Caroline Wyatt: What Francis told me on the way to Cuba

Pope Francis waves to journalists on the flight from Rome to Havana

In the downstairs cafe at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, the cappuccino is hot, sweet and as fragrant as the VAMPs who surround us: the well-dressed vaticanisti, or Vatican-Accredited Media Personnel, who follow and parse the Pope’s every move.

And they have seen and interpreted many popes, becoming as expert in Vaticanology as any Kremlinologist during the long days of the Cold War. From the glorious days of St John Paul the II to the more difficult times of Benedict XVI, they’ve seen, discussed, filmed, blogged and written it all.

But it rapidly becomes clear, listening to the animated conversations in Spanish, French, German and English, that Pope Francis has rewritten the rulebook. For the past two years, the vaticanisti have been busier than ever, chronicling a Catholic leadership that has enjoyed an unexpected new lease of life. Francis’s global popularity and what many have hailed as his unique moral authority have made the Vatican front-page news again.

In the weeks leading up to his visit to Cuba and the US, I was inundated with emails from friends and acquaintances – Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, atheists, Jews and Muslims alike – all expressing fascination with or admiration for what this Pope stands for. They all wanted to know more about what he’s trying to achieve: for the poor, on the environment, on issues of sexuality, and in seeking the renewal of a Church that has been seen by many as often too remote from the everyday realities of its flock.

It’s already clear at the start of his trip that many in the US will interpret him through the prism of America’s culture wars, where fighting to protect the environment and help the poor is often perceived as a left-wing – even Marxist – cause, while on the Left some condemn his adherence to Catholic teaching against abortion and contraception.

But even the sceptics may find this Pope hard to resist in person. A little over half an hour after the Vatican plane takes off, as we fly high in the heavens over Italy and then Spain, the curtain at the front of our cabin opens, and rather than a steward with the drinks trolley, the Pope emerges. He’s wearing his white zucchetto, and a rather tired smile. As his press secretary Fr Lombardi introduces him, the Pope rubs both his eyes with balled-up hands, a vulnerable gesture that reminds me of my smallest nephew when he’s tired. But as the Pope describes meeting his Syrian refugees that morning – the families who have been offered sanctuary at the Vatican – his eyes begin to shine with emotion, and the tiredness that was so evident before seems to vanish.

Then slowly but purposefully, he walks down the aisle to meet and greet the vaticanisti travelling with him, ahead of his longest and most challenging papal visit yet – nine full days in all, travelling between two former bitter Cold War enemies now on the path towards reconciliation. The man from the Philadelphia Inquirer offers the Pope a new zucchetto, which he tries on, but declares too big and hands back. Before he does, Francis makes a gesture that implies he’s recharging his batteries with the cap, and gives a big smile.

I have nothing to offer but a handshake, and notice that the Pope’s hand is large and warm, with a firm grip, more like a labourer’s than a priest’s, in keeping with his role as shepherd of the flock. As he stops to chat briefly, I ask him if he’s been to Cuba before. Just once, he replies – but only for an hour at the airport, on a stopover once, he says, holding up one finger for clarity. It was quite obvious to him that my Italian is not very good. Watching this Pope at close quarters over the next few days in a sultry Havana, it’s clear that the real difference he has made to the way the Catholic Church is perceived is in his ability to communicate: clearly and directly, in a language that everyone can understand, even if his meaning is interpreted differently by each audience, refracted through the prism of their own wishes, hopes or fears.

He has shifted the narrative away from a Church in decline and mired in clerical abuse cases, to a more motherly Church that seeks to reach out in welcome, both to her flock and to the wider world. The themes of helping the poor and the sick resonate here, as they do across much of the developing world. “He understands what it’s been like for us,” one woman told me, as the sun beat down on us at Mass in the city of Holguín. “Sometimes it’s been so tough that we haven’t even had soap to wash with – and when he speaks to us, he understands what our lives have been like.”

Throughout his time in Cuba, the first Latin American Pope spoke subtly and with understanding of the hopes of many here – both the faithful and those who simply came to hear what he had to say. Outside the cathedral in Havana, a ramshackle jewel of a city, he urged young Cubans to dream. It was a more subversive statement here than it may sound to British ears, in a place that still boasts the once-defiant murals of the revolution reading “socialism or death”.

Yet Pope Francis also stressed that the people of this island, cut off from much of the world for so long, should not only reconnect with the outside world but also continue to help each other through the coming years of change, as they have done throughout the hard times. And there was also a subtle warning not to fall prey to empty materialism – the throwaway culture – when Cuba opens “itself to the world, and the world opens itself to Cuba”, as he put it using the words of St John Paul II.

The tropical downpour that greeted the Pope as he arrived for his last day in Santiago de Cuba did not stop the enthusiastic crowds welcoming this missionary to their lush green land, so full of promise. Pope Francis left as he arrived, a man who has already done much to help the people of this island take the first faltering steps on the difficult path of renewal and reconciliation. Caroline Wyatt is the BBC religious affairs correspondent.