January 28, 2020

Will Pope Francis’s year be marked by ecumenical trips?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
July 5, 2015. Papal flight from Rome, Italy to Quito, Ecuador on July 5, 2015 - Alan Holdren / CNA
July 5, 2015. Papal flight from Rome, Italy to Quito, Ecuador on July 5, 2015 - Alan Holdren / CNA

Pope Francis has not officially scheduled any trips for 2020. In his traditional new year’s speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, however, he did provide a clear indication of his desire to travel.

Pope Francis told diplomats he would like to go to South Sudan this year. He was not revealing a secret. It is no secret that the trip will be ecumenical, either: he hopes to make it together with Anglican Primate Justin Welby, and David Chalmers, the former moderator of the Scottish Methodist Church. Both of them were also present at the prayer meeting for South Sudan in the Vatican on Apr. 10 – 11, 2019.

That speech held an indication regarding another international voyage, as well. In his remarks to diplomats, Pope Francis recalled all his travels in 2019. He put some emphasis on the trips to Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Romania: all Orthodox countries, characterized by a robust ecumenical perspective.

Expect the ecumenical travel trend to continue this year. There are rumors of a journey under consideration to Montenegro, Greece, and Cyprus. Any such or similar trip would have an ecumenical character, since all of those countries are Orthodox.

On Dec. 14, 2019, Pope Francis received the Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic. The Pope confirmed to the Prime Minister his desire to visit the country during 2020. Pope Francis’s visit would follow that of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of State, who visited Montenegro and Serbia in 2018. Montenegro could be the gateway for a future visit by Pope Francis to Serbia, and Serbia might open the way for Pope Francis to Russia:, a long-standing dream of Pope Francis.

If Pope Francis does make it to Montenegro, it would be the first Papal visit to the country.

Popes have been to Cyprus already, several times. Benedict XVI visited the country in 2010, and Pope Francis would like to mark the 10th anniversary of his predecessor’s visit with one of his own. Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades, who met the Pope on Nov. 18, 2019, has extended the invitation. Francis might then visit the last European country with a wall of division.

More recently, rumors surfaced that would put Pope Francis in Greece before too long. That trip would put the Pope further in the footsteps of St. Paul. Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople could share some of the moments of the trip, while time spent with Orthodox Archbishop Hyeronimos of Athens would only increase the ecumenical emphasis of any such trip.

There is nothing official yet. However, Pope Francis visit to Greece might begin from the archeological site of Philippi and then take him through Lagadia, Salonika, Thessalonika, Corinth, and Athens.

Sources say Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias invited Pope Francis during a private audience with him on Oct. 30. In mid-November, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, met with Dendias and with Orthodox archbishop Hyeronimos during his trip to Greece and continued the talks about the feasibility of a Papal visit.

The trip to Montenegro, Greece, and Cyprus might take place between the end of May and the beginning of June.

As noted, Pope Francis wants to go to South Sudan, and wants it to be another ecumenical trip. The feasibility of a trip to South Sudan, however, is linked to the political situation in the country. At the moment, the Pope might not stay in the country for more than one day, due to security reasons. Among the possibilities under study, there is the organization of a trip that touches South Sudan as first or last leg of an African tour that might see the Pope in Ethiopia or South Africa, or both.

Ethiopia is an Orthodox country, which would fit the description of the ecumenical trips. The Catholic Church in Ethiopia is growing in importance. Cardinal Berhaneyeus Souraphiel, archbishop of Addis Abeba, was picked to head the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A visit from Pope Francis would be a boost for all Christians in the Horn of Africa.

Beyond this ecumenical trips, Pope Francis has also shown interest in traveling to Iraq. Cardinal Raphael Sako, the patriarch of the Chaldeans, is thinking about a long papal itinerary in the country, with four stops: Baghdad for institutional meetings; Ur, the city of Abraham, to fulfill St. John Paul II’s dream; Najaf, holy city for Shia Islam (where Cardinal Sako hopes that the Pope will sign another declaration on Human Fraternity); and, Erbil — in Kurdistan — where most of the people who fled the Islamic State found refuge.

Pope Francis also said he is willing to go to Indonesia and East Timor, a trip that could happen in September.

Catholicism has a substantial impact on East Timor for an important reason linked to St. John Paul II: East Timor gained independence from Portugal on Nov. 28, 1975, but shortly after, it was occupied by Indonesia. Indonesia considered East Timor its province for 25 years.

The Catholic Church gave great support to the people, and St. John Paul II wanted to go there in 1989. The Polish Pope used to kiss the ground when he reached a country he was visiting. What to do in East Timor? Kissing the ground would have meant recognizing the independence of the country from the Indonesian occupants, taking a political position. With a diplomatic move, John Paul II kissed a crucifix put on the ground, thus avoiding any political exploitation of his gesture.

Even the trip to Indonesia might be an “ecumenical one” since it was a group of Indonesians who wrote the prayer book for the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Pope Francis has given particular attention to Indonesia: he gave the Archbishop of Jakarta, Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo, a red hat.

From Indonesia, it would be a short trip hop to East Timor. Pope Francis received an invitation to go to East Timor in March 2016, from Prime Minister Rui Maria de Araujo. We’ll see what happens.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.