Fr. George W. Rutler: Pontifical Chic

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By Fr. George W. Rutler, Crisis Magazine, September 13, 2019

Fr. George W. RutlerIn 2013, Pope Francis sonorously and rightly enjoined the bishops of the world: “Avoid the scandal of being ‘airport bishops’!”  An almost obsessive compulsion of some prelates to travel beyond their own dioceses evokes the absenteeism of the Middle Ages, when many bishops and abbots were seldom seen among their own people. The Pope travels with astonishing frequency—surely with no little toll on himself, considering the burdens of age—but this might be justified to some degree by the fact that he is the Universal Pastor, with worldwide and immediate jurisdiction, according to canon law.

Nonetheless, a precedent set by his recent predecessors can impose a sense of obligation to travel, as if a pope is remiss if he isn’t constantly on airplanes. Most pontiffs were effective, and perhaps more affective, when staying in Rome. Given arguments in favor of globetrotting, there is a danger that universality might be confused with internationalism. Considering the daunting costliness of such journeys, the plaintive apostrophe of Noël Coward obtains: “Why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel / When the right people stay back home?”

There is also the peril of over-exposure. A pope now is even expected to give freewheeling chats while on airplanes, and this has led to off-the-cuff remarks that the Holy Father’s communications staff subsequently redact into a benign and coherent form.  Jochen Hinkelbein, president of the German Society of Aerospace Medicine, has warned that the air pressure on a jet airplane can match that atop an 8,000-foot-tall mountain.  This can cause hypoxia, reducing the oxygen in blood by up to 25 percent; this is particularly harmful to the elderly and those with breathing difficulties. Pope Francis is an octogenarian and has only one lung. Without careful monitoring, say experts, this can affect the ability to think and speak clearly. ….