ROME – In a new interview published on Sunday, Pope Francis says he came into the papacy not wanting to travel very much, but after his initial outing to the Italian island of Lampedusa in early July 2013, which is a major point of arrival for refugees trying to enter Europe, he understood he had to hit the road.
“It was important to go there,” he said, referring to the brief visit to Lampedusa he made on July 8, 2013.
“There was no program, no official invitations,” he said. “I felt I had to go, I was touched by the news of migrants who had died at sea, who had drowned.”
After that, Francis said, his reluctance to travel dissolved in the face of the importance of his physical presence in such spaces.
The pope made the comments in an interview with veteran Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli of the newspaper La Stampa and the online outlet “Vatican Insider,” who’s published a new book chronicling the pope’s trips.
“I never liked traveling much,” Francis tells Tornielli.
“When I was the bishop in Buenos Aires, I would come to Rome only if it was necessary and if I could avoid going, I would. It was always hard on me being away from my diocese, which for us bishops is our ‘spouse,’” he said.
“Beyond that, I’m mostly a creature of habit,” he said. “For me, a vacation is having more time to pray and to read, but to relax I don’t need to change the air or the atmosphere.”
Still, Francis said, his seventeen overseas trips so far have left indelible memories.
His first overseas trip was to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in July 2013 for World Youth Day, and since that trip was already on the books before his election, he said he felt obligated to go.
“The trip was never in question, I had to go, and for me it was also my first return to the Latin American continent,” he said.
After that, Francis said, invitations kept coming, and he felt obliged to accept them.
The pontiff said, however, he’s always a bit leery of the sometimes wild enthusiasm his presence in a foreign country generates.
“My first reaction is that of somebody who knows that when they shout, ‘Hosanna!’, as we read in the Gospels, that can end with, ‘Crucify him!’,” he said.
He then quoted Pope Paul VI to explain what he sees as the heart of every papal trip.
“I believe that of all the dignities of a pope, the most enviable is paternity,” Pope Paul said. “Paternity is an emotion that invades the spirit and the heart, that stays every hour of the day, that can’t diminish, but that grows so the number of children grows. It’s a feeling that doesn’t tire one out or cause fatigue, but it gives rest from every cause of exhaustion.”
“Never, not for one minute, did I ever feel tired when I raised my hand to give a blessing,” Pope Paul said. “No, I’ll never get tired of blessing or forgiving.”
Francis said, “I believe those words explain why popes in the contemporary era have decided to travel.”
In terms of specific trips still alive in his memory, Francis cited his outings to Brazil, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, especially his visit to the Filipino island of Tacloban in January 2015, which had been devastated by a hurricane and where another tropical storm was bearing down the day of his stop, and the pontiff was forced to don a plastic yellow rain poncho.
“After the Mass, one of the organizers told me he was struck and also impressed because the people taking part, despite the rain, never lost their smiles,” he said. “There were smiles too on the faces of the young, of the fathers and mothers.”
“There was real joy, despite the pain and the suffering of those who had lost their homes and some of their loved ones,” he said.
The pontiff did not specifically mention his September 2015 outing to the United States, which brought him to Washington, New York and Philadelphia.
Francis acknowledged that to date he hasn’t made an official state visit to any Western European nation, saying he prefers to give priority to smaller and more “peripheral” locales that may benefit more from a papal trip, and it also reflects his belief that European values, not European structures or bureaucracies, are the key to solving problems.
“I’m convinced that it won’t be the bureaucracies, the instruments of high finance, to save us from the current crisis and resolve the problem of immigration, which for the countries of Europe is the greatest emergency since the end of the Second World War,” he said.
Pope Francis also acknowledged that his style on the road, insisting on as much direct contact with people as possible, sometimes gives his security personnel fits.
“I can’t move around in armored cars, or in the Popemobile behind bulletproof glass,” he said.
“I understand very well the need for security, and I’m grateful to those dedicated people who stay close to me and watch things,” he said. “But a bishop is a shepherd, a father, and there can’t be too many barriers between him and the people.”
There are always risks, Francis said, “but there’s also always the Lord.”
So far in 2017, the Vatican has only confirmed two foreign trips for Pope Francis, one to the Marian shrine of Fatima in Portugal in May, and another to India and Bangladesh later in the year. However, it’s widely expected the pope will also visit Africa, perhaps the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, as well as Latin America, beginning with Colombia.