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Papal trips: both “pastoral visits” and “state visits” Papal trips: both “pastoral visits” and “state visits”

On his travels John Paul II took the advantages of being a visiting head of state and a religious leader, just as the Holy See exploits its dual status as country and church. He used his "state visits" paid for by his hosts, for "pastoral visits" where he evanglised at his World Youth Days, issued "moral guidance" on proposed laws and reined in "liberation theologians". Included is a list of the 104 trips of John Paul II. Another pope, Francis I, also has enough personal charisma to distract people from his conservative doctrines.

 Papal trips are as ambiguous as the Vatican itself, which claims the benefits of being both a state and a religion. As "state visits" they are paid for by the host country, unlike the trips of any other religious leader. And as "pastoral visits" they lend themselves to the dispensation of politically-charged "moral guidance" which would be a breach of protocol for the head of any real state.

It was his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, who was the first to proclaim himself a ''pilgrim pope,'' but he made only nine trips abroad, occupying just 30 days of a 15-year pontificate. [1] By contrast, John Paul II, made reciprocal state visits a prominent part of Vatican diplomacy, with 104 trips to countries outside of Italy, which are listed below. (However, he did not always seem particularly welcome — in 1979, when he visited Mexico, then-President José Lopez Portillo pointedly referred to the Pontiff as "Sir." [2])

It has been argued that the rationale behind John Paul's travels was to counter the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council. They enabled him to evangelise at his World Youth Days at his hosts' expense, issue "moral guidance" on their proposed laws and rein in their "liberation theologians". These trips substituted the group excitement of huge public events for the stimulation of the new ideas of Vatican II, which were frowned upon by the Polish pope. He inaugurated World Youth Days, with papal appearances on a huge stage and much music. This enabled  the media-friendly, but very conservative Pope to directly evangelise young people in their own idiom. John Paul's travels can be seen as a way to counteract the decentralising and liberal tendencies fostered by Vatican II

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the chief Vatican spokesman, said one of the Pope's major goals in traveling was to extend his personal authority and that of the papacy: "Early on, he realized he could not run the church from the Vatican". [3] 

 Many of John Paul's trips appear to have had specific political goals.

  The 1979 visit of John Paul II dubbed the "Hallelujah weekend of Ireland" coincided with that country's first tentative step towards legalising contraception. The pope devoted that trip to promoting "motherhood". 

♦  On the eve of the Pope's 1982 visit to Britain, the Falklands War broke out. In order not to alienate the Argentines, the Pope quickly arranged to also visit Argentina. There General Galtieri, head of the military junta which was terrorising the country, received a papal kiss. These fast moving developments caught the Vatican off balance, which has left a rare record of political manoeuvring. [4]

♦  On his trip in 1985 to Peru he followed up on a document written by Cardinal Ratzinger condemning "liberation theology" which the Polish pope saw as Marxist, and demanded obedience from the Peruvian hierarchy. [5]

♦  In 1985 and 1990 he made two papal “pilgrimages” to the Ivory Coast. The first was to bless the foundation stone for a basilica and the second to consecrate the largest church in the world — an African dictator’s full-sized replica of St Peter's Basilica. The Vatican followed up three years later by concluding a very profitable concordat

♦  His visit to Portugal in 2000 came just as the concordat negotiations were starting, a "treaty" which gave the Church a number of new privileges

♦  His 2003 trip to Slovakia seemed to be timed to try to prevent parliament from legalising abortion and also to nudge along the negotiations for the "conscience concordat" before Slovakia joined the European Union. 

♦  And his 1997 trip to Cuba prompted Cuba to declare Christmas a national holiday. Then in 2008 visit of his successor, Benedict XVI resulting in Good Friday being added, on a temporary basis [6], which in 2014 was finally made permanent. [7] Slowly, slowly....

The Iron Curtain came down in 1989, a couple of years before the pope was diagnosed with Parkinson's. Yet, in spite of declining health towards the end, he made frequent trips to the former East Bloc, visiting every country there at least once. There appear to be several reasons for his special interest in these post-Communist countries:

♦  to exert influence at a critical juncture when the institutions of these new societies were being formed, for example the initiative in Hungary which has resulted in most of that country's social services being administered by the Order of Malta. [8]

♦  to then use these countries whose national identity was Catholic to "evangelise from the east" the rest of Europe [9] ,

♦  to use his leverage as an advocate for their membership in the European Union in order to get them to sign concordats, happened in Croatia [10] and Belarus [11],

♦  to get these concordats in place before they entered the EU. The reason for this is that the ground-rules of the EU (Declaration 11 of the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam) effectively protect church-state relations that are already in place from human-rights objections. In fact, the Vatican had to shelve the "conscience concordat" in Slovakia precisely because it didn't manage to get it through before that country joined the EU.

List of John Paul II’s "state visits" or "pilgrimages" 1978-2004

Pope John Paul II made 104 state visits to 129 countries outside of Italy (as well as 146 within Italy, which are not listed here) and received many heads of state at the Vatican.

