“I don’t like traveling,” but “the tragedy of Lampedusa made me feel the duty to travel” in the world to “go to visit the Churches” and “to encourage the seeds of hope that are there.” Pope Francis confides the sentiments, memories and fears of his international trips to Andrea Tornielli, well-known Vatican expert of La Stampa and coordinator of “Vatican Insider,” assiduous frequenter of papal journeys in his book “Traveling” (Piemme), which will go on sale on January 10.
A chapter of the volume has a conversation with the Holy Father on his “pilgrimages” around the world which he “never” imagined he would make, ones that would “weigh” on him. “ I never liked traveling very much,” he admits; “it always weighs on me to be far from my diocese, who for us Bishops is our ‘spouse.’ And then I am rather a creature of habit, for me to have a vacation is to have some extra time to pray and to read, but I never needed a change of air or a change of environment to rest.”
What made him change his idea was his mission to Lampedusa. “It wasn’t planned; there weren’t official invitations. I felt I should go; the news of the migrants that died, engulfed in the sea, touched and moved me — children, women, young men … a heart-breaking tragedy. I saw the images of the rescuing of survivors, I received testimonies on the generosity and hospitality of the inhabitants of Lampedusa,” recounts the Argentine Pontiff.
“It was important to go there,” affirms the Pope, who also recalls another trip carried out in the wake of the tragedy of migrants: Lesbos – a visit of just five hours, during which the Bishop of Rome, together with “brothers” Bartholomew and Hyeronimus, wished to “meet and comfort the refugees,” . The stage in Greece was the only one up to now in Europe. Of course, there were the visits to the European Parliament and to the Council of Europe at Strasbourg, “but that was rather a visit to an institution, not a country,” explained the Pope, not forgetting the visit to other countries “which are European though not part of the Union: Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina,” he added.
“I preferred to favor those countries in which I can give some help, to encourage those that, despite the difficulties and conflicts, work for peace and for unity. Countries that are, and that have been, in serious difficulties,” reveals the Pontiff. This, he specified, “doesn’t mean not to pay attention to Europe, which I encourage as best I can to rediscover and to put into practice its most authentic roots, its values.” Pope Francis says he is “convinced” that “it will not be the bureaucracies or the instruments of high finance that will rescue us from the present crisis and to resolve the problem of immigration, which for the countries of Europe is the greatest emergency since the end of World War II,” he confirms.
Leaving the borders of the Old Continent, the first Pope from the Americas recalls his trip to Rio de Janeiro, on the occasion of the World Youth Day, the first international trip left “in legacy” by Benedict XVI after his renunciation. “It was an appointment already on the agenda, already established,” he explains, “the Pope has always gone to the WYDs. The trip was never in discussion; it was necessary to go and for me it was my first return to the Latin American continent.” After Rio, “another invitation arrived and then yet another. I answered simply yes, and let myself in some way be ‘led.” And now I feel I must make trips, go to visit the Churches, encourage the seeds of hope that are there.”
For Francis, these long trips to the other side of the world “are a weight,” more from the psychological than the physical point of view. “When I return home, to the Vatican, the first day after the trip is usually quite tiring and I need to recover,” he admits, however, “I always carry with me faces, testimonies, images, experiences … an unimaginable richness, which always makes me say: it was worthwhile.”
The Pope confesses that his first sentiment in face of the enthusiasm of the people who wait for him for hours on the street “ is that of one who knows there are the Hosanna’s! but as we read in the Gospel, there can also be the Crucifige!’” He draws a second sentiment instead from a phrase said by the then Cardinal Albino Luciani in regard to the applause of a group of altar boys” But can you imagine that the donkey on which Jesus was sitting at the moment of His triumphal entry in Jerusalem could think that that applause was for him?”
“The Pope must be conscious of the fact that he ‘brings’ Jesus, he witnesses Jesus and His closeness, proximity and tenderness to all creatures, in a special way those that suffer,” affirms the Holy Father. Therefore, sometimes to one who cries out ‘long live the Pope” I ask that he cry instead “long live Jesus!’” he adds.
Of the already consolidated agenda of papal trips, Francis then says that he has changed very little. “I have tried, for instance, to eliminate altogether lunches of representatives. It’s natural that the institutional authorities of the country visited, fellow bishops wish to celebrate the guest that arrives. I have nothing against being at table in company (…) but if the agenda of the trip, as happens almost always, is already very full of appointments, I prefer to eat simply and in little time.”
Not lacking in Tornielli’s interview is the tracking of indelible memories of the 16 international journeys carried out: of young people of Rio that pulled him in the popemobile or the child, again in Brazil, “who succeeded in sneaking in, rushing up the steps and embraced me.” Then the faithful at the Madhu Shrine in Sri Lanka, not only Christians but also Muslims and Hindus, “as members of one family.”
Above all, before the Pope’s eyes is “the gesture of those fathers who lifted their children so that I would bless them; it seemed to me that they wished to say: this is my treasure, my future, my love, it’s worthwhile working for him and making sacrifices. And there were also so many disabled children, and the parents didn’t hide their child, they gave him to me to bless him affirming with their gestures: this is my child, he is like this, but he is my child – gestures born from the heart.” The Holy Father carries these and many other experiences in his heart, praying for the people he meets, “for the painful and difficult situations with which I came into contact” and “so that the inequalities I see are reduced.”
Finally, to a question on the security protocol during his trips, Pope Francis explains: ‘I am grateful to the Gendarmes and to the Swiss Guards for adapting to my style. I cannot move in armored cars or in the popemobile with closed bulletproof glass. I understand very well the demands of security and I am grateful to all those that with dedication and much, truly much toil are close to me and watch over me during the trips. However, a Bishop is a Pastor, a father; there cannot be too many barriers between him and the people.”
Therefore, since the beginning the Argentine Pontiff has said that he would travel “only if it is always possible for me to be in contact with persons.” He does not forget his “apprehension during the first trip to Rio de Janeiro,” but, he recalls, “I travelled so many times, in the open popemobile, the waterfront of Copacabana, greeting young people, pausing with them, embracing them. In those days there wasn’t a single incident in the whole of Rio de Janeiro. It is necessary to trust and to entrust oneself. I am aware of the risks one can run. I must say that, perhaps I am reckless, I have no fears for my person. Instead, I am very preoccupied about the safety of those that travel with me and especially about the people I meet in the various countries.” “What worries me are the concrete risks, the threats for those who come to participate in a celebration or a meeting. There is always the danger of a rash gesture on the part of some madman.” In any case, concludes the Holy Father, “there is always the Lord.”