VATICAN CITY — After Pope John Paul II had celebrated Mass in a hot and dusty Togo town during his third trip to Africa, one of the pontiff's aides asked a local worshiper if he would like to return the papal call and visit the Vatican.
"Man, don't you realize what's happening?" asked the half-dressed Togolese, as if the question offended him. "The Vatican is here. It came to us."
When the aide recounted the story to John Paul at the end of the day, he said the pontiff beamed with joy because the plain-spoken African had gone to the heart of the answer to one of the most often asked questions of his papacy: Why does the Pope travel so much?
"He wants to inspire unity with the universal pastor," explained the aide, "to bring Rome everyplace, not just in a geographical sense, but in a spiritual sense. It's as simple as that."
In pursuit of this goal, John Paul has made 35 trips out of Italy, touching every continent except Antarctica, crisscrossing the globe and on two journeys actually circling it. His 36th trip will begin Thursday, taking him to the American South, the West, Detroit and Fort Simpson, Canada.
The trips have brought him face to face with most of the world's important leaders and many more of its downtrodden people, including slum dwellers in Latin America, Africa and India.
"He has met more people than all of the popes combined back to St. Peter," marveled a Vatican official who often travels with the pontiff. "At least half of the people alive in the world today have seen him in person or in the press and on television. Has any living person ever been known by so many?"
The journeys have characterized his almost nine-year papacy more than any other thing he has done. At the same time, they have provided ready-made international platforms for most of his major pronouncements, probably giving his views far greater prominence than they would have gained if merely delivered in Rome.
Although he resolutely refuses to acknowledge the political impact of his pilgrimages, John Paul's very presence in such troubled countries as Chile, Haiti and his own homeland of Poland has been implicitly political and sometimes pointedly so. During three papal journeys to Poland, for example, he has spoken boldly and repeatedly in favor of the outlawed Solidarity union movement and publicly admonished the Polish leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, before a worldwide television audience to grant the people more freedom and the church more power.
Regime Called 'Dictatorial'
Hours before meeting Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile last April, John Paul characterized Pinochet's military regime as "dictatorial" and said "it is not only possible but necessary" that the church there perform the same mission that it did in the Philippines, where it helped inspire the overthrow of President Ferdinand Marcos.
But the pontiff insists that his words and presence were not political. During a papal flight home from Asia in 1984, John Paul angrily lectured an Italian journalist whom he accused of seeing too much political content in some of his sermons.
"When I speak in defense of human rights, above all religious freedom, I am not accusing the authorities of any country, but I am formulating a universal human need," the Pope declared, wagging a finger. "If at times certain authorities feel that they are being attacked, it is perhaps because they feel guilty."
In the beginning of his pontificate, the Pope's message delivered at baseball stadiums, race tracks, public parks and cathedrals around the world had tremendous impact, partly because he was a new and original figure on the world stage, unlike any Catholic leader before him.
Historically, popes had remained in Rome, rarely venturing out except to flee invaders. Only one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, had tentatively gone on the road, nine times in 15 years, but only briefly, such as his overnight trip to New York to speak to the United Nations in 1965.
But in his first year John Paul journeyed to the Dominican Republic, Mexico and the Bahamas, then to his Polish homeland and finally to Ireland and the United States. Still a relatively unknown figure when he kissed the ground of America for the first time at Boston's Logan Airport, he became an instant superstar, seen and adored by millions. Such remarks as "God Bless New York" and his favorable comparison of the American Declaration of Independence with the Gospels in Philadelphia struck as sympathetic a chord among non-Catholics as among his own flock.
Novelty, Not Audiences, Wane
Although the novelty of a traveling Pope began to wane as he ventured on during 1980 and 1981 to Turkey, Africa, France, Brazil, Germany and Asia (via Anchorage, Alaska), he continued to command unprecedentedly large audiences, sometimes more than a million at a time, even among many who disagreed with his conservative views concerning personal morality.