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  • John Thavis

A traveling pope?

Like his recent predecessors, Pope Francis will be a traveling pope.

It remains to be seen what style he’ll adopt in these journeys. The joke going around the Vatican press office is that the pope – and reporters – may be flying easyJet from now on.

The Brazilian president said today the pope told her he would come to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in July and then visit Aparecida, site of Brazil’s biggest Marian shrine. The Vatican did not immediately confirm her report.

If the pope does travel to Brazil, no one would be surprised if he adds a stop or two in his native Argentina.

But given Pope Francis’ expressed wish to help create “a church that is poor,” some are wondering whether the costs of such visits may lead to changes in the way they’re carried out.

This is a pope, after all, who on the night of his election called home to Argentina to suggest that pilgrims there skip the trip to Rome for his inauguration, and make a gift to charity instead.

Papal trips involve significant expenses for travel, organization and construction of altar sites and other structures, as well as spending for security by the host country. To give just one example, hosting Pope Benedict at his two stops in the United States in 2008 was estimated to have cost at least $12 million.

One can imagine Francis looking at the plans and budget items for such trips, and thinking about how much money could be saved.

Whether he could actually find a cheaper way to travel is a good question. Typically, popes fly Alitalia charter planes, and about 50 reporters tag along in coach class.

Alitalia likes to put on a good show, and this can lead to incongruous moments. As I wrote in my book, on papal flights to Africa the airline always seemed to serve the caviar and Champagne just as we were overflying Chad, one of the poorest countries on earth.

I suppose a pope could fly commercial aircraft, and make sure the venues for papal events are kept as simple as possible. But there aren’t too many other cost-cutting measures one can imagine on such voyages.

What seems certain is that traveling is now part of the modern pope’s job description. Pope Benedict was a reluctant traveler, but he ended up making 25 trips outside Italy, nine of them outside of Europe.

Pope has a special interest in this event

Vatican officials expect Pope Francis’s trip to Brazil to ignite great enthusiasm among Latin American Catholics. For one thing, of course, this is the first Latin American pope, and the whole continent will give him a homecoming welcome.

Another reason is that World Youth Day is usually a showcase for Catholic energy, and there’s every expectation that young people are going to love this pope with the populist touch.

The pope has his own special interest in this event, according to the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff. After her private meeting this morning with Pope Francis, she told reporters that he wants to highlight in Brazil the church’s commitment to the poor, and the need to protect the most fragile sectors of society.

She said the two leaders discussed young people and their problems, including drug problems like crack cocaine. Use of crack has reached epidemic proportions in Brazil, with an estimated 1 million users today, experts say.

“For him it’s very clear that the youth are crucial for building the future of humanity. He hopes there will be a massive participation at World Youth Day. He’s very enthusiastic about it,” Rousseff said.

All this may make the World Youth Day trip a unique opportunity – and worth the cost – in the eyes of the new pope. Yesterday after his inaugural Mass, almost every government delegation extended an invitation to the pope to visit. We’ll see if other dates and places are added to his 2013 calendar.

Istanbul and Jerusalem

During his encounter with Pope Francis today, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople invited the pontiff to visit Istanbul on the feast of St. Andrew (Nov. 30), either in 2013 or 2014. The two leaders also discussed the possibility of a joint visit to Jerusalem next year, to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic meeting there between Pope Paul VI and Athenagoras I, the ecumenical patriarch of the time.

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