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ROME – In less than a month, Pope Francis will mark the tenth anniversary of his election. Over the past decade, this maverick pontiff has captured the public imagination in countless ways including though his travels.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina came into the papacy with a stay-at-home reputation, avoiding travel whenever possible during his years in Buenos Aires. Yet after his election he’s proven every bit as mobile as his legendarily peripatetic predecessor Pope John Paul II, who once said that in the modern era a pope must be the successor not only of Peter but also Paul, serving as the church’s Missionary-in-Chief.
The Polish pontiff made 104 international trips over 26 years, for an average of four per year; Francis has made 40 such trips in a decade, once again for an annual average of four. John Paul visited 129 countries in total, meaning around five per year, while Francis already has been to 61, for an annual average of more than six.
Just two weeks ago, Francis returned from a grueling six-day trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, his third to sub-Saharan Africa, despite chronic arthritic pain in his right knee that’s confined him to a wheelchair for most public appearances.
What’s the impact of all that travel?
The hard truth is that while all papal trips may be equal, some are more equal than others. In a sense, a papal trip is like a blind date – some you’ll remember forever, either for good or ill, while others are out of mind five minutes after they’re over. (I defy anyone who wasn’t actually there, for instance, to recall a single detail from Francis’s 2018 jaunt to Estonia or his 2019 stop in North Macedonia.)
Herewith, a list of the Top Five Papal Trips over the past decade, as measured by public interest, media coverage and lasting impact.
5. Chile, January 2018
In the abstract, history’s first pope from Latin America should have enjoyed a massive home field advantage during his Jan. 16-18 visit. Instead he ran into a buzzsaw, much of it related to the pope’s defense of a Chilean bishop tied to the country’s massive clerical abuse crisis.
Nominated by Pope Francis to the Diocese of Osorno in 2015, Bishop Juan Barros was a protégé of Father Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest. Survivors accused Barros of knowing of Karadima’s crimes but covering them up, charges that Francis initially rejected. During his trip Barros was seen with the pope at the altar during Mass, causing widespread outrage.
Crowds during the pope’s time in Chile were smaller than expected and tepid in their enthusiasm, while press coverage of the trip was largely hostile.
By all accounts, the experience jarred Francis. Upon his return to Rome he asked Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s former top prosecutor on abuse cases, to lead an investigation in Chile, and by May all of Chile’s bishops had submitted their resignations to the pope en masse.
In science, sometimes it’s the experiment that fails from which we learn the most. Similarly with papal trips, sometimes it’s the one that flops that jars loose real change.
4. United Arab Emirates, February 2019
When Pope Francis released Fratelli tutti, his third encyclical letter, in October 2020, it was hailed as a synthesis of the pontiff’s social and political vision for a post-Covid world. Though you won’t find the point anywhere in the text, it was also the first papal encyclical in history for which a Muslim cleric arguably should have been credited as co-author.
That’s because Fratelli tutti was based to a great extent on the “Document on Human Fraternity” issued by Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of the Al-Azhar Mosque and University complex in Cairo, Egypt, which is often hailed as the Vatican of the Sunni Muslim world. Francis and el-Tayeb signed the document on Feb. 4, 2019, in Abu Dhabi, during Francis’s visit to the United Arab Emirates.
From the beginning of his papacy, outreach to the Islamic world has been a cornerstone of Francis’s interfaith agenda, and the “Document on Human Fraternity” is the magna carta of that effort. The fact that the text was signed in the overwhelmingly Muslim UAE put an exclamation point on its significance, reflected in the fact that UN Secretary General António Guterres swiftly declared Feb. 4 the “International Day of Human Fraternity.”
3. Central African Republic, November 2015
When Francis was aboard an Alitalia flight in November 2015 carrying him on his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, he made the customary visit to offer a quick blessing to the cockpit crew. Noting that at the end of the trip they’d be stopping in the battle-scarred Central African Republic, Francis jokingly told the pilot that if he didn’t feel safe landing, he could simply hand the pontiff a parachute.
