The papal flight to Abu Dhabi took off on Sunday afternoon from Rome, just as the first drops of rain started coming down on Fiumicino airport.
Inside Alitalia's Boeing B777, a group of 69 journalists – including writers, photographers and videographers – set up equipment and typed away furiously as they waited for the final passenger.
Just short of 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time, the sound of a chopper filtered through the plane windows. Pope Francis had arrived.
Shortly after the seatbelt sign was switched off, Pope Francis pulled back the grey curtain separating him from the press and passed into the cabin to greet the journalists. Dressed in white and sporting his famous smile, the pope moved comfortably through the aisle.
"It'll be a brief trip," said Francis. "They told me it's raining in Abu Dhabi. This, in some places, is seen as a blessing, let's hope it goes this way," he said referring to the three-day trip. The pope took the time to speak to journalists one-on-one, blessing rosaries and accepting gifts. Though formal with the new media arrivals, he greeted veteran Vatican reporters with the typically Italian kiss on each cheek.
While the flight is operated by the Italian national carrier, it’s clear this is not an ordinary economy class ticket. In the bathroom is a small basket of Ferragamo face mist and hand towels, headrests are emblazoned with the Vatican emblem. The menu for the flight is also a cut above the usual warmed up fare.
The pope gifted members of the press copies of an icon found in the monastery of Bose, a Catholic community located in northwestern Italy. The icon depicts a young monk carrying an older one on his shoulders. He spoke about this to a crowd of young worshippers in 2018. "In this icon there's a young monk carrying an elderly monk on his shoulders...a youth who is capable of taking upon himself the dreams of the elderly, take them forward, and make them flourish." The passengers were then handed coffee with a selection of Ferrero Rocher by the attentive and well-mannered flight staff. As the flight continued, a sense of comradery grew among the press corps, with Italian speakers translating for non-Italian speakers.
As the plane made its way to the UAE, a series of telegrams were sent to each country that "Shepherd One" – the call sign for any aircraft carrying the pope onboard – passed over. As the plane made its way over Egypt, the papal telegram to the country's president read: "To his excellency Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. I extend cordial greetings to your excellency and the people of Egypt as I fly over your country on my way to the United Arab Emirates for a pastoral visit. Invoking the blessing of the almighty upon the nation, I pray that he may all grant you peace and joy."
He then sent a telegram to Saudi Arabia's King Salman as the plane passed over the kingdom's territory. It read: "To his majesty Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. I offer best wishes and the assurance of my prayers as many journey to the United Arab Emirates takes me over Saudi Arabia. Entrusting your majesty and the people of Saudi Arabia to the almighty, I willingly invoke upon you the blessings of joy and peace."