Pope Benedict XVI turns 84 in a couple of months, but so far he is showing no signs of reducing his commitments, not even when it comes to foreign travel. He is to make four trips outside Italy this year, and another four to Italian cities, making a total of 18 days on the road. So far it appears that nearly all of those trips will take place in the second half of 2011.
His first major apostolic voyage will be to Croatia June 4-5, followed by an August 18-21 trip to Spain for World Youth Day. The Holy Father will then make his first official visit as Pope to his native Germany on September 22-25, followed by a trip to the West African state of Benin November 18-20.
Within the Italian peninsula, he is scheduled to travel to the northern cities of Aquileia and Venice May 7-8, and to Montefeltro and the tiny Republic of San Marino on June 19. Benedict is then to make a trip to the Adriatic city of Ancona on September 11 for the National Eucharistic Congress, as well as the southern cities of Lamezia Terme and Serra San Bruno on October 9.
These add up to a relatively intense schedule but, as the Holy Father explained to Peter Seewald in the interview- book Light of the World, he copes through the strength of his faith and his confidence in the help of his aides.
“Of course I am sometimes concerned, and I wonder whether I can I make it even from a purely physical point of view. The trips are always very demanding for me,” he told Seewald. “I actually don’t get stage fright, though, since everything is well-prepared. So I know that now I am no longer speaking for myself, but that I am simply there for the Lord—and that I don’t need to worry whether I look good, whether I am well-received, and that sort of thing.”
The Holy Father added that on his visits he is “carrying out the task entrusted” to him “in the awareness that this is being done for Another and that this Other is standing by me. This enables the trips to go ahead without a sense of fear on my part.”
Benedict XVI’s first foreign visit, to Croatia in June, will be to the capital Zagreb, where he is to pray at the tomb of Blessed Aloysius Stepinac. An archbishop of the city from 1937-1960, Stepanic was persecuted and jailed by communist authorities for a number of years under the dictator Josip Tito. He was declared a martyr of the Church, and John Paul II beatified him in 1997.
Pope Benedict remembered the archbishop’s life on the 50th anniversary of his death during a general audience in February 2010. Speaking in Croatian, he recalled how the bishop and martyr “sacrificed his life…in testimony for the faith” and told the Croatian pilgrims present to “protect the memory of your martyrs” as well as to follow their heroic example and be “the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” John Paul II called Blessed Aloysius Stepinac “undoubtedly the most prominent” martyr in Croatian history.
For the Croatia visit, whose theme is “Together in Christ,” there appear to be no plans at this point for a papal excursion to the controversial Croatian shrine of Medjugorije—a 10-hour drive away from Zagreb. John Paul II visited Croatia three times during his pontificate, but also didn’t make a detour to visit the shrine. It’s unlikely a pontiff will visit it until a recently instituted Vatican commission concludes its investigation of the apparitions alleged to have taken place there.
Benedict XVI’s next foreign visit will be to preside over the World Youth Day celebration in Madrid. The Holy Father is scheduled to arrive in the Spanish capital in the afternoon of August 18. The following evening he is expected to preside over a prayer vigil and then celebrate an open-air “Mass of Sending” on Sunday the 21st.
The Pope has expressed how much he is looking forward to the visit—his third to Spain since he was elected pontiff. “Spain has always been one of the great, creative Catholic countries,” he told Seewald, “and—if, God willing, I am still alive—I will connect with it again, especially at World Youth Day in Madrid.”
Earlier in his interview with Seewald, the Pope described World Youth Day as “a genuine gift for me,” as he has witnessed how deeply it affects the spirituality of young people worldwide. “Something is happening here, and we are absolutely not the ones who are making it happen,” he said. “In the World Youth Days we have, I think, hit upon something that helps everyone.”
The World Youth Day in Madrid’s theme is: “Planted and built up in Jesus Christ, firm in the faith.” Benedict has already issued a message encouraging youth from all over the world to take part. “I would like all young people— those who share our faith in Jesus Christ, but also those who are wavering or uncertain, or who do not believe in him—to share this experience, which can prove decisive for their lives,” he said in August 2010.
Many observers will be interested to see how the event is received in Spain, whose government is one of the most stridently secular in Europe. Yet despite this, one victory seems to have already been achieved: half of the 50 million euros it is estimated the event will cost will be covered by local and national tax revenues, and the rest by private entities and corporations. Organizers argue that the costs are very low compared to other major international events, and that World Youth Day hostcities stand to benefit from the attention and large number of visitors. World Youth Day events historically have been very orderly and peaceful.