Such was Francis’s determination to make the visit, history’s first by a pope to an active war zone.
The single boldest moment of the trip came Nov. 30, as Francis visited a mosque in a notoriously dangerous neighborhood of Bangui, at the time considered a no-go zone even by international observers because it was under the control of jihadist forces.
By all accounts, the pope’s presence helped to reduce tensions among the country’s warring parties and to make possible national elections and a peaceful transfer of power three months later. Though the peace hasn’t always held, the trip nevertheless stands as an example of the power of papal nerve.
2. Lampedusa, July 2013
In many ways, Francis’s first trip outside Rome after his election captured his entire agenda in miniature. He visited the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which has become a household word in Italy and across Europe because it’s a primary point of arrival, and detention, for waves of migrants and refugees attempting to make their way into Europe from Africa and the Middle East.
Located off the coast of Sicily, Lampedusa is Italy’s southernmost point – it’s actually closer to Tunisia, at 70 miles, than to Sicily at 120, and geologically it’s part of the African continent. At the peak of the European refugee crisis, tens of thousands of people were housed in a makeshift detention center on an open field. Conditions were notoriously primitive – a celebrated report by RAI, Italy’s national broadcaster, once compared it to a Nazi concentration camp and Abu Ghraib.
Upon his arrival on July 8, 2013, Francis threw a wreath into the sea to commemorate the thousands of migrants and refugees who’ve died trying to make the crossing over the Mediterranean in rickety, overcrowded, unsafe boats. One estimate is that some 20,000 people drowned in the sea between 2003 and 2013.
The pope condemned what he called a “globalization of indifference” to the fate of people fleeing violence and poverty, and spent time talking, hugging and praying with several of them. He would go on to say that seeing images of those migrants and refugees had been like a “thorn in his heart,” compelling him to go.
In the aftermath of the trip, July 8 has been designated as the “International Day of the Mediterranean Sea” to raise awareness about the plight of migrants and refugees, as well as the ecological challenges facing the Mediterranean region.
It’s sometimes said that if you want to understand Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, you have to go to Gettysburg. In a similar fashion, arguably you can’t understand Francis’s papacy without going to Lampedusa.
1. Iraq, March 2021
Every papal trip is, in a sense, an exercise in storytelling. A pope chooses to travel to a given destination in part because he believes it has a story the world needs to hear, and, for a few days, he lends it his spotlight.
Pope Francis’s March 5-8, 2021, trip to Iraq was perhaps the best example of travel-as-narrative any pope has ever delivered.
To begin with, Iraq’s own story is harrowing, made up of upheaval, violence, and unimaginable human suffering, all of it compounded by global neglect. Its Christian minority has been especially afflicted, a point Francis recalled with a visit to the Christian village of Qaraqosh that was devastated under ISIS occupation from 2014 to 2017.
Among other things, the trip displayed the iron nature of Pope Francis’s will. Handicappers had predicted it would never happen, given a dicey security situation, the fact that the Covid pandemic was still at its peak, the cost, and the pope’s own health. Francis was nevertheless determined to go, and go he did.
The high point came with Francis’s outing to the holy city of Najaf on March 6, 2021, to meet Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Shi’a Islam and arguably among the most important points of reference in the entire Middle East. Images of the two religious leaders embracing and jointly denouncing extremism and violence quickly became iconic; Iraq designated March 6 every year as a “National Day of Tolerance and Coexistence.”
The atmosphere was electric. A young Iraqi psychology student in Rome named Sana Rofo told Italian TV that she’d never seen her country so united, enthusing, “The pope has performed a miracle!” Meanwhile, a tweet from an Iraqi Muslim watching the trip unfold went viral: “I hope the pope comes every year,” he wrote, only half-kidding.
Once again, the pope’s trip didn’t solve all of Iraq’s problems. It nevertheless offered a powerful counter-narrative about the country’s present and possible future, and it’s difficult to imagine any other experience that could have done so quite as persuasively.