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Inside the Papal 'Bubble,' a Curious Air

More than 46,000 people attended Pope Benedict's papal Mass at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., on April 17. Benedict is on his first papal visit to the United States this week.

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

When you're traveling with His Holiness, in the papal bubble, there are perks: On the plane, limoncello and grappa wheeled around hourly by a smiling flight attendant. On the ground, a police escort whoo-whooing you through traffic like you're a bigwig. You're whisked to the heads of lines, get to stand within feet of Pope Benedict XVI, leader of the largest Christian church in the world.

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And then there are costs.

"Structure!" barks Vik van Brantegem, the Vatican press office employee charged with dealing with the 70-plus journalists who cover the Vatican in Rome and travel with the pope. We're talking senior correspondents with decades of Vatican experience, top-selling authors, the occasional network babe. All are unimpressive to van Brantegem, whose rules are strict, unquestioned and sometimes a bit incomprehensible.

Stand single file when waiting to get into events and do not step out of line. Injuries have occurred before when someone stepped out of line, veteran reporters say. Van Brantegem means business.

Embargoed copies of the pope's speeches for each day are available during a 15-minute window each morning. Not 16, not 17 -- 15. Come a minute late and you'll be watching it on TV, just like the rest of the world.

And don't ask why trip-related paperwork is written only in Italian. You get a slightly colder version of: This is how things work around here, and something grumbled about the church being 2,000 years old and you being an American.

Indeed, the papal bubble is its own biosphere, with its own climate, its own rules, rationales and characters.

In addition to the journalists who travel with Benedict, there is an entourage of about 20 priests and laypeople responsible for everything from foreign policy to clothing. They have titles like prefect of the papal household, maestro of liturgical celebrations and the more standard secretary of state, spokesman, private secretary. Though the pope's private secretary is hardly ho-hum: Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, also known as "Gorgeous Georg," is a German tennis player and skier whose chiseled face and tousled blond-brown hair has attracted fawning fans and even inspired designer Donatella Versace to create a line of hunky, clerical-style black jackets. She has pronounced his "austerity very elegant."

The lineup of Benedict insiders on the Alitalia Boeing 777 that came out during the pope's news conference en route to Washington from Rome included Gaenswein -- in his usual black cassock with magenta sash and buttons, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and Benedict's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit.

Lower on the food chain in the papal bubble are the journalists, many of whom have covered the Vatican for so long they no longer blink at quirks like this one: Benedict pretty much talks to the media only when he is on the plane. And it's not really "talking," as reporters are required to submit questions in advance, from which he picks a few and doesn't entertain more.

This of course prompts jokes about the appropriateness of talking with the descendant of Saint Peter while you're floating in the clouds, as if in a Botticelli painting of heaven. The official reason given is earthbound: This is just the way things are done at the Vatican these days, though anyone who remembers Pope John Paul II before he got sick recalls him roaming the aisles for hours on long flights, yammering away freely with reporters.

The main cabin includes: grizzled veterans who remember John Paul's early years, as well as parachuters (like me) who dropped into Rome for the aforementioned chance of possibly speaking with Benedict at 30,000 feet. And others: the large pack of Italians, mostly men. The foxy television reporter from Univision, wearing a huge, sparkly crucifix. The priest-reporter, doing stand-ups up and down the aisle.

The vibe is very congenial, though people tend to break into linguistic clusters once the pope has spoken and they try to figure out what he said.

Bubble residents no longer question another standard rule: If you wish to travel on one leg of the pope's trip, you must travel on the whole thing, for security and reasons of (papal) organizational ease, you're told. When you live in Washington -- not Rome -- this means purchasing first the fare for a heavily secured papal flight at nearly $5,000, another Washington-Rome round-trip ticket and (I hope you're seated) hotel rooms in New York and Washington!

On the other hand, it's hard to complain about life in the bubble. There are usually extra seats on the flights, which are either on Alitalia or a local airline of the country he's leaving. The food is the same that the priests in first class are eating, and on the Rome-Washington flight that meant ravioli with radicchio and ricotta, fish in a salsa grappa, strawberry mousse with coffee beans, and wine or liqueur, coffee and sparkling water. Not to mention a few freebie mementos, including fluffier-than-usual plane pillows with a special Benedict emblem, and a super-detailed program, with a fancy cover, mapping out the journey.

As the papal bubble heads to New York today, there will certainly be more traffic-free rides through the city, more single-file lines, more "structure!" And more limoncello as the bubble moves back to Rome Sunday night.

It's all a good distraction, until we think about the access we're getting and wonder: Is Benedict even in the same bubble?


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