It is always unnerving to hear a pope speak about his own mortality. When Francis told journalists on his flight home from South Korea yesterday that he expected his papacy to “last a short time, two or three years, and then to the house of the Father” it was certainly unsettling. Some reports say he laughed as he said it, but it can’t be dismissed entirely as a joke: ever since he was elected, at the age of 76, he has pursued his mission with an uncommon urgency.
As the Pontiff completed his incredibly successful South Korean visit on Sunday, a Vatican spokesman noted that “Pope Francis has said clearly that Asia is a priority”. A quick glance at the Pope’s schedule confirms this: he will visit Sri Lanka and Philippines in January, meaning he will have visited Asia twice before he has set foot in any western country outside Italy.
Why has a pope who is in such a hurry made a continent where only three per cent of the population are Catholic a priority? Perhaps it is because Francis sees Asia as the spiritual battery that will power the Catholic Church in the 21st century. More than half of the Asian faithful live in the Philippines, a country that seems poised to take on a global leadership role, with its remarkable new generation of bishops and outstandingly devout laity. South Korea, too, is a Far Eastern Catholic powerhouse and a superb place for Francis to make his pitch to Asia. The number of Catholics there doubled between 1985 and 2005, and one in 10 South Koreans has now adopted the faith.
What does Catholicism have to offer Asia? The combination of deep spirituality and social engagement, embodied so well by Francis, seems deeply attractive to many Asians. With an Argentine pope at the helm, the Catholic Church is no longer tarnished by the claim that it is a European import and Trojan horse for avaricious foreign powers. “Christians don’t come as conquerors,” he told Asian bishops in one of the most significant addresses of his visit.
But Francis wasn’t willing to sit back and simply applaud the dynamism of the Asian Church. He challenged young Catholics to build “a holier, more missionary and humbler Church”. Without this transformation, he seems to think, the faithful won’t be able to evangelise a continent that regards Christianity with a mixture of puzzlement and suspicion.
It is difficult for Catholics to effectively evangelise those Asian countries that have no diplomatic relations with the Holy See. There are seven of them: the first among them, of course, is China, with an estimated eight to 12 million Catholics. It was heartening that the Chinese authorities allowed Francis to become the first pope to fly over the country. (When St John Paul II visited South Korea in 1989 they refused to allow him to enter Chinese airspace.) But the path to reconciliation with China will be long and difficult: Chinese Catholics were reportedly banned from travelling to South Korea for the papal visit. Nevertheless, some 500 made it to the Mass at the World Cup Stadium in Daejeon. But we must hope that the Holy See will one day also enjoy full diplomatic relations with China, as well as with Bhutan, Brunei, Burma, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.
Francis appears to have created a new opening for the Church in Asia. There is no doubt that he will seek to expand it during the remainder of his pontificate. None of us – not even Francis – can know how long that will be. That is in God’s hands. But we must pray that it will be long enough to equip Catholics take the Gospel to the millions of their fellow Asians who have never heard it.
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