Pope Francis’ 10 Significant Trips — Including 3 That Didn’t Happen — in 10 Years

COMMENTARY: In the 10 years of his papacy, Francis has taken about four trips per year, which is what Pope St. John Paul II averaged. In his journeys, he brings the tender compassion of God to all he meets.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives at the University of Santo Tomas during his visit to Manila on Jan. 18, 2015. Pope Francis celebrated Mass with millions of Catholics.
Pope Francis waves as he arrives at the University of Santo Tomas during his visit to Manila on Jan. 18, 2015. Pope Francis celebrated Mass with millions of Catholics. (photo: JAY DIRECTO / AFP via Getty Images)

The 10th anniversary of the election of Pope Francis (March 13) is a propitious time to review what has been a very active decade. Over the course of the next days, I will look at the pontificate from different angles.

Today: Significant Travels.

Since the pontificate of St. Paul VI, travel has been a key part of the papacy. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI explained his abdication in part due to an incapacity to travel overseas.

Pope Francis has taken about four trips per year, which is what St. John Paul II averaged, though Francis usually goes only for two or three days, instead of the longer voyages John Paul did. Herewith then, for the 10th anniversary, are 10 significant trips from 10 years of Pope Francis.

Lampedusa, 2013

Pope Francis’ first foreign trip was not a foreign trip at all, but to Lampedusa, Italy. It was a trip to foreigners, though, a symbolic embrace of the peripheries. Lampedusa is a Mediterranean island, the southernmost part of Italy and closer to Tunisia than Sicily. It is the desired destination for migrants fleeing north Africa by sea, an entry point to Europe.

The Italian temporary immigrant reception center, built to accommodate a few hundred would-be immigrants, was frequently overwhelmed, with thousands in crowded conditions. Tragically, many die en route, often at the hands of exploitative human smugglers, making the Mediterranean a watery graveyard, in the Holy Father’s words.

In choosing Lampedusa as his first trip, Pope Francis signaled the priority he would give to the poor and especially to migrants seeking to enter Europe. It was a dramatic choice, a pope praying and grieving over the waters — a far cry from the triumphal papal trips that would come later, with large crowds in grand settings.

Strasbourg, 2014

Pope Francis has put a high priority on the political — immigration, financial regulation, climate change, arms production. To be sure, there are political consequences of the Gospel, but to an unusual degree, Pope Francis speaks directly to political issues. No trip better expressed that than his visit to Strasbourg, where he addressed the European Parliament.

He went for only four hours, addressed the Parliament and the Council of Europe and returned to Rome. There was no meeting with the local Church, no liturgical prayer. It was all the more remarkable because Strasbourg’s Catholic cathedral was marking its millennium — 1,000 years! Still early in the pontificate, longtime papal-travel planners were stunned that a pope would not visit a cathedral on its thousandth anniversary while in the city. But Pope Francis went to Strasbourg for politics, not piety.

Philippines, 2015

That a pope would visit the Philippines is not remarkable; it is one of the largest Catholic populations in the world. But the reason for Pope Francis was different: He came to comfort the afflicted, another hallmark of his pastoral travels.

“Let me tell you something personal — when I witnessed this disaster [Typhoon Yolanda] from Rome, I felt that I had to be here,” Pope Francis said at a papal Mass that itself was buffeted by another typhoon. “That is when I decided to come here. I wanted to come to be with you. Maybe you will tell me that I came a little late; that is true, but here I am!”

The sight of Pope Francis, clad in rain gear, speaking from the heart about his compassion for the suffering, was an early expression of what the Holy Father does very well, bringing the tender compassion of God to those on the margins.

United States, 2015

Pope Francis came to the United States for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, but also visited the United Nations in New York and the U.S. Capitol in Washington. There, he addressed a joint session of Congress, a first for a pope. St. John Paul II had addressed the Polish and Italian parliaments, and Benedict XVI had addressed the British and German parliaments.

Pope Francis spoke in English, which he rarely does on foreign travels — a way of honoring the occasion. He came with praise for American history, as read through four key figures: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. For a pontificate that has had frictions with the U.S. on both political and ecclesial matters, it was a high point.