The following month, the Holy Father will undertake what will probably be his most challenging visit of the year: to his native Germany. It will be the third visit to his homeland, after Cologne in 2005 and Bavaria in 2006, but this will be his first state visit to the country. He is to make stops in Berlin, Freiburg, and Erfurt, and may address the national parliament while in the nation’s capital.
“The Holy Father’s visit will represent an important moment in the life of our country and our Church,” Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, president of the German bishops’ conference, told Vatican Radio December 14. “I’m glad the Holy Father has accepted the invitation of the president, Christian Wulff, and our episcopal conference,” he added. “His visit will strengthen the Church in Germany and his service to mankind and society.”
Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke, auxiliary of Hamburg, told Munich Church Radio on December 15 that the Pope’s speech to parliament would be “a great honor for German democracy,” although he stressed at the time that the speech has not yet been confirmed. A state visit, he said, would be a sign that the Pope “is a man who in the community of states plays a unique role.”
“He’s a moral authority to whom many people look,” Bishop Jaschke said. “I think it’s important, during a phase when Christianity is weakening, that this moral authority of the Pope may be experienced in Germany.” He also said he thought it would help the Church to recover from the “horrific abuse scandals” that hit both the Catholic Church and Protestant communities in Germany.
But some vocal opposition began to brew almost immediately after the announcement of the visit, much as it did ahead of the Pope’s state visit to Great Britain last year. Volker Beck of Germany’s Green Party said he was against inviting Benedict XVI to address the German parliament, because he said the Pontiff is first and foremost a religious leader, and only then a head of state. Beck said that other religious leaders would then have to be invited to address the parliament “in the interests of religious diversity.” The Pope would follow the many political leaders who have made addresses in the Reichstag building, including Israeli president Shimon Peres and former President George W. Bush.
Further protests are likely from victims of clerical sex abuse, and from Berlin’s famous anarchist groups. Some earlier reports suggested that the Pope had been putting off visiting Berlin for fear that events of John Paul II’s visit to the city in 1996—during which his Popemobile was pelted with projectiles and a few anarchists pranced around naked— might be repeated. Swiss Guards who were present at that time roll their eyes when reminded of that visit, which was meant to be a joyful trip to the German capital after the collapse of the Berlin Wall a few years earlier.
But not all of those who might be expected to oppose the visit are, in fact, against it. Werner Roleff of Germany’s Ecological-Democratic Party said he hoped it would be “critical to the coexistence” of the country’s people, economy, and politics. The Green Party, he said, has been “unmasked” as “intolerant and ultimately untrustworthy.”
The visit is eagerly anticipated by Christian democrats. “It will be a huge honor for the parliament if the Pope speaks in the Bundestag,” said Norbert Geis of the conservative Christian Social Union in Bavaria party. Bishop Joachim Wanke of Erfurt has said he hopes the Pope will also find time to visit Thuringen and recall the difficulties Christians faced in formerly communist East Germany, which is now very secular.
Archbishop Zollitsch told Vatican Radio in mid-December that the Pope is expected to spend his first day in Berlin, during which he will have a meeting with the president of the German parliament’s lower house (the Bundestag), and may also visit the Maria Regina Martyrum, a church memorial for the victims of National Socialism. On the second day of the visit, the Pope will travel to Erfurt, where ecumenical and interreligious meetings will take place. On the last day, the Holy Father is expected to celebrate an open-air Mass in Freiburg.
Benedict XVI’s final trip of the year (at the time of going to press) will be to Benin, from November 18-20. He is to visit the West African country principally to deliver the post-synodal apostolic exhortation for the Second Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops, which was held in October 2009 on the theme “The Church in Africa in Service of Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace.” The visit will coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Benin’s evangelization, led by the Society of African Missions. The Holy Father will also remember Benin’s Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, the former dean of the College of Cardinals, who died in 2008 at the age of 86.
This will be the Pope’s second visit to Africa, a continent where the Church is rapidly growing. This year’s visit to Africa, which comes in response to an invitation from both the government and the country’s bishops, is likely to return attention to the Church’s teaching on condoms and AIDS, and in particular to the Pope’s recent comments on the subject, published in Light of the World.
But these kinds of issues, while fixated upon by much of the press, are never the focus for the Pope. Instead, it is the spiritual significance of each trip that is important for Benedict—that every one be a form of pilgrimage and testimony for Christ.