VATICAN CITY — The world’s political situation is frightening in many areas right now and requires prayer, humanitarian action and diplomacy. But Pope Francis’ trip to South Korea, which begins Wednesday, offers some perspective that things can change for the better.
For the first time ever, a papal flight will fly over China Wednesday.
According to the Italian blog, Il Sismografo, which collaborates with Vatican Radio, when Pope John Paul II went to South Korea for the first time — in 1984 — Vatican officials and Alitalia airlines did not even ask the Chinese for permission to cross the country’s airspace. Instead the plane took the polar route.
The extra distance meant a refueling stop was necessary, so the plane landed in Fairbanks, Alaska; Pope John Paul was welcomed by President Ronald Reagan and celebrated a Liturgy of the Word with people gathered at the airport.
In 1989, when Pope John Paul made his second visit to South Korea, they did ask the Chinese for flyover permission. It was denied.
But, by then, relations with the Soviet Union had softened enough that the pope was allowed to fly over Soviet airspace (the route is the arc on the map). Above Soviet territory for more than eight hours, Pope John Paul sent a message to President Mikhail Gobachev: “Flying over Soviet territory en route to a pastoral visit to several Asian countries, I wish to greet your excellency and to assure you of my best wishes for the well-being and prosperity of your countrymen.”
It is standard practice for the pope to send a message from the plane to the heads of the states his plane flies over. Briefing journalists about the South Korea trip, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman basically said people would have to wait until Wednesday to see if the pope would send a message to Chinese officials when he flies over.