What Countries Did Pope Francis Visit in 2023 and What Did He Say?

The Pontiff made five international trips.

Pope Francis waves at the crowd of 1.5 million people who attended the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 6.
Pope Francis waves at the crowd of 1.5 million people who attended the closing Mass of World Youth Day 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, on Aug. 6. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

Pope Francis maintained a busy travel schedule in 2023, visiting six different countries on three separate continents, despite being one of the oldest popes in Church history and enduring ongoing struggles with poor health. 

Francis turned 87 this month, and, in March, he celebrated his 10th year as pope. Although his year was marked by several hospital stays and struggles with bronchitis and sciatica that often confined him to a wheelchair — as well as a canceled trip to Dubai for COP28 due to health issues — the Pontiff still managed to make five international trips, called “apostolic journeys.”

Here is where he went. 

Pope Francis meets young people and adults from the Diocese of Rumbek in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Credit: Vatican Media

Pope Francis meets young people and adults from the Diocese of Rumbek in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4. | Vatican Media

Africa: Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan

The Pope’s first apostolic journey of 2023 was to the African continent, where, despite years of wars and ongoing persecutions, the Church has seen its greatest growth and where regular Mass attendance is higher than anywhere else on the globe.

Francis was in Africa for six days, Jan. 31-Feb. 5, during which time he visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. While there, Francis spoke out against the violence racking the continent and against international powers seeking to exploit African countries for their gain.

“Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: Africa is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” Francis said in his first speech in the DRC on Jan. 31. 

“I have greatly desired to be here; and now, at last, I have come to bring you the closeness, the affection and the consolation of the entire Catholic Church,” Francis also said. “I am here to embrace you and to remind you that you yourselves are of inestimable worth, that the Church and the Pope have confidence in you, and that they believe in your future, the future that is in your hands, your hands.” 

On Feb. 1, the Pope celebrated a special papal Mass in Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital city, which was attended by more than 1 million African faithful. Video taken before the Mass showed the massive crowds of Catholics dancing and singing songs, including a joyful chant of “Maman Maria” (“Mama Mary” in French), as they awaited Pope Francis’ arrival.

Europe: Hungary

Next, Francis visited Budapest, the capital of the central European nation of Hungary, April 28-30.

The Pontiff’s journey to the post-Soviet nation that borders Ukraine was themed “Christ Is Our Future.”

During the trip, the Pope focused his addresses on the need for European nations to cooperate with one another and recapture a spirit of fraternal unity and pursue “creative efforts for peace.”

Using the city of Budapest’s “Chain Bridge” as an example, Francis said the bridge “helps us to envision that kind of Europe since it is composed of many great and diverse links that derive their solidity and strength from being joined together. In this regard, the Christian faith can be a resource, and Hungary can act as a ‘bridge-builder’ by drawing upon its specific ecumenical character. Here, different confessions live together without friction, cooperating respectfully and constructively.”

He thanked the Church in Hungary for its “generous and wide-ranging service to charity” and for welcoming “with enthusiasm” many Ukrainian refugees.

More than 4 million Ukrainians have crossed into Hungary since the beginning of the war with Russia. 

As Hungary grapples with a growing loss of faith and increasing irreligiosity, Francis encouraged Hungarian clergy in an April 28 address, saying that solutions will “come from the tabernacle and not the computer.”

To combat “bleak defeatism and a worldly conformism,” Francis said, “the Gospel gives us new eyes to see” as well as discernment that enables us to “approach our own time with openness, but also with a prophetic spirit.”

Pope Francis takes selfies with volunteers after the closing Mass for WYD2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 6, 2023. Credit: Vatican Media

Pope Francis takes selfies with volunteers after the closing Mass for WYD 2023 in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 6. | Vatican Media

Europe: Portugal

Francis visited Portugal Aug. 2-6 to participate in the 2023 World Youth Day (WYD) in Lisbon.

While in Portugal, the Pope met with a wide array of youth, government officials and religious leaders, participated in an outdoor Stations of the Cross with an estimated 800,000 young people, visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, and celebrated a special closing Mass that was attended by about 1.5 million faithful.

Looking out on the field filled with more than a million young faithful after the closing Mass on Aug. 6, Francis echoed the famous words of St. John Paul II, WYD’s founder, saying: “Dear young people, I would like to look into the eyes of each one of you and tell you: Be not afraid; be not afraid.” 

