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ROME – Now that Pope Francis has wrapped up a brief trip to Hungary and Slovakia, attention turns to where the pontiff might head next. Francis essentially has confirmed his plans to head to Glasgow in November for the COP26 climate change summit, and there are occasional rumors of an outing to Malta, Cyprus and Greece as well before the end of year.
Beyond that, Francis has also spoken publicly about his desire to visit Lebanon and South Sudan, the latter trip in the company of Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury. There’s also talk he might pop over to Spain at some point to close a year dedicated to St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of his Jesuit order.
More remotely, there’s also been speculation regarding possible travels to Serbia, to encounter that country’s Orthodox majority, and to Kazakhstan, where Muslims and Christians have lived in harmony for decades.
While we wait to find out where the pope actually will head next, I propose here to pursue a far more idle question: Where would we like to see Pope Francis go, regardless of how plausible such a trip actually is?
From a news point of view, the answers seem fairly obvious. Whenever the first time comes that Francis or another pope visits China, Russia or Saudi Arabia, it’s going to be a blockbuster exercise that will make history and generate enormous global interest.
In the case of Francis personally, when and if he makes a homecoming journey to Argentina, it will also be a prime time happening. (In fact, Francis has played the “will he or won’t he?” game so long, he’s managed to turn the prospect of such a trip from a regional sensation into a global happening.)
However, ticking off such possibilities isn’t really that much fun, because they’re too predictable. To really let our hair down, we have to think way, way outside the box – so far, in fact, that you can’t even see the box from where you end up.
Herewith, my own list of four wildly, utterly implausible trips I’d dearly love to see Pope Francis make.
(4) Wall Street
How delicious would it be to see the world’s leading moral critic of free market global capitalism, which Francis excoriates as an “economy that kills,” standing on that famous balcony and ringing the opening bell for the New York Stock Exchange? I mean, everyone from Sylvester Stallone and Robert Downey Jr. to the Harlem Globetrotters have done it, so why not the pope?
None of those celebrities, of course, have ever invited the sort of examination of conscience this pope’s mere presence inevitably would beckon.
One can just imagine Francis trying to explain a “culture of encounter” to those frenzied souls on the stock exchange floor who run around placing buy and sell orders as if their very lives and souls depended on it. Or, picture Francis bringing along his friends from the World Meeting of Popular Movements, so indigenous Amazonian land activists, labor firebrands and denim-clad community organizers, hobnobbing with stockbrokers and CEOs in $10,000 suits sporting the latest Rolexes.
Such an experience probably would be the most entertaining spectacle involving Wall Street since the 1980s buddy comedy “Trading Places” with Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy, and, in this case, the script really does write itself.
(3) Écône, Switzerland
Late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s breakaway Society of St. Pius X is formally headquartered today in Menzingen, Switzerland, but its most iconic setting is across the small country in Écône where its international seminary is located.
It was there in 1988 that Lefebvre ordained four bishops in defiance of Pope John Paul II, cementing the rupture between the Vatican and what would come to be known as the “Lefebvrists” over the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, including the decision to suppress the old Latin Mass.
Écône therefore is the nerve center of old-time, hard-core traditionalist Catholicism, almost literally “more Catholic than the pope.”
As a result, Pope Francis is probably about as beloved in Écône as a Yankees fan would be at a Red Sox family funeral, which is to say, not very much. Naturally, that would be the fun of it, and if Francis were to make such a surprise drop-in, at least no one could ever say again that popes haven’t done absolutely everything in their power to try to heal the divide.
(2) Tristan da Cunha archipelago
If Francis wants to cement his legacy as the “Pope of the Peripheries,” then here’s the place to go. Tristan da Cunha is the most remote, isolated group of islands in the world, located in the southern Atlantic 1,700 miles from the coast of South Africa and 2,500 miles off the tip of Argentina.
Right now, the only way to reach Tristan da Cunha is a week-long voyage on a shipping vessel, which probably wouldn’t exactly be doctor’s orders for an 84-year-old pontiff with sciatica. On the other hand, at least Francis would have plenty of time to adjust to the time difference before he got where he was going.
As of its 2021 census – an exercise one can’t image takes a lot of time – the archipelago today has a population of 243, composed of the descendants of fifteen settlers, European men and mixed-race women, who arrived between 1816 and 1908. In a sense it would be a tremendous home court environment for the pontiff, since it’s a completely 100 percent Christian jurisdiction – there are only Anglicans and Catholics, with the Catholics served by the Mission sui iuris of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.
There’s a Catholic church on the island, located in the lone settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, but no resident priest. That, however, doesn’t have to deter Francis from making another statement on behalf of the peripheries – he could name 45-year-old Abbot Hugh Allen, a British Premonstratensian who heads the mission sui iuris, as a cardinal, thereby making the ultimate “size doesn’t matter” statement.
And, inevitably …
(1) Mar-a-Lago, Florida
If there’s anybody on the planet who wouldn’t pay good money to be a fly on the wall while Pope Francis drops in on former US President Donald Trump, chatting about everything from climate change and the curse of right-wing populism to what it means for a politician to call him or herself a “Christian,” I’d like to know who that benighted soul is.
Hell, you could probably package the whole thing as a live streaming special event and wipe out the Vatican’s entire deficit in one fell swoop – assuming, of course, you could get Trump to agree to split the rights, which would be no mean negotiating feat.
In theory the two men could get together anyplace, but the idea of Francis visiting the former president’s version of Xanadu is just irresistible. Seeing Francis against the backdrop of the “Make America Great Again” crowds who tend to assemble in Mar-a-Lago these days would also be unforgettable.
To wind down afterwards, maybe Francis could head to Key West, the vacation destination on an island marking the southernmost point in the continental United States. If he wanted, Francis could even claim the outing as another foreign trip, since Key West semi-jokingly declared itself an independent “Conch Republic” in 1982 in protest over perceived government neglect. It declared war on the United States and then promptly surrendered, requesting Marshall Plan-style reconstruction money.
The motto of the short-lived Conch Republic? “We seceded where others failed.”
If that kind of attitude doesn’t merit a papal drop-in, I don’t know what does.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr