Pope Francis: An essential traveler ready to go
Pope Francis is pictured in a video screenshot delivering a message to the people of Iraq in advance of his March 5-8 visit. Pope Francis said he will visit as a pilgrim of peace and reconciliation, hoping to strengthen a sense of fraternity among all the nation’s people of every ethnicity and religion. (CNS screenshot/Vatican Media)
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — As Pope Francis packed his bags to travel internationally for the first time in 15 months, news stories were flashing warnings about the dangers of his March 5-8 visit to Iraq, not only due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because of Iraq’s long-term security problems, including bomb and rocket attacks.
Many people were wondering why the pope wanted to go to Iraq now. Why not wait until the Covid-19 pandemic had died down and the security situation improved?
“I am the pastor of people who are suffering,” Pope Francis told Catholic News Service Feb. 1 during a discussion about his Iraq trip. In a sign of his determination to travel to Iraq, the pope indicated to CNS that he would consider taking a regular commercial flight to get there if needed.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced authorities to determine what an essential activity is. While secular authorities in some cases have not considered religious observances essential, this has not been the view of the church during the pandemic. In remarks Feb. 23 to U.N. Human Rights Council, Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister, said that for believers, the ability to practice their faith and receive spiritual guidance are “the highest of essential services.”
The concept of a papal trip fitting into the category of “the highest of essential services” could help explain the rationale to go to Iraq in the middle of a pandemic.
In fact, journalists going with the pope to Iraq pressed Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, about why the pope would go as Iraq experiences a surge in the daily number of new cases and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has marked the country in red – its highest threat level.
Bruni said that the trip was “an act of love” and cited the pope’s role as the successor of Peter in confirming his brothers and sisters and in faith and love. He said that acts of love can be interpreted as extreme.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has described the Church as a field hospital for the spiritually wounded. If the Church is the hospital, the pope is the lead doctor.
Undoubtedly Christians in Iraq need consolation and a spiritual boost. The number of Christians in Iraq has plummeted from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the 2003 U.S. invasion, according to the charity Aid to the Church in Need. During the Islamic State occupation from 2014 to 2017, Christians were killed, suffered persecution and hundreds of thousands fled the country. Those forced to flee their homes are undoubtedly close to the heart of a pope who has made concern for migrants a main theme of his pontificate.
While the basis for an Iraq visit is clear, the question of timing remains. Bruni described the trip as happening at the “first possible moment for a journey like this.” Indeed, the visit comes shortly after the pope, Vatican employees and journalists on his flight received the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19.
But Iraq began administering its first vaccines only three days before the pope was set to arrive.
The pandemic is raging in Iraq with 4,690 new cases reported March 2, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. During February, the daily count of new cases more than tripled, rising from 984 on Feb. 1 to 3,248 by Feb. 28. In mid-February, the Iraqi government responded to the rising case numbers in the nation of 40 million by issuing a nationwide curfew.
The pope told CNS on Feb. 1 that a serious new wave of Covid-19 infections would be the one thing that would prevent his visit. While the wave materialized and daily infections nearly reached the 5,000 per-day peak set last October, the trip was still on.