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Pope Francis, globe-trotting at an age when other popes have eased up, is trying to transform the church through his travels

Pope Francis engages with Thai youth outside Assumption Cathedral in Bangkok on Thursday. (Paula Bronstein/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis, at age 82, has spent nearly a month on the road this year. He has visited 10 countries, and on Saturday arrived in Japan, his 11th. The pope has said he doesn’t particularly enjoy traveling, but he is a committed globe-trotter at an age when other popes eased up and stayed mostly inside the Vatican’s walls.

The trips are a testament to Francis’s physical endurance. But they also show the pope’s sense of urgency, nearly seven years into his papacy, at a time when his voice has seemed to lose ground to more nationalist sentiments around the world.

His trips no longer command the global attention that they did in earlier years. Instead, by papal standards, they are quieter affairs — voyages often to small countries on the Catholic periphery where Francis highlights issues that he has put at the center of his papacy: the acceptance of migrants, the protection of the environment, outreach to the Muslim world.

“I think he knows his time is limited, as anybody’s is,” said David Gibson, director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture. “It’s an evangelical urgency, if I can put it that way. I don’t think it is just him looking at the calendar, how much time he has. But also looking at the state of the world and feeling it is in a very perilous state.”

The travels are anything but light. This year, he has ventured as far west as Panama and as far south as Madagascar. He has warned about the dangers of populism while visiting Romania and come to the defense of migrants in Morocco, saying they needed to be welcomed without fear and “barriers.” While visiting the United Arab Emirates, the first papal trip to the Arabian Peninsula, he signed an interreligious document disavowing “hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism.”

And during the first leg of his current trip, to Thailand, Francis has pointed out the “humiliation” of women forced into prostitution in that country.

In Japan, Francis turned his attention to nuclear weapons, which he called “evil.” His itinerary included visits Sunday in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, cities devastated by U.S. atomic bombs in 1945. In Nagasaki, Francis laid a wreath at the victims’ memorial, the Associated Press reported. “Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation,” he said, according to AP.

Francis, of course, has problems in his own backyard. The Vatican is still consumed by the sexual abuse crisis and is dealing with financial scandals and a long-standing effort to revamp its bureaucracy.

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But Francis, from the beginning of his papacy, has made it clear that he wanted to push power within the church away from the Holy See — taking the faith to what he has sometimes described as the “peripheries.”

It is in some of those peripheries, too, where Catholicism is growing more quickly — and Francis’s travels show how the church’s center of gravity is shifting away from its historic base in Europe. Relatively younger populations in Africa and across parts of Asia give the church the best chance to grow. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2060, more than 40 percent of Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa. Already, the majority of global Catholic seminary candidates come from Africa and Asia.

Francis, an Argentine who is the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, has both encouraged and acknowledged this trend in choosing where to travel. Since becoming pope, he has stayed away from many of the core European countries, including Spain and Germany. He visited France in 2014 — but only with a quick stop to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He visited Greece in 2016 — but only with a visit to a migrant detention camp, where he returned to Italy on the papal plane with 12 refugees from Syria.

When Polish Pope John Paul II ventured outside of Italy, he spent 34 percent of his travel days in Europe. Pope Benedict XVI, a German, remained in Europe for more than half of his travel. Francis, by contrast, has spent 16 percent of his travel time in Europe during his papacy.

Francis this year has taken seven international trips, the most by a pope since John Paul in 1982. He was a famed traveler who, in the 1980s — when he was in his 60s — routinely took 10- and 11-day trips, cramming them with events, building a reputation as a natural showman. But by the time John Paul reached his early 80s, in the early 2000s, he had Parkinson’s disease and dramatically reduced his travel.

John Paul successor Benedict was 78 when he was named pope and never traveled with much zeal. His longest trip, to Australia, included several days of recuperation after arrival.

Compared with John Paul’s travels, Francis’s trips don’t last for as many days. But they include relentlessly early wake-up times and little built-in time for rest.

Francis walks with a slight hitch but otherwise appears healthy. In June, he told a group of children visiting the Vatican that, though he didn’t naturally like to travel, he appreciated the chance to learn and meet “good people.” He spoke fondly of his trip this year to Romania, a country he said was full of “beauty.” During that trip, Francis was driven by car for three hours through the Romanian mountains on the way to a Mass after bad weather prevented a scheduled helicopter ride.

Francis has altered the geography of the church not just with his travel but also with his appointment of new cardinals; those younger than 80 will in turn select Francis’s successor. The latest group of new members include those from Guatemala, Indonesia and Morocco. Nearly half of all cardinals are now from the developing world.

In the meantime, Francis has journeyed to countries on the Catholic margins; in five of the 11 countries he is visiting this year, including Thailand and Japan, Catholics make up less than 1 percent of the population.

“It is in some ways a fulfillment of his desire that the church should be going out to meet people who are not Christian,” said the Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, editor of AsiaNews, a news service affiliated with the Vatican. “He is also fascinated by places where Catholics are a small community. He has said looking at things from the periphery makes you understand things better.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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