When Benedict XVI was elected, my local bishop speculated to the media that perhaps this new pope would travel less than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005). Perhaps this was an obvious statement on the heels of a quarter century of globetrotting. But listening to the bishop, you got the impression that he meant this pope really would be more of a homebody (Rome-body?), for whom travel wouldn't be a high priority.
Four fast-paced years later, even Pope Benedict might be surprised that his travels have taken him to Germany (twice), Austria, Spain, Poland, France, Turkey, Brazil, the United States (and the United Nations), Australia, Cameroon, Angola and now Jordan, Israel and Palestine. This doesn't include his, to date, 13 apostolic voyages within Italy. While he's not on track to overcome John Paul II anytime soon, no one can accuse this pope of neglecting travel.
While the stunning precedent set by John Paul offers one explanation of Benedict's busier-than-expected itinerary, a broader view might be that world travel is a still-emerging part of the pope's ministry as a universal pastor in the post-Vatican II era. Nowhere in the documents of the Second Vatican Council does it say, "and the pope needs to get out more," at least not to my knowledge. But a traveling pope reflects nicely the shift from an insular church to a pilgrim church as seen at Vatican II.
One could argue the papal travels got underway as early as when Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) said his motivation for calling the council was to open the windows of the church and let in some fresh air. It was only a matter of time before the pope, any pope, went exploring to see just what lay outside those windows. John XXIII did just that. He was famously a security nightmare, leaving the Vatican unannounced to visit hospitalized children or, assuming the story isn't apocryphal, purchase a snack from a Roman street vendor.
This was particularly jarring at a time when the pope had long been known as "the prisoner of the Vatican." It had been a big deal when John's predecessor, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), left the Vatican to console victims of aerial bombings in the streets of Rome. It was similarly unprecedented when John XXIII made a trip outside of Rome to the village of Assisi in 1962 to pray for the success of the council.
The travel trend continued to the point where John's successor, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978), was regarded as the "pilgrim pope" by the time of his death. Knowing what was to come with John Paul II, this title seems misplaced. But not only did Pope Paul's travels take him outside of Italy (the first modern pope do so), they took him to the Holy Land, India, the U.S and U.N., Portugal, Istanbul, Ephesus, Smyrna, Colombia, Switzerland, Uganda, Iran, Pakistan, the Philippines, West Samoa, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and the Mediterranean island of Cagliari.
Not bad at all.
Taking the long view, from Pius XII, to John XXIII, to Paul VI, to John Paul II (skipping the 34-day pontificate of John Paul I), each pope's travels are exponentially more extensive than his predecessor's, and this after centuries of non-travel. It's tempting to view this phenomenon as a surprise gift of the Holy Spirit, a new dimension to the papacy brought on by the mission of Vatican II and the "new pentecost" that John XXIII hoped it would prompt.
Then comes Benedict XVI, a quiet, retiring intellectual, someone who's probably more at home in his study than criss-crossing the world by jet. But by this point the role as global pastor has been firmly established for the pope, so he enthusiastically tackles it, albeit in his own style. This style doesn't always go off well in the media, but it's still part of the unique set of gifts that this pope brings to his ministry to the Catholic Church and, more recently, the world.