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Jim McDermottFebruary 06, 2023
Pope Francis smiles as he speaks with reporters on the flight back to Rome from Bahrain Nov. 6, 2022. (CNS photo/Maurizio Brambatti pool via Reuters)

When the pope travels to other countries, as Pope Francis did last week, he does so with an intent to be a source of consolation and encouragement to the people of those countries and to help draw the world’s attention to those countries and their needs.

But one aspect of the pope’s travels that is often overlooked is the communication that he also has with other countries. It is the custom of the papacy that the pope sends a telegram of greeting and blessing to the leader of every country over which his plane flies. So as he flew over Africa on his way to the Democratic Republic of Congo last week, he sent letters to the leaders of Tunisia, Algeria, Niger, the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Chad.

“As I fly over your country on my way to the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he wrote to Mohamed Bazoum, the president of the Republic of Niger, “I send cordial greetings to Your Excellency and the people of Niger, together with the assurance of my prayers that the Almighty will bless you all with strength and peace.”

It is the custom of the papacy that the pope sends a telegram of greeting and blessing to the leader of every country over which his plane flies.

While the exact origin of this practice is unknown, Federico Lombardi, S.J., the director of the Vatican Press Office from 2006 to 2016, says it “almost certainly” began with Paul VI, the first pope in 150 years to travel outside of Italy and the first ever to do so by plane. And the inspiration, Father Lombardi believes, emerged out of practicality. On any flight, “The aircraft is in continuous contact with the control towers of all the countries flown over to provide data on the route and to receive instructions and assistance during the flight,” he explains. Furthermore, heads of state are required to request permission to fly over other countries.

[Popes on a Plane: How the Boeing 747 changed the Catholic Church and the papacy]

These requirements of communication gave the Vatican the idea, Father Lombardi says, “of thanking…the various countries for having facilitated the pastoral mission of the pope by granting overflight rights.”

The statements are very short, just a few sentences, drafted in conjunction with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, which oversees all of the pope’s texts on his apostolic trips abroad. And in a sense, they all amount to the same thing: Hello and God bless you. But there is a care in the language that is striking. The terms used for God shift with the country and never assume a Christian image. Sometimes there are other specific details, too. Talking to transitional president of Chad, Mahamat Déby, Pope Francis prays for the blessings of “reconciliation and peace.” The country has struggled with tremendous political instability and oppression following the murder of Mr. Déby’s father the day after he won re-election in 2021.

There’s also the sense of a personal touch. The notes are written in the first person and present the pope literally thinking of the people below as he passes overhead. “Flying over Algeria on my apostolic journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he writes, “I extend greetings of good wishes to Your Excellency and your fellow citizens.” You can just about imagine Pope Francis in his seat, looking out the window on the countries below and praying for the people there.

In a sense, the pope’s messages all amount to the same thing: Hello and God bless you. But there is a care in the language that is striking. 

Originally, the texts were written in the native language of the country below, another thoughtful gesture. But “given the difficulty of reading the messages” for the flight crew that is asked to convey them, Father Lombardi says, they eventually decided to use the languages used in air travel. Most of the time that means English.

Father Lombardi also notes, given the vagaries of air travel, that sometimes a route gets changed mid-flight. As a result, the papal plane is always ready with telegrams for other countries that they may unexpectedly have to pass over.

Occasionally, the notes are truly monumental. China had severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1951, and in 1989 refused to let John Paul II fly over Chinese airspace. But in 2014, Pope Francis was able to offer his first-ever statement to the Chinese people when China allowed his plane to fly over Chinese land on its way to South Korea.

“Upon entering Chinese airspace, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens,” Francis wrote, “and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.” Father Lombardi, who was press director at the time, found the occasion very memorable. So did people in China. Mary Zhang, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Beijing at the time, said, “I’m very excited. It’s the first time the pope has flown over China.” It gave her hope that the pope might some day be able to say Mass there.

As simple as they are, I find it heartening to read these notes. Maybe it is the thoughtfulness of the gesture, even the earnestness. “As I return from my apostolic journey to Canada,” Francis wrote to Sergio Mattarella, the president of Italy—always the first and final telegram of his trips—“enriched by the encounter with many people and situations of the place, and especially by the experiences of contact with the native peoples, I warmly extend to you, Mr. President, and to the dear Italian nation, fervent wishes of serenity and prosperity, assuring you of my constant prayer.” To me he sounds like a child eager to share with his parents the wonders he has seen.

But the pope’s telegrams also offer a tangible expression of God’s affection. We believe that no matter who we are, where we live or what we believe, God sees us and cares for us. Like a spiritual Santa Claus, or perhaps more aptly St. Valentine, everywhere the pope goes he sends out caring notes, to remind us of that fact.

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