For a pope who initially said he would travel less than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI seems to have caught the travel bug.

He has already racked up six major trips abroad, including Brazil and Turkey. Within Italy he has made five journeys, most recently to Assisi. And his travel schedule shows no sign of letting up.

After spending most of July in the mountainous Dolomite region of northwest Italy, the Holy Father will remain just one month in Castel Gandolfo, his Rome summer residence, before boarding his next flight.

That will take him to an Italian youth gathering Sept. 1-2 in Loreto, in central Italy. He will  then travel to Austria Sept. 7-9 where he will join celebrations to mark the 850th anniversary of the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariazell. Benedict is then scheduled to make a pastoral visit Oct. 21 to Naples, in southern Italy.

Next year’s calendar is also filling up with a variety of long-haul apostolic voyages. In July 2008, he will fly to Sydney, Australia, for World Youth Day. He will also visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, France, to celebrate its 150th anniversary, according to Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

Father Lombardi said the Pope has also penciled in a trip to New York where he will pay a visit to the headquarters of the United Nations, either in the spring or in the fall of 2008. That visit may also include a visit to Washington D.C. and a stopover in Mexico City.

Following John Paul II

“No one expected Pope Benedict XVI to start traveling in such a way because he’s now over 80 years of age,” said Father Yareck Celecki, director of Vatican Service News. “In the beginning, the Pope said that he wouldn’t make these trips, but instead we can see that he can’t avoid them.”

And in a sense, the Holy Father never really had a choice.

Pope John Paul II made 104 overseas trips, traveling abroad even in the face of great physical suffering. His example established papal travel as a duty of his successors, no matter how elderly they may be.

But even if he feels it is an obligation, Benedict XVI is nevertheless enjoying these visits much more than he himself expected.

A major reason for that is his change in attitude since becoming the Successor of Peter. It’s a role, say those close to him, that he has fully and joyfully embraced.

More Pleasurable

“On papal trips, he is encountering first-hand the piety of the people, something that as an intellectual and someone of the Curia he would rarely see, and he really enjoys that,” said Paul Badde, Rome correspondent for the German daily newspaper Die Welt. “These trips are both of pastoral and political significance to him.”

He also finds traveling more pleasurable than he did as cardinal.

“He has realized that traveling in business class on the papal plane is not as exhausting as it might be,” Badde said.

But the visits also, of course, have major ecclesial significance. Speaking to the German-language Kath.net news agency June 14, Father Lombardi said the Pope “has the habit in his travels of addressing issues important to the local Church. … I saw it recently in Brazil. … The local Church feels very encouraged, confirmed in the faith, in the meaning of participation in the life of the Church in the world.”

His apostolic voyage to Austria will be no different. But that forthcoming trip is expected to be more political than his more Church-focused trip to Brazil in May when he opened the Fifth General Conference of Latin American and Caribbean bishops.

Father Lombardi has said the Pope will make an “internationally important” statement during the visit. Commentators predict it will remind Europeans not to forget their Christian heritage — a subject close to his heart.

But his trip to Austria will also be a semi-homecoming.

He grew up in a town not far from the Austrian city of Salzburg and he is very fond of the Mariazell Shrine — he celebrated Mass there shortly before his election as pope. “His visit will, in a way, be complementing his trip home,” Badde said, referring to the Pope’s visit to Bavaria last year.

Benedict is said to be looking very much forward to World Youth Day in Sydney. Many have noticed that he seems freer and more at ease with young people. But it’s his trip to the United States that will be the most momentous, with New York being seen by many as the capital of the secular world. It will most likely include a visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and to Ground Zero. And it’s a visit that will be made with the utmost care.

“He’s very considerate when it comes to planning his trips,” Badde said.

But the most historic visit would be one to China, something that’s becoming ever more probable as the government tries to accommodate a fast-growing Church.

That apostolic voyage, Badde said, is one “he would die for.”

Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.