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Inside Francis' Volo Papale

Pope Francis blesses a child as arrives in

Pope Francis blesses a child as arrives in Saint Peter's square for his weekly audience at the Vatican on September 2, 2015. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Vincenzo Pinto

On Pope Francis' first foreign trip, just a few months after his election in 2013, reporters aboard the flight to Brazil were stunned to see the pope carrying his own hand luggage, a worn briefcase that never left his side.

Inside it were a razor, a breviary, and a book to keep him company, he told reporters on the return leg of the trip. "I always travel with my bag," he said. "It's normal."

The black briefcase has become the symbol of Pope Francis' less formal, down-to-earth style of papal touring. When Francis hits the road, he brings along fewer Vatican officials than his predecessors, he keeps the liturgies simple and he spends much of his "down" time meeting privately with non-VIPs. The atmosphere is more relaxed than regal, and that fits with this pope's agenda of building bridges to the less powerful in society and in the church.

The Argentine pope hates traveling in a security bubble. On most trips he has insisted on riding through crowds in an open-air vehicle, saying the bulletproof popemobile used by his predecessors was a glass "sardine can" that divides a pontiff from the people.

"It's true that anything could happen, but let's face it, at my age I don't have much to lose," he said told a Spanish reporter last year. All the same, U.S. security officials will no doubt try to keep the pope under glass when he rides through Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

At 78, Pope Francis is doing more traveling than he ever envisioned. A self-described "homebody" when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he used to criticize what he called "airport bishops" for their jet-setting ways. But as pope, Francis already has made nine foreign trips, and has three more scheduled before year's end.

For the 60 or so reporters aboard the "volo papale," the charter flight that carries the pope and his entourage, Francis has turned the back of the plane into a journalistic hot spot. His lengthy, freewheeling news conferences are already legend. Unlike his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who chose from submitted questions, Francis responds to even the most provocative queries. His most famous in-flight line -- "If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has good will, then who am I to judge him?" -- came in response to a question about a supposed "gay lobby" in the Vatican.

More than previous popes, Francis has taken a direct interest in scheduling for his visits, sometimes adding events at the last minute. In the Philippines in January, he delighted more than 300 former street children when he dropped in unannounced at a church-run social center. The pope wants his trips to reflect the church's outreach to the marginalized, which explains why his U.S. schedule has grown to include events with homeless people, inner-city students and prisoners.

Between events, when he should be resting, Francis typically meets and greets a steady stream of unofficial guests, among them fellow Jesuits, charity workers and families whose stories of hardship and faith have caught the pope's attention. Especially on the road, this is a pope who projects the care and concern of a pastor.

As for gifts the pope receives during his pilgrimages, from soccer jerseys to indigenous headdresses, some are passed on to the poor and needy. The first prize at a recent Vatican charity raffle was a fully loaded Kia Soul compact car, which was donated to the pope in South Korea.

It's become yet another Pope Francis tradition: papal re-gifting.

John Thavis covered the Vatican for 30 years, and traveled with popes to more than 60 countries. His latest book, "The Vatican Prophecies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions and Miracles in the Modern Age," was published this month.