As Pope Francis packed his bags to travel internationally for the first time in 15 months, news stories were flashing warnings about the dangers of his March 5-8 visit to Iraq, not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because of Iraq's long-term security problems, including bomb and rocket attacks.
The week before the trip also saw the publication of statements Pope Francis made in a 2019 interview with an Argentinian journalist and physician in which the pope said he intends to die in Rome and be buried there. He also spoke about his mental health and a past struggle with anxiety, overcome by spending six months meeting with a psychiatrist who helped him manage his anxiety and "to avoid rushing when making decisions."
In short, a week of news about danger, death and the pope's past anxiety came as he prepared to become the first pope to set foot in Iraq.
Many people were wondering why the pope wanted to go to Iraq now. Why not wait until the COVID-19 pandemic had died down and the security situation improved?
"I am the pastor of people who are suffering," Pope Francis told Catholic News Service Feb. 1 during a discussion about his Iraq trip. In a sign of his determination to travel to Iraq, the pope indicated to CNS that he would consider taking a regular commercial flight to get there if needed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced authorities to determine what an essential activity is. While secular authorities in some cases have not considered religious observances essential, this has not been the view of the church during the pandemic. In remarks Feb. 23 to U.N. Human Rights Council, Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister, said that for believers, the ability to practice their faith and receive spiritual guidance are "the highest of essential services."
The concept of a papal trip fitting into the category of "the highest of essential services" could help explain the rationale to go to Iraq in the middle of a pandemic.
In fact, journalists going with the pope to Iraq pressed Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, about why the pope would go as Iraq experiences a surge in the daily number of new cases and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has marked the country in red -- its highest threat level.
Bruni said that the trip was "an act of love" and cited the pope's role as the successor of Peter in confirming his brothers and sisters and in faith and love. He said that acts of love can be interpreted as extreme.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has described the church as a field hospital for the spiritually wounded. If the church is the hospital, the pope is the lead doctor.
Undoubtedly Christians in Iraq need consolation and a spiritual boost. The number of Christians in Iraq has plummeted from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the 2003 U.S. invasion, according to the charity Aid to the Church in Need. During the Islamic State occupation from 2014 to 2017, Christians were killed, suffered persecution and hundreds of thousands fled the country. Those forced to flee their homes are undoubtedly close to the heart of a pope who has made concern for migrants a main theme of his pontificate.
While the basis for an Iraq visit is clear, the question of timing remains. Bruni described the trip as happening at the "first possible moment for a journey like this." Indeed, the visit comes shortly after the pope, Vatican employees and journalists on his flight received the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19.
But Iraq began administering its first vaccines only three days before the pope was set to arrive.
The pandemic is raging in Iraq with 4,690 new cases reported March 2, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. During February, the daily count of new cases more than tripled, rising from 984 on Feb. 1 to 3,248 by Feb. 28. In mid-February, the Iraqi government responded to the rising case numbers in the nation of 40 million by issuing a nationwide curfew Friday to Sunday and 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. the rest of the week.
The pope told CNS on Feb. 1 that a serious new wave of COVID-19 infections would be the one thing that would prevent his visit. While the wave materialized and daily infections nearly reached the 5,000 per-day peak set last October, the trip was still on.
Ultimately, only the pope can explain why he wants to visit Iraq at this time.
Obviously, Pope Francis has a heartfelt desire to visit, and worldwide travel has become a part of the duties of a pope. The pope also has admitted that he felt "caged" during Italy's intense coronavirus lockdown from March to May last year.
Still, Pope Francis has always kept busy, working the phones when not able to travel or hold meetings and audiences. He doesn't even take a vacation. And with his 85th birthday approaching in December, he surely is aware of all he would like to accomplish before he dies or retires -- an option he has spoken of approvingly and mentioned as a possibility in the Argentinian interview.
As for the risks that Iraq presents, Pope Francis has said he is not afraid of death or danger.
When the pope boards the Alitalia flight for his 33rd international trip, many will still think he is traveling too soon, violating COVID-19 protocols and exposing himself to the danger of terrorist threats. But it's clear the pope sees his mission to Iraq as an essential activity that must go forward despite the risks.