Sri Lankan hospitality to Pope Francis


Some of the crew members who flew Pope Francis from Colombo to Manila moments after landing in the Philippines capital.

by Rex Clementine

When the College of Cardinals gathered at the Sistine Chapel in March 2013 to choose the successor of Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Jose Bergogilo was a total outsider. No Jesuit had become the Pope in the history of The Catholic Church, but yet, it was the Argentine who emerged on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as the 264th successor of St. Peter. Since then Pope Francis has revived the Catholic Church and both believers and non-believers have been touched by his simple way of life.

Sri Lankans were touched by his humility during his three day visit to the island. The people who got an opportunity to be close to the Pope were the flight crew that flew Pope Francis to Manila and the stories they relate are truly moving.

Captain Druvi Perera and Flight Attendant Renuka Perera have been at SriLankan Airlines for many years and both have one proud achievement. They had flown Saint Pope John Paul II from Colombo to Rome in 1995 and had the fortune of flying Pope Francis this time around.

"I was the co-pilot then. I am lucky that I have now flown a Saint and a Pope," Captain Perera says.

The Pope’s simplicity is unbelievable. It has touched the whole world and to experience that was unique. The thought of being so close to him was a great experience," captain Perera says.

The Vatican follows a strict protocol and the flight that carried Pope Francis was demarcated to three zones. The Pope and his Cardinals were in Zone ‘A’ while 22 delegates occupied Zone ‘B’. In Zone ‘C’ were 74 journalists. The Pope was occupying seat number 1 A.

"I happened to go to the washroom and I saw the Pope was in prayer. He smiled and had a brief chat with me. He had a lot of praise for Sri Lanka for giving him a warm welcome. I told him that I flew St. John Paul II too. The Pope touched my head and said that Saint John Paul II will bless me. It was truly a moving experience.

The Airline thought that it will give an opportunity to Catholics in the company to be in the papal flight. In that flight were 13 crew members, three pilots, five engineering staff, three other officers and the CEO of the Airline.

"The great thing was that the Pope blessed each one of us individually," Captain Perera added.

Flight Attendant Renuka Perera served the Pope and has lot of stories to tell.

"I thought if I could get the chance to serve His Holiness with my hands that wouldn’t be making my day, but making my life. I happened to be working in Business Class and indeed I had the privilege of serving the Pope," Renuka says.

"I wanted to make His Holiness as comfortable as possible. I asked him whether he wanted to have breakfast, but he said he already had breakfast. Then I gave him the options we had for refreshments and recommended pomegranate juice. I told His Holiness that this is very good for your health and he preferred to have it."

I felt sorry for His Holiness because he had a tough schedule. During the flight, he didn’t sleep for a single moment. He prayed for a while, then he had some meetings with Cardinals and finally he went to the back of the cabin to meet journalists."

At the end of the flight, the crew presented His Holiness a model aircraft of the airline. "I hope that the Airline will be blessed," Renuka said.

"I have flown with lot of dignitaries and Heads of States, but this was something totally different and an unforgettable moment," she said.

Eden Forbes was among the crew members and has been with SriLankan for 35 years now. He says, "The Pope is the best passenger in my long career."

At the end of the flight, Captain Perera was in for a surprise as the Pope came to the cockpit to thank the pilots. "His Holiness came to the cockpit and said, ‘Thanks for a nice flight’. We were moved and emotional as we never expected something like this. Then he walked back, turned and said. "Guys, don’t forget to pray for me!"

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