Have most popes been homebodies?

Where they went, and why

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By Dan Connors


A Catholic Digest Papal Visit Exclusive

When St. Peter moved from Jerusalem to Rome, it surely didn’t occur to him that he was setting a mileage record for a papal trip that would stand for more than 1,900 years and 258 popes — right up until Pope Paul VI made the journey in reverse, traveling from Rome to Jerusalem in 1964.

Though papal travel inside parts of what is now Italy was fairly common (except for the 70 years when the whole papacy moved to Avignon, France), most popes were homebodies. Pope Sylvester, for instance, sent two priests to represent him instead of traveling himself to the crucial Council of Nicaea in the year 325. In addition, Pope Gregory XVI, in the 1840s, went so far as to ban railroads in Rome and the papal states, calling them “roadways of hell.”

Some popes, of course, did travel. Pope John I, for example, journeyed to Constantinople in 526 to meet with the Roman emperor. Pope Stephen II went to Gaul around 753 to seek help and protection from Pepin, the father of Charlemagne. Leo IX (1049-1054) traveled to Germany, France, and northern Italy holding synods and pushing Church reform, and Pope Urban II went to Clermont, France, in 1095 to call for a crusade.

Many popes, alas, traveled unwillingly, mostly when they were on the losing end of battles with emperors and kings. For example, in 355, Pope Liberius was ordered to Milan to stand trial for treason and was then exiled to Thrace (now part of Bulgaria and Turkey). Pope Martin I was taken to Constantinople on treason charges, found guilty, and exiled to the Crimea, where he died in 655. Innocent II (1130-1143) spent most of his papacy in exile, and Gelesius II (1118-1119) died on the run at the French abbey of Cluny. A hundred years later Innocent IV was exiled to France by the Holy Roman Emperor, and in 1799, Pius VI was taken prisoner by Napoleon and sent to France where he died and was denied a Christian burial.

With the imminent threat from angry kings and states greatly reduced in our time, and with modern transportation available, popes began seeing the value of pastoral visits abroad. Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) made nine trips outside of Italy and became the first pope to visit every continent except Antarctica. Pope John Paul II made more than 110 trips beyond the Italian borders; and, in addition to this visit to Washington, D.C., and New York, Benedict XVI has visited Austria, Brazil, Turkey, Germany, Spain, and Poland.

Editorial Director Dan Connors

Dan is currently Editorial Director at Bayard, Inc. He served as Editor-in-Chief of Catholic Digest from 2005 to 2011. He was previously editor-in-chief of Today's Parish. Prior to that, he was managing editor of Pastoral Music magazine (the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, NPM), and managing editor of Emmanuel magazine. He has worked with parish leaders for 26 years and has been an active parish volunteer. His wife, Deborah, is pastoral associate at St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in New London, Connecticut.