Pope's visit to Bahrain: what's it like to fly on papal plane 'Shepherd One'?

Jordan's King Abdullah II sent F-16 jets to escort the aircraft over the kingdom

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Our first glimpse of Pope Francis was when he made his way along the deck of an ITA Airways flight for his historic trip to Bahrain.

The Argentine, 85, was helped in a wheelchair to the Airbus A330 on the runway at Rome Fiumicino Airport, but stepped into the cabin with the help of a cane.

This stooped figure of extraordinary humility took the time to greet each one of the more than 60 journalists on board, thanking them for documenting the occasion.

This is only the second time the head of the Catholic church has visited the Arabian Peninsula.

This would be a flight to remember.

Contrary to popular belief, the Holy See does not own a jet called Vatican One or Shepherd One that flies the Pope around the world.

"Shepherd One" is the name given by the media to the chartered planes the pontiff flies on.

The Pope was seated in the front section, with the famous Swiss Guards in the middle and journalists at the back.

While this was the first time my colleague Amy McConaghy, a multimedia producer, and I had been on a papal flight, the aircraft was filled with journalists who had travelled with the pontiff more than 100 times.

Some have covered the travels of three popes — John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

Valentina Alazraki, who works with Televisa Mexico, is one such journalist.

She has been on 157 trips, more than any other in the press pack, starting with a 1975 trip with Pope John Paul II to Mexico. There is constant demand for Spanish-language accounts of papal sermons, blessings and journeys.

A moment to remember

I have grown up surrounded by the Christian community in Mumbai, but never fully realised until today how powerful and deep the bond is that Catholics have with this father figure.

For my Catholic friends and family, it is a time of celebration and great joy that someone they know has the opportunity to meet him.

When I asked Pope Francis to bless the rosary prayer beads I carried for family and friends, he did so with a warm smile.

He spent a considerable amount of time meeting each journalist and then waved goodbye as he was helped up by aides to his feet.

My impression of him from our brief encounter is of a gentle, kindly soul with a magnetic personality.

Owing to protocol, the first media interaction is informal. On the return journey from Manama to Rome, the Pope will host formal questions from the media.

Papal coat of arms

There was a lot that set this flight apart from a normal trip.

Everything from the headrest to the menu had the red, blue and gold papal insignia emblazoned on it.

The two crossed keys have been part of the official symbol of the Holy See since the 14th century.

In the front section near the Pope was a portrait of Mary, an artwork that accompanies Pope Francis on all of his flights.

This is the only thing the pontiff asks for on the flights, his aides have said.

The Vatican coat of arms on each seat. Photo: Amy McConaghy

As we flew over each country, messages from Pope Francis go out to each of the heads of state of Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

As we fly over Jordan, F-16 jets are sent by King Abdullah II to escort the papal flight.

On landing, pilots will display the flag of the country visited, Bahrain’s red and white, alongside the Vatican’s yellow standard, outside the cockpit window.

The Pope will meet King Hamad when he lands, before speaking at the Bahrain Dialogues on Friday. The highlight of the trip will be a public Mass on November 5, where 28,000 people will be in attendance.

On the papal flight home to Rome on November 7, Pope Francis will take a Gulf Air Dreamliner Boeing 787.

It has been an exhilarating start to what will be an eventful week for Bahrain and the Middle East.

Updated: November 04, 2022, 7:41 AM
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