Monastery of the Visitation

Going out on a high: my time with the Pope.

By Richard Owen – Rome

Taken from The Times, Thursday September 23rd 2010.


It is not often that a journalist is granted a one-to-one audience with the Pope, a global leader surrounded by mystique and usually only glimpsed through the bullet proof glass of the Popemobile or at his window high above St. Peter’s square.  In fact it is a rare privilege. However, on the way back to Rome from Birmingham on the papal plane, I was invited forward from the section where the Vatican press corps was seated and into the private quarters set aside for Pope Benedict XVI for a brief conversation. I was curious to know how he really felt his tour of England and Scotland had gone; not just the official communiqué, but his personal reaction. I asked him what had been the highlight of his trip. Meeting the Queen, perhaps? The service at Westminster Abbey? The turnout of crowds, despite the protests over birth control and child abuse?  He shook his head. “Everything,” he said in Italian. “Everything.” Then he added in English: “It was all wonderful.” He looked out of the aircraft window at the coast of England sliding beneath us as we headed across the Channel.  “It was all just wonderful,” he repeated.

          By tradition Vatican accredited journalists are presented to the pontiff when they make their final trip on the papal aircraft. Pope Benedict XVI’s aides had tipped me off as we travelled with him to Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Birmingham that he would see me on the way back to Rome “if he’s not too tired”. I had assumed he would be, given the gruelling programme, and the fact that he is 83. However, soon after we took off from Birmingham airport in the Alitalia Airbus, a papal aide came down the aisle. “Prepare yourself,” he said. We moved forward beyond the curtain into the Pope’s quarters, in what would be normally first class. Members of the green uniformed Alitalia crew were being photographed next to him as a memento of the flight. As we waited I chatted to Cardinal Taricisio Bertone, the Secretary of State, and Father Georg Gänswein, the Pope’s private secretary, who is said to be a keen reader of the foreign – especially British – press. I rather hoped he would not mention the headline last week on my piece about him:  “Bel Giorgio, the sacred heart-throb at the pontiff’s side”. He didn’t.

           Suddenly I found myself in the seat next to the white-robed, spiritual head of the world’s one billion Catholics. We journalists accompanying him were exhausted at the end of the visit, but the Pope – who is said by aides to draw strength from an “inner serenity” – was animated. Clearly energised by the success of his tour – in the course of which he said, he had discovered a “deep thirst” for faith in Britain – he looked ready to do it all again. He asked how long I had been in Rome. “Fifteen years, Your Holiness.” He looked at me and smiled. “Well, you can now say that now you are a Roman citizen.”

My stint in Rome has included the last ten years of John Paul II’s pontificate, Benedict’s own election – when he described himself from the balcony of St Peter’s as a “humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord” – and the first five years of his reign – often controversial, but often inspiring too. We spoke in Italian, the language of the Vatican and the papal entourage, even though he is German and showed a grasp of English during his tour of Britain, with his efforts improving as he went on. I reminded him that when he was a cardinal I had occasionally bumped into him in the Borgo, the tangle of cobbled medieval streets next to St. Peter’s. The Times flat is situated near by and this is where he himself lived for 20 years when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an apartment with his piano and his cats. “Ah yes, the Borgo,” he said wistfully. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he was a familiar figure in his beret, carrying a battered briefcase, visiting the local shops and cafes. The owner of the electricity supplies shop remembers him going in for lightbulbs; our  chemist recalls him buying Vitamin C tablets. The waiters at Da Roberto’s remember he ate there regularly. I asked him if he missed the simple pleasures of everyday life now that he was Pope. Would he like to walk through the Borgo the way he used to? “It is no longer possible,” he said with evident regret. He repeated softly, almost under his breath: “It is no longer possible.” He had clasped my hands when we met, and now released them as his aides indicated my time was up. “I ask you to convey through the Times my thanks and blessings to all the people of your country,” he said.

After 15 years in Rome and previous postings for the Times in Moscow, Brussels and Jerusalem, Richard Owen is retiring.