ON THE PAPAL PLANE — A quip by Pope Francis aboard the papal plane this morning raised a few eyebrows among those traveling with him — and sent his press handlers scrambling.

After takeoff on his way to the Mozambique capital of Maputo, the Pope customarily greeted journalists on the papal plane. Among those he met was Nicolas Seneze, Rome correspondent for the French Catholic daily newspaper La Croix, which just published Seneze’s book, How America Wants to Change the Pope.

The book threads together different aspects of this pontificate — in particular the McCarrick abuse scandal and the Archbishop Carlo Viganò testimony — to conclude that influential figures in the U.S. Church are out to, if not replace Pope Francis, then to actively challenge him.

The book quotes professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova as saying wealthy conservative Catholics have stepped into the vacuum of authority left by the sex abuse scandal to become the de facto leaders of the Catholic Church in the U.S.

On the plane, Seneze presented his book to the Pope, who recognized the cover, as he had read a review of it.

The Italian daily newspaper Il Messaggero on Aug. 20 published a story headlined, “A plot from the USA to make the Pope resign.” A cover of Seneze’s book accompanied the article.

“He reads Il Messaggero every day so when he saw the cover of the copy I was holding, he instantly recognized it,” Seneze told the Register aboard the papal plane today, adding that the book was published in French today.

“When I explained the picture to the Pope, he said: ‘Per me è un onore che mi attaccano gli americani (For me it’s an honor that Americans attack me).’”

Seneze and his Vatican press colleagues were taken aback by the in-flight remark, and reporters immediately sought verification.

Vatican press spokesman Matteo Bruni later confirmed the remark but was quick to offer an explanation: “In an informal context, the Pope wanted to say that he always considers criticisms an honor, particularly when they come from authoritative thinkers and, in this case, an important nation.”

Seneze told the Register afterward that the Il Messaggero article was a little exaggerated. He said he doesn’t believe there is a plot as such being hatched in the U.S. to unseat the Pope.

Rather, he believes there’s a sense among some wealthy Americans, including some who are connected to the EWTN Global Catholic Network and other media organizations, that Francis is not acting as Pope and so should stand down, like a CEO who is underperforming.

Seneze said, “I believe these people see themselves as invested in the Church and they feel they are not getting a return on their investment.”