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ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE – At 35,000 feet, you see a different side of Pope Francis.
It's not just the proximity of traveling on the papal plane or tucking into the same creamy lasagna and beef filet that is clearly a papal favorite on the Alitalia charter that ferries him around the globe. It's seeing Francis relaxed, surrounded by a handful of his closest aides, embarking on a new adventure or returning home from one, exhausted.
For starters, he has an almost sinister sense of humor. When a Spanish colleague asked the 78-year-old pope after a particularly grueling three-nation trip how he managed to have enough energy to get through the day, Francis chuckled: "He meant to ask, 'What drug is he on?'"
He can be candid to a fault. When a German journalist asked why, in all his talk about the rich and the poor, he had neglected to ever mention the tax-paying middle class, Francis thanked him for the "correction," said it was a "mistake" on his part, and promised to address it after thinking it through.
Francis also has a bit of street thug in him — remnants perhaps of an immigrant upbringing in working-class Buenos Aires and ministry later in life in its slums. Asked once by a French journalist about the attack by Islamic extremists on France's Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper, Francis threw a pretend punch at a Vatican official and explained that if someone insults his mother — or his faith — he can expect to get socked in return.
I discovered an altogether different side of Francis when I met him for the first time during his first foreign trip.
I had rehearsed in my head the brief words I wanted to say when Francis greeted each of the 75 or so journalists who were traveling with him to Rio de Janeiro for the Catholic Church's 2013 World Youth Day.
Like the rest of the world, I had witnessed how in a few short months, Francis had turned the papacy upside down and electrified crowds in a way his grandfatherly but stiff predecessor, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, had never managed to do in eight years.
What I wanted to tell him was that as a mother, I particularly enjoyed watching him interact with children: From the gentle kisses he readily bestowed on the heads of newborns to the playful way he'd muss the hair of teens who got within arms' reach.
And so when it came time to introduce myself, I shook his hand and started reciting what I had rehearsed: That I was a mother of three young children and ...
He immediately cut me off.
"What are their names?" he asked.
Flustered, I thanked him for asking and recited the names and ages of each of the children.
"Ahh," he said, satisfied. "I always like to ask a mother about her children because she always smiles."
And so I learned, in that very first encounter, that Francis also has something of a charmer in him, an easy way of engaging a complete stranger that was surprising, and yet completely normal.
Francis would go on later in his pontificate to insist on a more "normal" notion of the papacy. One that refused to greet the cardinals who had just elected him pope from the heights of a podium, but rather at their level. One that resided not in the isolated Apostolic Palace but in the communal Vatican hotel where visiting priests stay. And one that was ultimately far more comfortable in the shanty towns where Jorge Mario Bergoglio perfected the church's "preferential option for the poor" than the halls of power where Francis went through the motions that protocol demanded of such an improbable head of state.
"We have to be normal!" Francis pleaded, when an Italian colleague asked him what on Earth he was carrying in the black leather satchel that he brought aboard the plane to Rio, given that popes past never carried anything — much less luggage. ("It's not the key to the atomic bomb!" Francis quipped. Rather, it contained his breviary prayer book, his agenda, a book on St. Therese of Lisieux — and a very normal razor.)
Though we didn't know it at the time, that first trip to Rio came to encapsulate much of Francis' papacy, introducing the world to this pope "from the ends of the Earth" and laying out his priorities that became clearer only over time.
It showed his need to be physically close to ordinary people, even to the discomfort of his bodyguards: When his motorcade took a wrong turn and got stuck in Rio's notorious traffic, Francis didn't recoil in fear as fans mobbed his car. He rolled down the window to high-five well-wishers.
It showed how effective his simple message can be — from his three-point sermons to the two-word exhortation he issued off-the-cuff to Argentine youths — "hacen lio" ("make a mess") — that years later was still a mantra for young Catholics to shake up their dioceses and spread the faith.
And showed how a spontaneous decision by the eternally spontaneous Francis could become far more significant than any planned event or speech. The last-minute meeting Francis scheduled with Argentine youths produced the most important key to reading his papacy.
Francis told the kids gathered in Rio's beehive-shaped cathedral that if they read nothing else from the Bible, they should read the Beatitudes and Matthew 25.
The Beatitudes are the eight blessings Jesus delivered on the Sermon on the Mount. "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the land," and so on.
Matthew 25 is something of a corollary.
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me...." It ends, though, with God's judgment for those who do not feed, clothe or welcome the least of their brothers.
"With these two things you have the action plan," Francis told the Argentine kids. "You do not need to read anything else."
We later came to understand those two passages explain everything the pope stands for: That his "church for the poor" stems not from some Marxist reading of global financial inequality by a Latin American leftist, but rather from a pastor merely preaching the Gospel and putting it into practice.
The Rio trip ended with what has become the high point of every papal pilgrimage: the airborne press conference en route home.
Shortly after takeoff and before dinner was served, Francis came to the back of the plane and held forth for a good 90 minutes — through turbulence — answering every question that came his way. I remember feeling giddy as he deftly answered: Would he close the scandal-marred Vatican bank? What about future travel plans? The role of women in the church?
And then I took a deep breath when the final question was posed, not knowing how he would respond: What about rumors that one of his closest advisers had had a gay lover in his past?
Francis thanked the reporter for the question, which had been buzzing in the media for weeks and threatened to snowball into the first major scandal of his papacy.
Francis clearly wanted to respond. He said he had investigated the allegations and found nothing to back them up.
But then he went further.
"If a person, whether it be a lay person, a priest or a religious sister, commits a sin and then repents, the Lord forgives," he said. "And when the Lord forgives, the Lord forgets, and this is very important for our lives."
"If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?"
It was the soundbite that came to define his early papacy — delivered at 35,000 feet.
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