By Alessandro Gisotti
“I'll tell you something: I don't like to travel.” These are the surprising words that Pope Francis pronounced on 9 June when addressing a group of children whom he received in the Vatican as part of the “Children's Train” initiative.
It is a well-known fact that as Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, he rarely left his diocese. There were few international trips, mostly to Latin America or to Rome for synods and consistories.
However, the future Pope always kept alive the missionary spirit of a traveller, which as a young man made him dream of going to Japan in the footsteps of Saint Francis Xavier. This dream which he was unable to realize as a young Argentine Jesuit, was fulfilled this year when he visited the Land of the Rising Sun.
Frankly speaking, the future Pope never stood still in his vast Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. He travelled far and wide, and almost always used public transport. It was a “normal thing” for the Argentine bishop and then cardinal. However, this caused a sensation when, immediately after his election to the papacy, some earlier photos of the new Pope in a clerical shirt sitting like an ordinary commuter in a bus in the Argentine capital began circulating.
Hence, he was a “callejero” (itinerant) bishop, in the midst of the people, who preferred to spend time in the “Villas Miserias” (shanty towns) in the “existential peripheries” of the metropolis, rather than in the city centre. As bishop, he always travelled within his diocese. And so, when he became the Shepherd of the Universal Church, Pope Francis immediately felt that his diocese was now the world and that he had to set out again, with the same spirit that had animated him until then, but on a much larger space.
In his encounter with the “Children's Train”, Pope Francis admitted that in travels “you always find people, good people and you learn a lot”. In these candid words, one can discover the purpose of Pope Francis’ travels - meeting people and understanding the contexts. In some way, as the Washington Post also noted recently in an article by Chico Harlan, the Pope uses his Apostolic Journeys to “reform the Church” by focusing on the peripheries from which to draw the sap to initiate new processes of evangelization.
With a record number of Apostolic Journeys, 2019 has been a remarkable year of an “itinerant”, “synodal” pontificate. This year, Pope Francis made 7 foreign trips, visiting 11 countries on 4 continents, equalling Pope Saint John Paul II, who also visited 11 countries in 1982.
On the other hand, it is significant that this year, so full of international journeys, coincides with the centenary of Pope Benedict XV's Maximum Illud on the Church’s missionary action in the world. With his travels, Pope Francis emphasizes precisely this intrinsically missionary dimension of the Lord's disciple, who is called to be “outward going” to announce the Good News throughout the world, because no land is far away and no people is alien to the Word of God.
“Re-reading” the Pope’s 7 foreign trips this year, one can also find the great features of his pastoral thrust: young people, in the trip to Panama for WYD; interreligious dialogue, in trips to the Arab Emirates and Morocco; ecumenical dialogue, in visits to Bulgaria and North Macedonia and then to Romania. In his visits to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius, the themes of the protection of the environment and care of the poor were predominant. Finally, peace and the promotion of women's and children's rights were the key points of his Asian trip to Thailand and Japan.
In his remarks to journalists, on his flight to Thailand, he noted that “it is so good for people to be informed and also to know the cultures that are far from the West”. With his travels, the Pope actually brings light to corners of the world where the mass media would never go, but which, thanks to his presence, become “visible” to the international community, which is called to care for peoples and lands otherwise forgotten.
These Apostolic Journeys also promote the “culture of encounter” well beyond the moment after the Pope flies back to Rome. This is true not only for the people but also for him. In an interview, he confided carrying in his heart the people he met in his travels, that he prayed "for them, for the painful and difficult situations", so that the inequalities he saw may be reduced.