Pope Francis returns from his visit to Bulgaria and North Macedonia today, and so concludes his 29th international journey. He has visited all continents except Oceania and Antarctica (hey, if the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow can do it…), and more than a few of his travels have been the first papal visits to the countries in question. And with those data, it is clear that the title of “Traveling Pope” should now be given to the current pontiff.
Pope Saint John Paul II is the traditional holder of the moniker, and not without reason. In the 31 years if his papacy he made 104 international visits to 129 different countries. Pope Francis has been pope for a little more than six years, so any useful comparison must take that into account. Comparing it with the first 6 years (and two months) of St. John Paul II’s papacy, Pope Francis comes out on top, with 29 visits, five more than the late pontiff’s 24 (Pope Benedict XVI, in comparison, made 20 international visits in the same timespan).
Like St. John Paul II, Pope Francis immediately struck out far abroad, with visits to Brazil, Israel and South Korea before visiting a country closer to Italy, Albania, on his fourth visit. St. John Paul II went to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas before heading to a European destination (in his case Poland), although those first three countries were visited on a single trip, whereas Francis made three separate journeys. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, first focussed on Europe, visiting Poland, Spain and Germany (twice) before visiting Turkey and Brazil.
Both Benedict XVI and Francis inherited their first papal visit from their predecessor, and both were made in the context of the World Youth Day. Benedict XVI visited Cologne and Francis Rio de Janeiro.
Unlike his two predecessors, Pope Francis did not include his native country among his first visits. In fact, he is yet to visit Argentina. St. John Paul II visited Poland on his second visit and Benedict XVI went to Germany on his very first, although, as mentioned above, he inherited that visit from St. John Paul II. His fourth visit was again to Germany.
In comparing Popes Francis and St. John Paul II, one more thing must be noted: their age. St. John Paul II was between 58 and 64 in his first six years as pope. Francis was 76 when elected, and is now 82. That makes him being the new “travelling Pope” all the more remarkable.
Photo credit:  AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia,  Tim Graham/Getty Images