October 1, 2015 6:13 AM EDT

When Pope Francis set out on his historic trip to Cuba and the U.S., TIME was granted a much sought-after seat on the papal plane. We asked correspondent Elizabeth Dias to share details about the experience of traveling with the Pontiff.

Shepherd one, as the plane is dubbed, was an ideal perch for close coverage. The Holy Father’s quarters, along with those of Cardinals and Archbishops, were in the plane’s first section. Vatican security teams occupied the middle section, while some 75 reporters from all over the world occupied the rear.

There, we followed a strict, often minute-by-minute schedule, choreographed by the Vatican months before and laid out in a thick white booklet. Security was always a factor, but not always as you might expect: we were at times able to move more freely (and closer to the Pope) in Havana than in the U.S., where security was generally tighter.

Francis held two press conferences while aloft: the first lasted 26 minutes as we left Cuba, the second nearly an hour as we headed back to Rome. Opportunities to question him directly are extremely rare, which is why reporters on board decide as a group who gets to ask a question. The questions came in Spanish, Italian, French and English; Francis answered in Spanish and Italian. When TIME’s turn came, I asked him what surprised him most about his visit. He said he found the welcomes in Washington, New York City and Philadelphia all very warm and all very different.

It was a trip of divisions–of wealth, language, power, spirituality–and of a Pope attempting to bridge them. In late October, he visits Africa for the first time–Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic. The trip will go to the heart of the future of the Catholic Church demographically and spiritually. And if his journey to America was any guide, it will be a voyage of discovery.

What you said about …

The papal visit The Oct. 5 cover story on Pope Francis’ first trip to the U.S., by Nancy Gibbs and Elizabeth Dias, was welcomed by the Pontiff’s fans. “If there is a God, and most of us would hope that this be the case, he is masquerading as a man called Pope Francis,” wrote Ralph Barkey of Lincoln, Calif., adding that one doesn’t have to be Catholic–Barkey is Episcopalian–to appreciate the way the Pope speaks to all human beings. Others, however, questioned whether the story inflated the importance of the papal visit. Among them: Gregg Gillespie of St. Paul, Minn., who called the press coverage surrounding the visit “gushing” and “excessive.”

The “War on Reason” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s column about people who resist confronting ideas they don’t like “should be required reading for high school students and members of Congress,” wrote Dorothy Heinlen of Dundee, Mich. Former teacher Nancy Johnson-Farris of Marion, Ill., added that critical thinking is “painfully absent in today’s classrooms.” But Deborah Hutchings of Walpole, N.H., wrote that Abdul-Jabbar was wrong to blame only conservatives: “Liberals are leading the attack as well.”

Please recycle this magazine and remove inserts or samples before recycling

This appears in the October 12, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME

Related Stories

EDIT POST