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Here comes the pope: Francis will be the fourth pope in history (that’s since 1965) to visit the U.S.


In comic books, there are “crossover” stories. In such stories, a characte from one comic book “crosses over” into another character’s story. So, for example, Superman appearing in a Batman story, or the Invisible Girl appearing in a Spider-Man story, would be examples of a crossover. These stories, in comic reading circles, get a lot of buzz.

In film, buzz happens when there are notable special or cameo appearances. You see this when a well-known celebrity crosses over, unexpectedly, into a movie’s storyline, to the surprise of the viewer.

One of my favorite cameo appearance was in 1961’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” when the Three Stooges show up near the end of the movies. Or even more astoundingly, when master mime Marcel Marceau showed up in Mel Brook’s “Silent Movie” – and ironically spoke the only word of dialogue (“No!”) in the entire film. Now, that’s entertainment!

Crossovers even happen in TV, usually to great enthusiasm of the viewers. I mean the audience was bubblier than a can of Fresca in a centrifuge when it saw George and Louise Jefferson of “The Jeffersons” appear in character on the sitcom “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” Or when Grade D level super-heroes Green Hornet and Kato crossed over from their on-life-support series to an episode of “Batman.”


Chruch crossover

We will be having an exciting special ecclesial crossover occurring in our part of the country this week, when the Holy Father, Pope Francis, crosses over the Atlantic Ocean to visit the United States from September 22-27. This visit will be televised, it will be on the web, it will be in the papers, it will be tweeted about. It will be covered everywhere in the media. Be sure to follow it, and keep up with the happenings of this special visitation of the Holy Father.


Travel back

Pope Francis comforts a crying child during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 2. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis comforts a crying child during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Sept. 2. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

While Pope Francis is not the first Pope to visit the United States, he is one of only four that have made the journey. Let’s revisit the history of papal travel throughout the ages to put this visit of Pope Francis in an historical context. Let’s step into the Wayback Machine and set the dial for 1965 – the year Pope Paul VI became the first Pope to ever travel outside of Europe.

As we arrive in 1965, let’s first take out our church hstory Cliffs-Notes and review some quick background on the history Papal travel pre-1965.

Overview. From the beginnings of the papacy in Rome, until the late 20th century, rarely did a pope leave Rome or the Papal States on the Etruscan Peninsula (Italy). Like Vegas comedians, the pope liked being at the palace, more than anywhere else.

1st Millennium. In a few cases in the first millennium, a few popes went to Constantinople.

700-1200: A handful of popes briefly traveled to France.

1309-1376: The church endured the Avignon Papacy – which is when the Pope Clement set up shop in France and for the 67 years popes lived there. In truth, this wasn’t so much travel, as it was relocation Needless to say, the folks in Rome were “Gauled” by this move.

1000-1800: A handful of popes (a very small handful) visited “The Holy Roman Empire” (i.e., Germany).


No roamin’ outside Rome

Then something happened that caused the popes to travel even less. Between 1864-1870, Italian revolutionaries, seeking to establish a “Kingdom of Italy,” invaded, captured and stole the Papal States and, ultimately, much of the city of Rome.

Pope Pius IX, the pope at the time, was not pleased; he refused to recognize the Italian aggression or land seizure. The pope could not and would not reign under the reign of any king of any nation. So, Pius IX, and his successors, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI, made themselves “prisoners of the Vatican.” They refused to step out of the boundaries of Vatican territory into Italian territory or anywhere else, until this matter was resolved. It was resolved, in 1929, with the adoption of the Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican. With this accomplished, the stage was set for papal travel to commence again… and it did, but only in Italy until 1964.


The ‘Air-Bourne’ Identity

In 1964, with the Second Vatican Council concluded, Pope Paul VI packed his bags and told the milkman not to deliver for a few weeks, because he was going overseas. He did, becoming the first pope to travel in an airplane. Pope Paul VI travelled throughout the world, to wit:

In 1964, he visited Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and India.

In 1965, he visited the United States. During that visit he addressed the United Nations, met with President Johnson, said Mass at Yankee Stadium and visited the World’s Fair (in the beautifully named area of Flushing, New York).

In 1967, he visited Portugal and Turkey.

In 1968, he visited Colombia (he also had a brief stopover in Bermuda both coming and going (it was a pair of Bermuda shorts).

In 1969, it was off to Switzerland and then Uganda.

In 1970, in his last year of travels, Pope Paul VI visited Iran, East Pakistan, the Philippines, Samoa, Australia, Hong Kong, and Ceylon.


Of popes and peanuts

Pope Paul VI set the travel-bar pretty high for his successors. His immediate successor Pope John Paul I, whose reign was only a month, didn’t travel outside of Italy at all.

However, Pope John Paul II (1979-2005) cleared the bar set by Pope Paul VI like a hurdler, visiting 129 countries during his papacy. His travel included many multiple visits, notably nine to Poland, eight to France and seven to the United States.

I don’t know that any pope is going beat that record. To measure his travel in food, if Pope John Paul II collected one bag of airline peanuts for every flight he made, he would have amassed 8,772 peanuts to nosh on.

Following Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul II) came Pope Benedict XVI. There was speculation that Pope Benedict, because he was in his 70s upon taking the papacy, would travel much less. That speculation was wrong.

In fact, Pope Benedict XVI became the oldest Pope to travel outside Europe, and, in his just-under-eight-year pontificate, made 24 trips to a total of 25 counties (including a weeklong trip to the United States in 2008). He would not amass as many airline peanuts as his predecessor, but he gave it a good shot!


Venture capitals

Now Pope Francis, marking his 10th overseas trip, will be coming to the United States, the 16th nation he has visited.

He will be in our nation’s capital cities: Washington, D.C., our current capital; New York City, our capital from 1789-1790; and Philadelphia, our capital from 1790-1800. During his trip he will be addressing the United Nations, the United States Congress, the World Meeting of Families, as well as celebrating Mass at Madison Square Garden; at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., (for the canonization of Junipero Serra, the great Spanish Missionary and Franciscan Friar); at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul; and at the World Meeting of Families.

It’s worth noting, that for anyone in their 50s or younger, seeing a pope traveling the world, or visiting right here in the United States, might not seem to be too big of a deal. It might even be seen as a normal activity in the course of the reign of a pope.

However, when looked at in the context of the history of our popes, it is an exceptional event, and one that should never be taken for granted.

Since the founding of our great nation, there have been 17 popesl to date only three have stepped foot on our North American continent, and into our nation; Pope Francis will become the fourth. This is a moment of church history.

Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.