“I tell you something very beautiful: It is no longer me, it is Jesus himself who is looking at you in this moment; he is looking at you,” the Pope continued. “He knows you; he knows the heart of each one of you; he knows the life of each one of you; he knows the joys, he knows the sadness, the successes and the failures.”

Francis encouraged the young people assembled, telling them: “You are a sign of peace for the world, showing how different nationalities, languages and histories can unite instead of divide. You are the hope of a different world.”

After thanking the young people, the Pope urged them to move forward with the light of the Holy Spirit, exclaiming: “Onward!”

Upon his arrival at Chinggis Khaan International Airport on Sept. 1, 2023, Pope Francis was welcomed with a bowl of Aaruul, dried curds which are a traditional food of Mongolian nomadic peoples. Credit: Vatican Media

Upon his arrival at Chinggis Khaan International Airport on Sept. 1, Pope Francis was welcomed with a bowl of Aaruul, dried curds, a traditional food of Mongolian nomadic peoples. | Vatican Media

Asia: Mongolia

In September, Francis traveled 5,600 miles to make the first papal trip in history to the central Asian country of Mongolia.

With a population of just 3.3 million, Mongolia has only 1,450 Catholics, making up less than 1% of the country’s total populace.

While the Catholic population in Mongolia is one of the smallest in the world, “being little is not a problem,” Pope Francis assured the local religious leaders while in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. 

“God loves littleness, and, through it, he loves to accomplish great things, as Mary herself bears witness,” Pope Francis said Sept. 2.

“Brothers and sisters, do not be concerned about small numbers, limited success or apparent irrelevance. That is not how God works. Let us keep our gaze fixed on Mary, who, in her littleness, is greater than the heavens.”

A country sandwiched between China and Russia, Francis called Mongolia a “symbol of religious freedom” in his first speech in the Asian country. He underlined how Mongolia’s democratic government is in a unique position to play “an important role on behalf of world peace.”

Catholics from Hong Kong and mainland China were also among the pilgrims who journeyed to see the Pope during his time in Mongolia. Some of the visiting Catholics from China wore masks and sunglasses to shield their identities, a testament to the stark difference in religious freedom in the country on the other side of Mongolia’s southern border.

Francis also sent a special telegram message to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the people of China as he flew through Chinese airspace between Rome and Mongolia.

“I send greetings of good wishes to your excellency and the people of China as I pass through your country’s airspace en route to Mongolia,” the telegram read. “Assuring you of my prayers for the well-being of the nation, I invoke upon all of you the divine blessings of unity and peace.”

Europe: France

Less than three weeks after his Mongolia trip, the Pope traveled again, this time to participate in the “Rencontres Méditerranéennes,” a gathering of young people and bishops in the Mediterranean coastal city of Marseille, France, Sept. 22-23.

Pope Francis celebrates Mass for an estimated 50,000 people at the Vélodrome Stadium in Marseille, France, the last stop in his Sept. 22-23 visit to the port city to speak at an ecumenical meeting of young people and bishops called the Mediterranean Encounter. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Billed as a “cultural festival,” the event was devoted to dialogue on international migration and ecological issues.

Before a memorial to people lost at sea on Sept. 22, Francis said humanity is at a crossroads between fraternity and indifference regarding the migrant crisis.

“We can no longer watch the drama of shipwrecks, caused by the cruel trafficking and the fanaticism of indifference,” he said. “People who are at risk of drowning when abandoned on the waves must be rescued. It is a duty of humanity; it is a duty of civilization.”

At a Mass attended by more than 50,000 at Marseille’s Velodrome Stadium on Sept. 23, Francis told those gathered to be Christians who “leap for joy” in the face of life’s challenges — with hearts ready to encounter the Lord and others.

The Pope said: “We want to be Christians who encounter God in prayer and our brothers and sisters in love; Christians who leap, pulsate and receive the fire of the Holy Spirit and then allow ourselves to be set afire by the questions of our day, by the challenges of the Mediterranean, by the cry of the poor — and by the ‘holy utopias’ of fraternity and peace that wait to be realized.” 

‘Aerial View of Vatican City at Twilight’

2023: The Year in Review (Jan. 6)

This week on Register Radio, we look back at the top stories of 2023 with Register Editor in Chief Shannon Mullen. Then Senior Editor Jonathan Leidl joins host Jeanette DeMelo from Rome to discuss ‘Fiducia Supplicans’ and the impact it will have on Pope Francis’ legacy.