Papal plane outruns ash cloud (for now)

VALLETTA, Malta — Even the papal plane was trying to outrun the giant ash cloud billowing south from Iceland.

When I was getting ready to fly with the pope yesterday, I kept expecting to get a call from someone saying our flight to Malta had been cancelled. Thankfully that call never came, but dozens  of flights to other parts of Europe had been cancelled and we saw many passengers sadly milling around the halls of Fiumicino’s Leonardi da Vinci airport.

After we boarded the Alitalia papal plane yesterday afternoon, Pope Benedict came back to the journalist section of the plane to offer some of his thoughts about his first trip to Malta. But first he began his short talk saying he hoped we would have a good trip and that it wouldn’t be hampered by “this dark cloud hanging over parts of Europe.”

We keep looking at the skies above secretly hoping the ash cloud is upon us so we will be grounded here for a few extra days. The city is lovely and the people are wonderful. It would be fitting for us to be stranded here like St. Paul and his companions were 1950 years ago!

Apparently we journalists aren’t the only ones wishing we get stranded here. According to the Times of Malta, during the pope’s visit with Malta’s political leaders in the Presidential Palace Saturday, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi jokingly told the pope that he hoped the ash cloud would delay his departure today and therefore give him more time to see the island of Gozo. Apparently the Pope smiled, but did not reply.

At a late night briefing with reporters yesterday, we asked Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi if it looked like we would get stuck in Malta. He laughed that he really hadn’t had time to study the weather reports since he’s being so busy accompanying the pope, but, he said, if we get to the airport this evening and they tell us we can’t leave… “We’ll just have to see!”

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