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Francis’s great political journey

Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Kosevo stadium in Sarajevo (CNS)

All papal trips are pastoral by definition, as the universal pastor is meeting his flock. They are often expressions of Catholic piety, as when the Holy Father visits a particularly important shrine or comes to celebrate a significant event in the life of the local Church. Pope Francis’s travels have thus been both pastoral and pious, yet they also highlight two priorities of this pontiff – the peripheries and politics.

Returning from Sarajevo on Saturday, the Holy Father explained why his first European trip was to Albania last year, and now Sarajevo: “It’s a sign, to begin to make visits in Europe in the little ones in the Balkans that are martyred, those nations, they’ve suffered so much … this is my preference.”

Indeed, the only other European trip was at the periphery of Europe – last November’s visit to Turkey – but that was near-obligatory. Both John Paul and Benedict visited the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople for the patronal feast of St Andrew in the second year of their pontificates. To date, not only has Francis not visited the larger European countries, but there are no announced plans for any such visits, save for World Youth Day next year in Kraków, Poland.

Francis’s first trip was within Italy, not to a major shrine like Loreto or Assisi, but to Lampedusa as an act of solidarity with those waterborne refugees fleeing violence and corruption in Africa. It was a visit to those on the peripheries with the political purpose of influencing refugee policies in Europe.

The Holy Father’s international visits have likewise been to the peripheries.

He visited Brazil in 2013 and will visit the United States this September only because World Youth Day and the World Meeting of Families were already on the papal calendar. Francis has now decided to visit Cuba before the US, thereby framing the visit to the latter in terms of what he says in the former – the kind of inversion Francis likes, putting impoverished Cuba ahead of powerful America. Cuba is a two-for-one; it is certainly on the periphery, having been kept at the margins of liberty and prosperity by the Castro brothers for more than 50 years, and the visit celebrates a political event, the establishing of diplomatic relations with the United States.

The pattern was set by the Pope’s first foreign trip, to the Holy Land: a 56-hour sprint through Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Francis said he wanted to visit them before the term of Israeli president Shimon Peres expired, a political rather than pious reason for the visit. Francis agreed to visit the grave of Theodore Herzl, the father of secular Zionism. It was the land that Herzl cared about, rather than it being holy.

That was the political gesture for Israel; the Palestinians got theirs when Francis prayed at the security barrier in Bethlehem, which was for many the dominant image of the entire trip. When he followed that up with a prayer meeting at the Vatican with the two secular presidents, rather than with religious leaders, the priority of politics became more evident still.

When the Holy Father went to Strasbourg last November to address the European Parliament, he was in and out in less than four hours, declining to visit the Strasbourg cathedral, which was celebrating its 1,000-year anniversary. So puzzling was that decision to many that Pope Francis explained it later, saying that he did not yet want to visit France proper, but was limiting himself to the international parliament.

It was on his flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines that the Holy Father announced he would canonise Junípero Serra during his American visit. While the obvious place to do so would be in California, both for the history of the missions Junípero founded and the contemporary reality of a majority Hispanic local Church, the Holy Father said that time did not allow for another day to go there. When three days in Cuba were subsequently added on the way to the United States, it became clear that there was more time available; just not for America.

The trip to the Philippines itself had been proposed by the Filipino bishops as a 20th anniversary celebration of St John Paul’s historic visit of 1995. Francis came, but told the Filipinos that he had come primarily to visit victims of the typhoon the previous year. He was coming to the suffering peripheries, not the behemoth of Asian Catholicism.

Even in his native Latin America – aside from the World Youth Day in Rio – the Holy Father is beginning his travels, after more than two years, with a visit in July to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay. The behemoths of Latin America – Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile – will have to wait. The delay in visiting Argentina is most striking, but having fought titanic battles with president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the

Holy Father will not give her the political advantage of hosting a papal visit before she leaves office later this year. Pastoral visits, pious moments, holding up the peripheries, and politics – that’s how Francis has made his impression on papal travel.

Raymond de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine