(Reuters) - Philip Pullella brought three digital recorders and a cake made with leftover bread to his exclusive two-hour interview with Pope Francis in the pontiff’s private residence on June 17.
“Excuse me if it seems that I am paranoid, but if all three of them fail to work, it really will be a sign from the heavens,” Pullella joked with the pope. Francis laughed.
The one-to-one interview, with no other people in the room after a Vatican photographer and cameraman documented the first three minutes, was the culmination of years of building trust in the Vatican and beyond for Pullella, 64, who is a senior correspondent in the Rome bureau of Reuters.
While travelling to Portugal with the papal press corps in May 2017, Pullella stopped Francis while he was out of earshot of other correspondents.
“It would be nice to sit down and talk about international affairs,” Pullella told Francis, who was saying hello to members of the press corps in the back of the papal plane.
“That’s not a bad idea,” the pope replied.
He told Pullella, an Italian-American who grew up in New York and has been working for Reuters in Rome since 1983, to liaise with a person known to both of them, but who is not part of the Vatican media operation. Pullella was not surprised since Francis is known for doing things outside of the box.
And then Pullella waited.
“There was basically silence for about four months. At the end of August I got a call from the prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication saying the pope had decided to go ahead with an interview, that we would aim for the end of September 2017 and that I should send over some ideas for topics,” Pullella said.
Apart from international issues, Pullella expanded the proposed topics to include Roman Catholic Church matters such as relations with China, women, and the sexual abuse crisis in Chile.
Silence set in again.
However, twice while travelling to cover papal trips, Francis told Pullella: “Don’t worry, you’re next.”
In April, 2018, Pullella received a call from a Vatican official who told him Francis wanted to put the project back on track.
Another two months of silence was broken when the same official called on Friday, June 15, saying the interview would happen the following Sunday.
The Argentine-born pope, who like Pullella is of Italian immigrant stock, is known for his frugality. He renounced the spacious papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace to live in a small suite of rooms in Casa Santa Marta, a simple hotel in the Vatican that is used by official visitors.
Pullella’s wife Marilena recalled a speech Francis gave denouncing a ubiquitous throwaway culture. When he was growing up in Argentina, Francis said at the time, nothing was thrown away in his house, including old, hard bread. It was soaked in a mix of milk and raisins to make a cake.
Marilena grew up in a large family in northern Italy that also made such a delicacy, called Pinza di Pane. She put aside old bread and vowed to make one for the pope if the interview came through.
Francis arrived in the lobby alone, with no aides. He stopped at the front desk to drop off a bunch of envelopes to be mailed.
A small room had been set aside for the meeting, but the pope asked a hotel staffer: “Do you mind if we use the bigger one? It’s cooler.”
After the photographer and cameraman left, Pullella, who has covered the reigns of three popes, was alone with Francis, who had put aside two hours for the conversation.
Francis spoke on and off the record about a wide range of topics, including religion in China, the abuse scandal in Chile, U.S. immigration policy, Myanmar and reform within the Catholic Church.
“My rule on covering the Vatican is to take religion out of the story whenever possible,” Pullella says. “I cover it as an institution, as I would the United Nations or the White House.”
“He didn’t speak in one-sentence answers,” Pullella adds. “It was more like a conversation.”
Pullella’s conversation with Francis, conducted in Italian, led to seven different exclusive stories, the most recent about the pope’s power, published on June 27.
Pullella called his wife as the interview was wrapping up.
“She said: ‘How did it go?’ And I said ‘I’ll pass you His Holiness.’”
The pope thanked her for the cake made with the bread she had saved.
“In my country, we call it ‘Budin de Pan’. I look forward to tasting it,” Francis said.
Reporting by Lauren Young; Editing by Bill Rigby