1978 elected 16 October and, as the first non-Italian pope of modern times, tactfully makes pilgrimages to the tombs of the patrons of Italy (St. Francis, and St. Catherine).

1979 visits the Dominican Republic, Mexico, the Bahamas, Poland, Ireland, the USA and Turkey; receives the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, addresses the U.N and becomes the first Pope to visit the White House.

1980 visits Zaire, the Congo, Kenya, Ghana, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, France (addressing UNESCO), Brazil, West Germany; receives the President of Portugal, President of the USA, Queen of Britain and President of Yugoslavia.

1981 visits Pakistan, the Philippines, Guam, Japan and the USA; receives a Polish Solidarność delegation – all this before 13 May when he is shot in St. Peter’s Square, which ends his trips for the rest of the year.

1982 visits Nigeria, Benin, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Portugal, Britain, Brazil, Argentina, Switzerland, San Marino and Spain; receives the President of Greece, President of the USA, President of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and President of West Germany.

1983 visits Portugal, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Haiti, Poland, France and Austria.

1984 visits South Korea, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, Switzerland, Canada, Spain, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico; receives the President of Italy.

1985 visits Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Togo, the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Zaire, Kenya, Morocco and Liechtenstein; receives the Prime Minister of Israel and Foreign Minister of the USSR.

1986 visits India, Colombia, St Lucia, France, Bangladesh, Singapore, Fiji Islands, New Zealand, Australia and the Seychelles; receives the President of Lebanon, Governor General of Canada and President of Cameroon.

1987 visits Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Germany, Poland, the USA and Canada; receives the President of Poland, President of the USA, President of Austria and President of Argentina.

1988 visits Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, Paraguay, Austria, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique and France; receives the President of the Philippines.

1989 visits Madagascar, La Réunion, Zambia, Malawi, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, South Korea, Indonesia, Mauritius; receives the President of Ireland, President of the USA, Archbishop of Canterbury (England), President of the USSR and President of Malta.

1990 visits Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Czechoslovakia (Prague and Bratislava), Mexico, Curaçao, Malta, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Ivory Coast; receives the President of Portugal.

1991 visits Portugal, Poland, Hungary and Brazil; receives the President of Poland, President of Chile and King of Sweden.

1992 visits Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Angola, São Tomé e Príncipe and the Dominican Republic.

1993 visits Benin, Uganda, Sudan, Albania, Spain, Jamaica, Mexico, the USA, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia; receives the President of Slovenia, President of Slovakia and President of Argentina.

1994 visits Croatia; receives the President of Germany, President of the Czech Republic, Prime Minister of Israel, President of the USA, President of Austria and President of Lithuania.

1995 visits the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Sri Lanka, Czech Republic, Poland, Belgium, Slovakia, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya and the USA, (addressing the UN there); receives the President of Malta.

1996 visits Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Venezuela, Tunisia, Slovenia, Germany, Hungary, France; receives the President of France, President of Mexico, Archbishop of Canterbury (England) and President of the Palestinian Authority.

1997 visits Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Lebanon, Poland, France, Brazil; receives the Prime Minister of Israel, President of Brazil and President of Georgia.

1998 visits Cuba, Nigeria, Austria, Croatia; receives the Secretary of State of the USA, King of Belgium, the President of the Palestinian Authority and President of South Africa.

1999 visits Mexico, the USA, Romania, Poland, Slovenia, India and Georgia; receives the President of Iran and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel.

2000 visits Egypt, “the Holy Land” (Jordan, Israel and Palestine), Portugal; receives the President of the Palestinian Authority, President of the Russian Federation and Queen of Britain.

2001 visits Greece, Syria and Malta (in “the footsteps of St. Paul”), the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Armenia (to mark 1,700 years of Christianity there).

2002 visits Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Canada, Guatemala, Mexico and Poland; receives the President of the USA.

2003 visits Spain, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovakia.

2004 visits Switzerland and France; receives the President of the USA and Prime Minister of the interim government of Iraq.

Source: abbreviated from the detailed itinerary, “Pope John Paul II — World Traveller” by Michel Guntern at

The official Vatican website, "John Paul II Travels" is at 


1. Roberto Suro, "Papal Visits Viewed As Special Exercise In Vatican Strategy", New York Times, 6 September 1987.

2. "Protect religious freedom, Pope urges Mexican government", Catholic Culture, 23 September 2005.

3. New York Times, ibid.

4. T. Crosthwaite, "The Vatican and the Falklands War", 2010. Highly recommended.

5. New York Times, ibid.

6. "Cuba to Mark Good Friday as Holiday Thanks to Benedict XVI's Visit", Zenit, 22 March 2013.

7. "Good Friday Declared National Holiday in Cuba", Zenit, 17 April 2014.

8. "Hungary’s largest social assistance provider under Vatican control", Concordat Watch.

9. Martina Grenova, "Pope urges Slovaks to bring Christian tradition to Europe", Insight Central Europe News, 13 September 2003.

10. "Croatia", Concordat Watch. 

11. “Europe’s last dictator seeks Vatican acceptance”, Concordat Watch.


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