By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
Although slowed by age and infirmity before he died, Pope John Paul II refused to give up one of his favorite pastoral duties: traveling the globe.
Visiting 129 countries on 104 trips outside Italy, he redefined the nature of the papacy and its once-stable ministry. Earlier popes were carried on chairs at the Vatican; this one jetted around the world, taking the universal church to such out-of-the-way places as Papua New Guinea, Madagascar and Alaska.
Averaging four major trips a year, the pope logged more than 700,000 miles and spent about 6 percent of his papacy outside the Vatican and Italy.
Every year his aides told him to slow down—and every year the pontiff penciled in more trips. In 2002, despite summer heat and declining health, the pope crisscrossed North and Central America for 11 days to meet with youths in Toronto and canonize saints in Guatemala and Mexico.
Perhaps the most personally satisfying trip was his Holy Year 2000 pilgrimage to biblical lands, which began in Egypt with a visit to Mount Sinai and continued with stops in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. The pope walked in the footsteps of Christ and the Apostles and made a historic visit in Jerusalem to the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest place.
A year later, extending his biblical pilgrimage, he made unprecedented papal stops in Greece and Syria, meeting with Orthodox in Athens and visiting a mosque in Damascus, Syria.
Even when his failing health made it difficult for him to walk and speak, the pope plowed ahead with trips to out-of-the-way places like Azerbaijan and Bulgaria, where he was pushed on a wheeled platform and lowered from airplanes on a modified cargo lift. In 2004, when he no longer could walk, he visited Switzerland and Lourdes, France.
From the beginning, Pope John Paul made it clear he enjoyed being out of the Vatican and mingling with the faithful. He treated reporters to unprecedented flying news conferences, strolling through the press section of his plane and fielding dozens of questions.
Asked about his globe-trotting papacy in 1983, he replied: “Yes, I am convinced … that I am traveling too much, but sometimes it is necessary to do something of what is too much.” On other occasions, he said simply, “I must visit my people.”
His top aides said the pontiff aimed to strengthen the links between the church in Rome and particular church communities around the globe. From the mountains of Peru to the plains of India, he spoke the local languages, gave pep talks to local pastoral workers and canonized local saints.
His speeches, sermons and liturgies often were televised in the host countries, giving him a unique opportunity to evangelize and stand up publicly for minority Catholics.
Some of his warmest receptions came in Africa, a continent where his 14 pastoral visits helped spur a period of tremendous growth for the church. He once told reporters he kept returning to Africa in order to bring the journalistic spotlight to its sufferings. A crowd in Burkina Faso held up a banner in 1990 that welcomed him as “a great friend.”
In a 1980 trip to Latin America, he underscored the church’s commitment to the poor by walking into a shack in a Rio de Janeiro slum and chatting with the residents. Moments earlier, in a spontaneous gesture, he had taken off his gold papal ring and offered it to the poverty-stricken local parish.
He visited with victims of Hansen’s disease in Guinea-Bissau and blessed young AIDS sufferers in Uganda and the United States. These stops provided rare glimpses of papal emotion, and his hugs for the sick were often front-page pictures in newspapers around the world.
The pope’s seven trips to the United States featured festive celebrations and emotional highlights, like the time he embraced armless guitarist Tony Melendez—who strummed with his feet—in Los Angeles in 1987, or when he met the 375,000-strong pilgrimage of young people who visited Denver in 1993 for World Youth Day.
From a pastoral point of view, some of his toughest trips were in Europe, a continent the pope declared in need of re-evangelization. In places like the Netherlands in 1985, he got an earful from Catholics unhappy with church positions on issues such as birth control and priestly celibacy.
International politics sometimes colored Pope John Paul’s travels. In Nicaragua in 1983, the pope tried to shout down Sandinista activists who began chanting political slogans during a Mass. In Haiti on the same trip, he delivered a stern rebuke to dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who eventually was forced out of office.
In his native Poland, the pope’s early visits—which drew massive, politically energized crowds—were credited by many for re-igniting the pro-democracy movement that broke the communist hold on power in 1989.
During his 1998 visit to Cuba, one of the last bastions of communism, he strongly defended civil and church freedoms and said he hoped the visit would bear the same fruits as his Polish trips.
Yet even after the fall of European communism, invisible walls kept Pope John Paul from visiting his flock in several places. At the top of the list was Russia, where Orthodox leaders kept saying the time was not ripe, and China, where the government refused to recognize the pope’s authoritative role.
Where he did journey, there were often long-term benefits, measured in terms of church growth and vitality. And there were short-term rewards, like the mental postcards he created: sitting in a tent with a Buddhist monk in Thailand, greeting sword-wielding former headhunters in India or celebrating Mass in a snowstorm in war-ravaged Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Whether in Muslim Morocco, Buddhist Japan or Catholic Spain, the pope pushed a simple message through his words and presence: that the Gospel is not out of place in any country.