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John L. Allen Jr.

Pope bringing packed agenda, chartered jet to South Korea

ROME – Pope Francis leaves today for a six-day swing in South Korea, the first of three Asian nations he’ll visit in the next six months, with a January outing to Sri Lanka and the Philippines also on the horizon.

Americans also are anticipating his all-but-confirmed outing to the United States in September, 2015, a trip expected to bring the pontiff to Philadelphia for a Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, as well as possibly to New York to address the United Nations, and Washington, for a joint session of Congress.

Here are a few footnotes adding color to the Korea journey.


No “Papal Plane”

It’s always a source of amazement for people who’ve never traveled with a pope to realize that there is no “Papal Plane,” a Vatican version of Air Force One. It doesn’t help that some American media outlets insist on calling the plane the pope flies on “Shepherd One” whenever he comes to the States, as if there’s a vast papal aircraft sitting in a hanger someplace when it’s not in use.

The pontiff does not actually own an airplane, so when he travels, the Vatican has to charter a jet. In general, the pope takes the Italian carrier Alitalia for his departure and the national airline of whatever country he’s visiting on the way back.

For instance, last May, Francis returned to Rome from the Middle East aboard an El Al jet, since his return flight took off from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport in Israel.

To be clear, the planes the pope travels in are normal commercial jets that were in use the day before flying one of the carrier’s regular routes, and will be back in service the day after. There’s no high-tech communications room, no missile pack under the wings, no eavesdropping-proof conference room with an oak table, and no papal office with a red hotline phone.


In this case, Francis will board a regular Alitalia A330 jet this afternoon for the 11-hour flight to Seoul. Next Monday, he’ll return to Rome aboard a Korean Airlines B777.

Typically, there are few special accommodations for the pope, and often the only real perk is that he gets the first seat in business class with no one next to him.

For especially long flights, sometimes a couple rows of seats are removed in the plane’s front compartment to create a small space for the pope, including a bed, a worktable, and a kneeler for prayer. There’s actually a museum in Kansas City, Kansas, that displays the bed TWA installed in 1987 when it carried John Paul II back to Rome from the United States, complete with a safety belt across its twin frame.

Francis rarely gets full use of whatever space is provided for him, since he generally devotes an hour or more on each leg of the flight to meeting the press – saying hello individually to the journalists on the plane on the way out, and conducting a full-blown press conference on the way home.

The roughly 30-member Vatican entourage, including cardinals and other aides travelling with the pope, as well as a small security detail, occupy the rest of business class.

In a distinctive Francis touch, he’s adopted the custom of inviting an ordinary Vatican employee to join his party for his trips, in this case somebody who fields calls in the Vatican’s telephone center. Since the employee has no responsibilities, it basically amounts to a paid vacation.


Francis has made a point of reaching out to the Vatican’s worker bees, last month making a surprise visit to the employee’s canteen for lunch.

One more note: In a sense, the 60-70 journalists who make the flight actually help subsidize papal travel, since they’re typically asked to pay what amounts to business class airfare for coach seats.

Debut in English

Pope Francis is notoriously uncomfortable speaking English, often responding in Italian or Spanish when he’s addressed in the language, even in private. On the trip, however, he’s set to make his public debut as an orator in English, giving four speeches in English over the course of his five days in the country.

Overall, the schedule calls for Francis to deliver 10 formal addresses, and plans call for him to make six of them in Italian and the remainder in English.

The four English speeches are:

• An address to government authorities and diplomats on Thursday

• Brief comments following a Mass on Friday in Daejeon, where the pontiff will also be joined by family members of victims of the recent Sewol shipwreck that claimed roughly 300 lives

• A meeting with several hundred Catholic youth from across Asia on Friday

•A concluding Mass on Sunday for an Asian Catholic youth festival

Those speeches figure to be among the rhetorical highlights of the trip, and given that English is the most common second language across most of Asia, including in South Korea, Francis apparently felt it was important he speak in a language his audience could grasp without the need for translation.


Francis is, of course, notorious for veering off-script when he takes a lectern, so one test of how at ease he feels in English may come if he decides to ad lib during one or more of these four addresses – and what language he opts to do it in.

Presumably, he’ll take the same approach when he visits Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January. For Americans, the trip to South Korea can’t help but seem a linguistic dry run ahead of Francis’ projected September 2015 visit to the United States.

Depending on how things go, Americans may owe South Koreans a note of gratitude by trip’s end for giving the pontiff a chance to bring the public use of English a bit more inside his comfort zone.

Making history with China

Before Francis even touches down in Seoul, he will make a small bit of history by becoming the first pope to fly over China. When John Paul II visited South Korea in 1984 and 1989 he skirted Chinese airspace, in the latter case because flyover rights were denied.

China does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, one of just a handful of countries without such ties, and moving the ball on the relationship with Beijing is among the Vatican’s most ardent diplomatic priorities.


The pope typically sends telegrams to the leaders of the countries he flies over, so his brief dispatch to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the text of which should be distributed to reporters aboard the plane, will be closely read.

The pope and Iraq

On the eve of his departure for South Korea, the pope wrote to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reiterate his concern over Iraq.

“The violent attacks that are sweeping across Northern Iraq,” writes Pope Francis, “cannot but awaken the consciences of all men and women of goodwill to concrete acts of solidarity by protecting those affected or threatened by violence and assuring the necessary and urgent assistance for the many displaced people as well as their safe return to their cities and their homes.”

Francis said he wanted to voice his alarm “and that of the entire Catholic Church, for the intolerable suffering of those who only wish to live in peace, harmony and freedom in the land of their forefathers.”

To American eyes, one striking aspect of the pope’s message was the complete absence of any reference, even indirect, to the current US strikes in Iraq.

To be sure, the pope’s language clearly seemed to express a preference that any long-term humanitarian intervention should unfold under the aegis of the United Nations and with a clear warrant in international law.

At the same time, in the context of recent Vatican criticism of any US use of force in the Middle East, even when it was merely hypothetical as in Syria, the fact that the pope has not said a critical word about the current campaign has struck most observers as a sort of implied consent.

Earlier this week, two senior Vatican officials, including the pope’s ambassador in Baghdad and his envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, both issued grudging approvals of the US strikes, calling them “necessary” and “probably unavoidable.”

Pope Francis may find an occasion to come back to the current crisis in Iraq when he beatifies a group of 124 Korean martyrs from the 18th and 19th centuries on Saturday, a context in which he may also want to reflect on the new martyrs of the 21st century.

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at john.allen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.