Popes on a Plane: How the Boeing 747 changed the Catholic Church and the papacy
In the most recent episode of the new HBO Max series “The Last of Us,” a teenager marvels at the ruins of a plane on a hillside. As someone who has lived her whole life in a post-apocalyptic world, she is blown away by the idea of air travel. “You fly in one of those?” she asks an adult. “Sometimes, sure,” he says, but then recalls the annoyances of air flight, middle seats, expensive food. “Dude, you got to go up in the sky,” she tells him.
For over 65 years now, a lot of us have had the chance to “go up in the sky.” And as Sam Howe Verhovek pointed out this week in The New York Times, much of that is due directly or indirectly to Boeing’s 747. The plane, which had its first flight 53 years ago next week, Feb. 9, 1969, had almost three times the seating of any other plane at the time and a fuel capacity that allowed it to travel almost twice as far as the 707, more than 8,000 miles—basically the distance from New York to Cape Town, or Calcutta to Los Angeles. The 747 made it possible for more people to fly and fly farther. Today we may complain that plane flights feel as basic as travel by bus, but that’s a sign of how far we’ve come.
Prior to 1964, no pope had left Italy for 150 years. The advent of the 747 and long-haul flights enabled popes to finally visit the world, and the world to visit the pope.
One thing that might not be as obvious is the degree to which the easy air travel introduced by the 747 changed the church, as well. On the one hand, it made Rome, the Vatican and the pope accessible to people from around the world. In 1960, Europe had 50 million tourists; last year, Rome alone had 15 million. Events like the Wednesday audience, the Sunday Angelus or a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica suddenly had a reach and impact impossible in the past. Concepts like “the universal church” or “the Holy See” moved from the realm of the abstract to something that could be tangible and personal for Catholics.
The advent of ready air transport also meant that popes could truly travel the world. When Paul VI flew to the Holy Land in January of 1964, it was the first time a pope had left Italy in 150 years. It was also the first papal pilgrimage to the Holy Land ever in the history of Christianity.
Easy air travel has allowed pontiffs and other Catholic leaders to be emissaries of Christ in ways never before possible. Popes have been able to bring messages of hope and courage to people in need. “We were listening with tears in our eyes,” the polish ambassador to the Holy See Janusz Kotański reflected regarding Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Poland. “He treated us seriously. He was telling us…you mustn’t be afraid. You are Catholics. You are Poles. You are young. The future belongs to you.”
Papal travel also became a way of spotlighting important issues or unseen people. So Pope Francis used his first papal flight to travel to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where tens of thousands of migrants were landing, looking for refuge in Europe. After remembering those who have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean, he called upon the people of the world to see refugees as their sisters and brothers. “‘Where is your brother?’” Francis preached at Mass that day, quoting God’s words to Cain after the death of Abel. “This is not a question directed to others; it is a question directed to me, to you, to each of us.”
Papal travel also became a way of spotlighting important issues or unseen people.
Francis has also used the context of the plane flight itself to provoke a reimagining of the church and the papacy. His in-flight press conferences have delivered some of his most unexpected (and occasionally most important) comments, such as an openness to gay clergy and religious; an insistence that “not all Muslims are violent” (and plenty of Catholics are, too); and, in discussing his own health, the until recently unthinkable comment, “You can change the pope.”
But just the visual of a pope standing not at some remove from people, but cheek by jowl with journalists, holding a microphone like a stand-up comic and sometimes just kidding around, may end up having an even greater long term impact on the church. Francis is not the first pope to do this; the in-flight papal press conference began with Pope John Paul II being asked an impromptu question by a journalist during his first trip as pope. (The question was whether he would visit the United States; his answer was yes.)
John Paul also had a similar capacity to use humor in these moments. Asked if the pace of his trips ever tired him out, he told the press pool: No, but it was intended to tire them out.
Pope Francis has used those on-plane moments with the press to present himself and the papacy as accessible, human and, most shockingly, open to interrogation.
But Francis has used those on-plane moments with the press to present himself and the papacy as accessible, human and, most shockingly, open to interrogation. On his return trip from Canada, Indigenous Canadian journalists questioned the fact that the pope didn’t use the trip to denounce the doctrine of discovery and hadn’t used the term genocide to describe what had been done to Indigenous people in the Catholic residential school systems. And he admitted they were right, and promised a new papal statement on the doctrine of discovery.
Every press story, photograph and video clip that follows one of these papal in-flight Q&As only reinforces Francis’ deconstructed vision of authority in the church. He is the leader of the church, but he is also a human being, capable of mistakes, humor and spontaneity.
In truth, most papal trips haven’t used 747s. Pope Paul VI’s first flight was on a new Douglas DC-8. Pope Francis’ flights to Africa this week have been on an Airbus 350, which uses 25 percent less fuel and emits 25 percent less CO2 than earlier planes. The Vatican doesn’t even own its own jets: though often dubbed “Shepherd One,” the pope’s outbound flights are actually planes chartered through Italy’s state carrier—previously Alitalia, now ITA Airways—while the return flights are often chartered with the airline of the state visited. So when flying within the United States and returning to Italy in 2015, Pope Francis flew on American Airlines. (Unfortunately, he still had to fly through JFK.)
But the impact upon the church of the era of readily available international travel that the 747 ushered in is undeniable. On Tuesday, the last 747 that Boeing will ever build was delivered to U.S. cargo operator Atlas Air. “The impact of your work,” Atlas Air president and C.E.O. John Dietrich told Boeing’s employees, “has fueled childhood dreams and career ambitions.” Within the church it has also helped make the promise of the kingdom of God a more tangible reality.