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On Plane Back To Rome, Pope Reflects On His First U.S. Visit


Pope Francis is now back at the Vatican after his nine-day trip to Cuba and the United States. It was a grueling schedule, and the pope on his plane en route home gave a press conference. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli was on that plane. She is now back in Rome and on the line. Sylvia, good morning.


GREENE: So what - what did the Pope say? What did he think of his trip to the U.S.?

POGGIOLI: Well, he said he was struck by the warmth of the people and the great welcome he received, although he described it with different adjectives according to the city - a little formal in Washington, exuberant in New York and demonstrative in Philadelphia.

GREENE: Oh, interesting.

POGGIOLI: He said he was also struck by the piety and religiosity he saw in the United States. You could see people pray, he said. This impressed him as very beautiful. And he said there were no provocations, no insults, nothing ugly. Everyone was very polite.

GREENE: Well, he covered a very sensitive subject on his last day. The pope met with sex abuse victims. Did he talk about that at all on the plane?

POGGIOLI: Well, actually, yes. And he was asked why he offered so much compassion to bishops in his speech in Washington earlier in the week. He said that the sex abuse scandal in the United States was so ugly, and many members of the clergy suffered because of what he called almost a sacrilege. He said the abuse of minors occurs in many places, not just in the church. But when a priest is the perpetrator, he said it's worse because it betrays his vocation, which is to help a child grow to maturity. What was new was that for the very first time, Francis said directly that even some bishops covered up crimes of clerical sex abuse, and they will be held accountable for that. You may remember that last year he created a new tribunal precisely for that purpose.

GREENE: Well, and, Sylvia, let me ask you this, I mean, his predecessor, Pope Benedict, had that tension with some American nuns over doctrine and questions about whether there really should be women who are priests. How did Pope Francis handle all that on this trip?

POGGIOLI: Well, as you know, the Vatican investigations against American nuns that had been started by Benedict were quickly closed by Francis. Nothing came of them. Yesterday, he had incredible words of praise for American nuns. He says they do marvelous things in education and health. He said Americans love nuns. I don't know how much they love priests, he said, but they love their nuns. And when he was asked about the possibility about women priests, he simply said no. His predecessor, John Paul II, ruled that possibly out after long reflection, and Francis did not elaborate. But then, as many times before, he praised the role of women in the church, saying they're more important than men in the church. This is one of Pope Francis's more strident contradictions - his insistence on the importance of the role of women in the church, but his very vague ideas about what that role could be.

GREENE: And just before I let you go, Sylvia, how did he hold up on this grueling schedule?

POGGIOLI: Well, that's the question we've all been asking ourselves. He looked tired during this press conference. In fact, he's been having trouble in the last few days with his sciatica. He has difficulty going upstairs, walking and standing for a long time and it's very painful. Nevertheless, he stood up there and took questions for about 50 minutes. He has an amazing stamina.

GREENE: Yeah, it seems that way. All right, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli speaking to us from Rome. Thanks, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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