Pope Francis gave his customary in-flight news conference on Sunday, at the end of his three-day trip to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Given that he took up both gender theory and the US elections, it’s not a huge surprise that most of the rest of what the pontiff said so far has been either played down or ignored.
Along the way, however, Francis took a question about his travel for the next year. Bear in mind that the outing to Georgia and Azerbaijan was the 16th overseas journey of his papacy, and at the end of this month he’ll travel to Lund, Sweden, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
When asked where he’s heading next, here’s what Francis said, speaking in Italian.
“For sure, as of today, I’ll go to Portugal, and I’ll go only to Fatima. That’s for today. Why? There’s a problem. In this Holy Year, the ad limina visits [of bishops] were suspended; next year, I have to receive the ad limina visits both of this year and next. There’s not much space for trips, but I’ll go to Portugal.”
The term ad limina literally means “to the thresholds,” and it refers to the visits to Rome to see the pope and make the rounds of Vatican offices that Catholic bishops are required to make every five years.
“It’s almost certain I’ll go to India and Bangladesh,” the pope said. “In Africa, there’s not yet a place that’s certain, it depends on the climate during those months, because the situation in northwestern Africa is one thing and in southwestern Africa it’s another. It also depends on the political situation and the wars, but there are possibilities also in Africa.”
“In America, I said that when the peace process in Colombia is complete, I want to go, when everything is ‘bulletproof,’ that is — if the plebiscite succeeds – when everything is for sure, when there’s no turning back, that is, when the international world, all the nations, are in agreement that there’s no appeal, that everything is finished, I could go.”
Obviously, since the plebiscite on the Colombian peace deal narrowly failed on Sunday, those conditions haven’t been met.
The gist of it is, the pope doesn’t have a lot of time for trips next year, so he’s got to choose carefully. Of course, it’s precisely when a pope has to make hard choices that his real priorities are revealed.
In the spirit of the dog that didn’t bark, the most striking thing about his answer is what’s not there: No mention of a visit anywhere in “the West” beyond a quick stop at Fatima, even as a theoretical possibility – no state visits to Western Europe or the U.K., nothing to North America, Australia, New Zealand, or anywhere else that conventionally would be recognized as the developed world.
Instead, beyond Fatima, what you have is another trip to Asia, the obvious desire for another trip to Africa, and the now seemingly distant possibility of a stop in Latin America.
Over the 16 trips he’s made so far, Francis has visited a total of 25 countries. Here’s the scorecard:
- Latin America: 6 (Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico)
- Middle East: 4 (Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Turkey)
- Africa: 3 (Kenya, Uganda, Central African Republic)
- Asia: 3 (South Korea, Sri Lanka, Philippines)
- Eastern Europe: 3 (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Poland)
- Caucasus: 3 (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan)
- Southern Europe: 1 (Greece)
- Western Europe: 1 France (day trip to Strasbourg to address European Parliament)
- North America: 1 (United States)
If Francis is voting with his feet in terms of what he truly cares about, it’s fair to say the “two-thirds world,” what he would probably call the “peripheries” of the modern world, are winning in a landslide.
By the end of next year, it seems likely that Asia and Africa will have padded their lead over the West in terms of papal visits. In other words, for the Pope of the Peripheries, the beat goes on.
By the way, if Pope Francis does indeed hold a consistory for the creation of new cardinals either later this year or early next, expect the same memo to issue from that event – in other words, don’t hold your breath for a bumper crop of new cardinals from Western Europe and North America.
Here’s what he said about the cardinals on the plane.
“I’ll pick a little bit from everywhere, because the Church is in the whole world … I’m still studying the names, but maybe three from one continent, two from another and one from another place, one from a country…but, we don’t know.”
“The list is long, but there are only 13 spots.” [Note: the pope was referring to the traditional ceiling of 120 cardinal electors, meaning under 80 and eligible to vote for the next pope.]
“It’s important to think about striking a balance. I like to see in the College of Cardinals the universality of the Church: not just the “European” center, so to speak, but everywhere. The five continents, to put it that way.”
As a final footnote, the pope’s mention of 13 spaces is a strong indication he’s leaning to a consistory around November 20, to help mark the close of the Holy Year of Mercy, since that’s the precise number it would take to get to 120 cardinal-electors as of Nov. 18, when Italian Cardinal Ennio Antonelli turns 80. It will only remain 13 for ten days, when Cardinal Théodore-Adrien Sarr of Senegal turns 80, so the pope may be thinking about a consistory within that window.