ciampino airport, the day was not ended for the VAMP. Instead, they scurried through customs to find taxis and cars to take them back to the city to file their stories of the final press conference on the plane.