ROME—When Pope Francis came into office almost four years ago, he said he didn’t want to travel much as pope, something he was famous for avoiding while he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Yet since his election on March 2013, he’s taken 17 trips outside of Italy, visiting 27 countries, with six overseas journeys in 2016 alone. Now, it looks like he’s going to be adding several more stamps to his passport in 2017.
In the past 12 months, some ordinary papal activities were put on hold because of the Holy Year of Mercy, which ran from December 2015 to last November. For instance, the once every five year ad-limina visits that bishops’ conferences from around the world make to the pope and Vatican offices took a back seat.
These visits will be back in force next year, to accommodate both the corresponding ones and those that had to be rescheduled in 2016. The Irish bishops will be coming to Rome in January and the Canadians in March.
The Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops manages this schedule, which isn’t revealed to the public. Yet simply because ‘tis the year, the United States’ bishops are also expected to do their every five year pilgrimage to the eternal city, something they normally do by regions.
Since the pope is expected to be in Rome and host the bishops when they come to see him, Francis’s calendar is presumably already pretty full. Yet some juggling will be done to guarantee at least three, if not four foreign trips.
Although the Vatican usually doesn’t confirm a papal voyage until three or four months before the visit, Francis has already confirmed three for 2017- and completely ruled out one that some 40 million people were eagerly awaiting.
In a video released while the pontiff was visiting Georgia, the first pope from the global south told his fellow Argentines that despite wanting to, he won’t go to Argentina in 2017. Francis hasn’t returned home since his election, despite having gone to the Americas four times: Brazil in 2013, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay in 2015, Cuba and the United States in the same year, and Cuba and Mexico last February.
He’s also said he won’t be going to Brazil in 2017, despite having expressed his intention to do so back in 2013, on his way back from World Youth Day Rio. The trip was intended to mark the 400th anniversary of the finding of the small statue of Our Lady of Aparecida, and also the 10 year anniversary of the Latin American Bishops’ conference meeting with the same name.
On to the three trips he’s confirmed for next year, all of which he told journalists about on his way back form Georgia and Azerbaijan on October 2.
The only one that has a date [somewhat] set in stone has a strong Marian theme: Fatima, Portugal, in May.
The reason behind the visit is the commemoration of the 100th anniversary to what the Church believes were the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima to the three shepherds, back in 1917. The feast is marked on May 13, and Francis has said he’ll be there for the celebration.
It’s unclear, by his own admission, if he’ll make this a one-day visit, or go the day before and participate in the already scheduled prayer vigil on the 12th.
Francis will be the fourth pope to visit Fatima, after Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Italian visited the shrine back in 1967. The Polish pope went there three times: 1982, 1991 and 2000, while the German pontiff did so once, in 2010.
John Paul’s first pilgrimage to Portugal came a year after the assassination attempt by Ali Agca. After that, he was profoundly convinced that on May 13, 1981, the Virgin Mary altered the flight path of a bullet in order to keep him alive and, in so doing, to preserve his papacy.
Pope Francis, who as previous popes were, is a big devotee of the Mother of God. He’s also on record saying she’s not a postmistress who delivers messages every day, so he will try to steer away from tight focus on the details of the Fatima revelations.
Yet any papal visit to the celebrated Marian Shrine inevitably evokes the undercurrent of secrets and cosmic mysteries long associated with the 1917 apparitions.
That body of lore includes, most famously, the “three secrets” of Fatima, that the Vatican has said time and time again have already been disclosed in full: A vision of Hell and world wars; a request for the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and a vision of a bishop in white slain by bullets and arrows, often taken to be a prediction of the 1981 assassination attempt against Pope John Paul II.
Debate over these issues continues to swirl. There are those who claim that neither Pius XII nor John Paul II ever complied with the request to consecrate Russia, with hard-core Fatima devotees saying that lumping Russia with the rest of the world doesn’t count.
Others believe that there are still unrevealed parts to the third secret. Rumors about this sometimes become too strong for the Vatican to ignore. For instance, this year emeritus Pope Benedict XVI broke his self-imposed silence to declare, through the Vatican’s press office, that claims the secret hasn’t been revealed in full are “pure inventions, absolutely untrue.”
The other two trips that Francis has confirmed are Asia and Africa, though it’s still unclear when he’ll visit each continent, and in the case of Africa, we don’t really know which countries he’ll visit either.
When he announced his plan to go to Africa, he was vague as to where he’d go, saying the destination depended on weather conditions, time of year and regional political and conflict situations. If the rumor mill in Rome is to be believed, South Sudan and North Africa are both strong contenders.
At the end of October, the South Sudanese top Christian leaders visited Francis in Rome and urged him to visit their country, in the hopes it could help foster peace in a highly divided nation due to what they called “ethnic rivalries.”
As for Asia, he said he intended to visit India and Bangladesh.
Once again, however, there’s no preview of the program, meaning the date of the trip is unknown. Neo-Cardinal Patrick D’Rozario of Dhaka, capital of Bangladesh, told Crux in late November that he hadn’t been informed of the dates yet, but that based on weather conditions, October-November would be the best months.
In India, Francis is expected to visit the capital New Delhi. But beyond that, the possibilities are almost endless: from Kolkata, to honor Mother Teresa and Mumbai because of its influence, to lesser known places such as Bhubaneswar, in the eastern state of Odisha, the closest large city to Kandhamal, witness to the most violent anti-Christian pogrom of the 21st century.
Back in 2008, in a matter of days, a hundred Christians were killed by Hindu radicals and some 50,000 were forced to hide in the nearby forest. The way in which many of these Christians lost their lives, almost all of whom come from the Indian caste once considered “untouchable,” was almost unimaginably grotesque – violence more at home in the Bible or early Christian martyrology, seemingly, than the here-and-now.
Francis spoke about these three trips- Portugal, Asia and Africa- in early October. At that time he also addressed the possibility of visiting Colombia, something he’s promised to do once the government and the rebels reach a peace accord to end Latin America’s longest-running conflict.
By then, President Juan Manuel Santos had already confirmed the visit.
However, Francis said he would go to Colombia “when everything is certain, certain, certain, when they can’t go back, when the international community has agreed that no one can make a (legal) recourse, that it’s finished. If it’s like that, I could go. If it’s unstable? It all depends on what the people say. The people are sovereign.”
After the pope spoke those words, the Colombian people voted in a referendum against the peace accord signed by Santos and the FARC, yet a second deal was signed in late November and approved by congress. It remains unclear if it’ll stand or not.
If this peace accord does in fact lead to an end to the six-decade war, then Francis could decide to visit Colombia. Having ruled out Argentina, and by extension neighboring countries such as Chile and Uruguay, two strong contenders to welcome him are Peru and El Salvador.
The pontiff been talking about a possible visit to Peru since 2015, and El Salvador is campaigning for a papal visit to mark the centennial of the birth of Blessed Oscar Romero, the hailed archbishop murdered in 1980 while he was celebrating Mass.
El Salvador launched last August a jubilee year in honor of Romero, and many are hoping the Church will recognize a miracle through his intercession, clearing the path to declare this martyred man, champion for the poor and marginalized, a saint on August 15.