Chile, 2018

The Chilean visit in January was always going to be delicate. A growing controversy had developed over Pope Francis’ decision to appoint Bishop Juan Barros to the Diocese of Osorno in 2015. Bishop Barros was closely linked to Father Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious abuser priest, sentenced in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI to a life of “prayer and penance” without any priestly ministry. Many critics suggested Bishop Barros knew about Father Karadima, or perhaps was even complicit. From 2015 to the Chilean visit, Pope Francis dismissed criticism as politically motivated.

The Chilean visit was catastrophic, the worst in the history of papal travel, and carried immense consequences. Pope Francis was combative, dismissive and aggressive on the Barros matter, and it went over extremely poorly. Crowds at papal events were sparse, and criticism of the Holy Father was fierce. So disastrous was the trip that Cardinal Seán O’Malley, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, publicly criticized some of the Holy Father’s remarks.

Upon return to Rome, it was evident that the visit had made an already bad situation much worse. Rome scrambled to save the Holy Father’s reputation. A fact-finding delegation was sent to Chile. In May, all the Chilean bishops were summoned to Rome in order to receive a tongue-lashing from Francis. Then they all submitted their resignations — about a third of which were accepted. The Chilean hierarchy was amputated to stop the contagion from reaching Rome. It will be at least a generation before the Chilean bishops recover from the wounds of the papal visit.

Abu Dhabi, 2019

Outreach to Islam has been a key priority of Pope Francis, and his travels to Muslim countries reflect that. His 2019 visit to the United Arab Emirates was the occasion of a joint declaration on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” signed by Pope Francis and the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb. Al-Azhar is the leading center of Islamic scholarship in Egypt and a preeminent voice in Sunni Islam.

While the document needed some theological clarifications regarding religious pluralism, it did represent a major step forward in interreligious relations. The United Nations declared Feb. 4 — the day the declaration was signed — as the International Day of Human Fraternity. In a world marked by what Pope Francis repeatedly calls a “third world war” in pieces, it was a major diplomatic achievement.

Iraq, 2021

Pope Francis is a man of determination, especially in his decision to travel to Iraq in 2021, in the midst of the pandemic and a still-troubled security situation. Part of his determination arose from the fact that Iraq was unfinished business on the papal travel itinerary. St. John Paul II wanted to visit Iraq — Abraham’s home in Ur of the Chaldees — during his biblical jubilee pilgrimages of the Great Jubilee 2000. Saddam Hussein would not permit it.

Pope Francis did visit Ur to pay homage to Abraham, and another high point was his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Husayni Al-Sistani in Najaf, a holy shrine for Shiite Muslims. The meeting with Al-Sistani, one of the world’s leading Shiite clerics, complemented the meeting with Ahmed el-Tayeb in Abu Dhabi.

The Iraqi visit also highlighted the plight of Christians in Iraq who suffered terribly under ISIS and are still recovering from that fearsome persecution.

Argentina, San Salvador, Kyiv

To the seven trips included here, three more must be added that did not take place.

For years, Vatican observers speculated about why Pope Francis refused to visit his home country. An Argentinian visit was frequently thought to be imminent, but never took place, even as the Holy Father visited many other countries in Latin America. Speculation has now ceased, and it is just accepted that we will not know why he has declined repeated invitations to return home. There are no specific pastoral, political or diplomatic problems; it seems the answer is either in the pastoral strategy of Pope Francis, or his own psychological disposition toward his homeland.

Another curious non-trip was the decision not to visit El Salvador to canonize Archbishop Oscar Romero. Pope Francis was scheduled to visit Panama in January 2019 for World Youth Day. Instead of canonizing Archbishop Romero in Rome in October 2018, as he in fact did, the Salvadoran bishops asked that he do it in San Salvador in January 2019, a very short flight from Panama. He had done canonizations on trips before, in Sri Lanka (Joseph Vaz), the United States (Junípero Serra) and Portugal (Jacinta and Francisco of Fatima).

Pope Francis refused, despite his great esteem for Archbishop Romero, a great disappointment to the poor of El Salvador, unable to travel to Rome. No reason was publicly given, but it is notable that after the Chilean debacle in 2018, Pope Francis has not returned to the continent, save for the already-scheduled trip to Panama.

Finally, despite a year of speaking constantly about his eagerness to visit Kyiv, besieged by war, Pope Francis has not yet gone.