ROME – On the evening of April 19, 2005, just hours after his election, the man who had just become Benedict XVI confided to Alberto Gasbarri, a longtime veteran of Vatican Radio and the chief organizer of papal trips, that he likely wouldn’t travel much because he didn’t feel he had the same aptitude for it as John Paul II.

Yet Pope Benedict ended up making 24 international trips over 8 years, an average of three per year, just one short of the 4 such journeys St John Paul II averaged each year of his almost 27-year papacy. By the end, so convinced was Benedict of the importance of travel that it was his perceived inability to make it to Brazil for World Youth Day in July 2013 which consolidated his decision to resign.

In similar fashion, when Pope Francis was elected in March 2013, his closest friends predicted he wouldn’t travel much, noting that as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires he was a notorious homebody. Yet over the past 11 years, Francis has made 44 overseas trips, clocking in at 4 per year just like John Paul.

The point is that recent experience suggests it doesn’t really matter what a given pope’s preferences might be – by now, travel simply has become part of the job description, and can’t be dispensed with any more easily than, say, presiding over Christmas Mass or delivering the Wednesday General Audience.

All this comes to mind in light of the top talking point in Catholic life over the last few days, which has been the so-called “Demos II”, meaning an essay on the next conclave purportedly written by an unnamed cardinal and published by a conservative Italian website.

The text builds on a March 2022 text published under the byline “Demos,” which we now know was written by the late Australian Cardinal George Pell, identifying a series of perceived deficiencies in the Francis papacy. The new document outlines a series of seven challenges its author believes the next pope will face, whoever that may turn out to be.

Here’s what it says on papal travel, in the English version provided by La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana.

Global travel served a pastor like Pope John Paul II so well because of his unique personal gifts and the nature of the times. But the times and circumstances have changed. The Church in Italy and throughout Europe – the historic home of the faith – is in crisis,” it reads.

“The Vatican itself urgently needs a renewal of its morale, a cleansing of its institutions, procedures, and personnel, and a thorough reform of its finances to prepare for a more challenging future. These are not small things. They demand the presence, direct attention, and personal engagement of any new pope.”

Here’s the thing: Whatever one makes of the overall diagnosis of Demos II, this particular item is almost certainly a dead letter, because the tides of history are sweeping the papacy in precisely the opposite direction.

To begin with, the notion that a pope’s primary responsibility is to Italy, or to Europe, is an historical anachronism. Today, two-thirds of the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world live outside the West, a share that will rise to three-quarters by the middle of the century. Right now, more Catholics attend Sunday Mass in Nigeria alone than in all of Western Europe.

The papacy today is an office with global responsibilities, and travel is a primary way to make that real.

In addition, even in terms of addressing the perceived crisis of the faith in Italy and across Europe, one could argue that papal trips are a cornerstone of a successful response. A peak moment of Benedict XVI’s papacy came during his 2010 trip to the UK, which provided a demonstration of the residual power of organized religion even in one of the world’s most thoroughly secularized societies.

At the end, then-Prime Minister David Cameron paid the pontiff the ultimate tribute by saying he’d made the whole country “sit up and think.”

In general, papal trips to milieux where Christianity is a minority, either because of the dominance of another religion or because secularism has become the de facto state church, create important moments for the affirmation of Catholic identity and belonging. Put another way, it becomes far more difficult to dismiss Catholicism as irrelevant, or in terminal decline, when a pope galvanizes massive and largely adoring crowds.

Naturally, reform of the Vatican is an urgent undertaking, one which all recent popes, beginning with St Paul VI, have attempted in their own ways. However, a modern pope’s responsibility is much broader than simply making the Vatican’s trains run on time, however devoutly to be wished such a consummation would be.

When Pope St John XXIII boarded a train in October 1962 to visit Loreto and Assisi, it betokened the end of the papacy’s historic isolation. When Paul VI traveled to the Holy Land in 1964, he and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople set the stage for the mutual lifting of excommunications that had spilt Christianity for 1,000 years. When John Paul II returned to his native Poland in June 1979, he set the dominoes in motion which eventually would lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Few students of recent Catholic history likely would suggest it would have been better for those popes not to have taken those trips in order to remain in Rome tinkering with the Vatican’s personnel and policies.

This is not to say, of course, that every papal trip produces such historic results; indeed, many are forgotten before they’re even over. You can’t know which ones will truly matter, however, until you take them.

A pope who refused to travel likely would be taken as a sign of retreat on the part of the Catholic Church, among others things compromising the papacy’s diplomatic and geopolitical relevance and making it more difficult for the Vatican to achieve its traditional humanitarian aims. It’s difficult to see how a weakened and ignored papacy would serve the interests of the church, no matter what you believe the next pope’s priorities ought to be.

Finally, there’s little evidence that the demands of a handful of overseas trips during the arc of a year actually prevents a pope from engaging Vatican reform. Last year, Francis was on the road for a grand total of 19 days, and that didn’t prevent him, as Demos II himself notes, from issuing a flurry of motu proprio and other administrative measures, many of which were directed at Vatican operations.

Even if you believe Francis’s reform moves last year failed, it would be a stretch to suggest it’s because he was too distracted by spending a few days in Marseilles or Mongolia.

For all these reasons, while it may be interesting to discuss the merits of papal travel in the abstract, doing so is also a bit reminiscent of what Nelson Mandela once said of globalization – it’s akin to winter, he said, because like it or not, it’s coming.

In a similar vein, like it or not, modern popes have become road warriors, and it’s hard to see that particular genie going back into the bottle – even for the laudable goal of Vatican reform.


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