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Aboard the pope's plane: A surprise visit and luxury meal

The special menu aboard the papal plane on

The special menu aboard the papal plane on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Bart Jones

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE -- It was a scene of semi-pandemonium Saturday as Pope Francis made his way to the back of the papal plane to greet the 77 journalists accompanying him on his historic trip to Cuba and the United States.

Members of the media shook hands with the pope, snapped photos of him with their cellphones, asked Francis to bless prayer cards and even offered him food as TV cameras captured it all during the 11-hour Rome-to-Havana flight.

CNN correspondent Rosa Flores brought two dozen prayer cards featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, and had the pope bless them.

David O'Reilly of The Philadelphia Inquirer enticed the pope to put on a zucchetto, a skullcap, he had bought near the Pantheon in Rome. Francis did so, pronounced it a little too large and returned it to O'Reilly before putting back on his own white zucchetto.

Perhaps the most ambitious was Univision reporter Maria Antonieta Collins, who surprised the pope by pulling out a box of 48 Argentine-style empanadas she had transported from Miami to New York to Rome and then aboard the plane.

Antonieta Collins said she had an immigrant family from Argentina make the empanadas in their store in Miami as a way to both give the pope a culinary treat from his homeland and to underscore the contributions of immigrants.

The pope smiled and laughed. His aides took the box to the front of the plane, but a steward later returned with some -- the pope wanted to share with the journalists.

Meals aboard the chartered papal plane aren't quite like the ones economy class travelers get on regular international commercial flights.

For one thing, you get cloth napkins and real silverware -- two sets in fact. Appetizers come first, in this case including shrimp.

The main meal is enough to leave you bloated. It included a tossed salad, cheese and spinach ravioli, chicken with stuffing, a side plate of cheeses and a dish of sauteed vegetables.

Dessert was a three-layered, multicolored chocolate pudding concoction with a cake layer underneath.

In case the meal wasn't enough to remind anyone they were aboard the pope's plane, all they had to do was look at their seat: Hanging on the headrest was a special white cloth with the name of the airline, Alitalia, on it, along with the papal coat of arms.

The biggest change to Jorge Bergoglio since he became Pope Francis is how extroverted and smiling he is as pontiff, an Argentine journalist said.

Sergio Rubin has known the pope since 1992, and by 2001 was asking Bergoglio to write a book with him since he was such an impressive figure.

Bergoglio, by then archbishop of Buenos Aires, refused until 2007. Rubin and co-author Francesca Ambrogetti spent two years interviewing Bergoglio once a month for about 90 minutes each time. Their book, "El Jesuita," a biography that includes Bergoglio's thoughts on many topics, came out in 2010.

Rubin said Bergoglio was more reserved and low-profile in those days. But something happened to him after he became pope. "He's much more extroverted, with a smile he didn't have before," Rubin said.

As the pope passed Rubin yesterday on the plane, Francis had a special message for him: Don't forget today is Francesca's birthday, he said.

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