Pope Francis reached out to China on the penultimate day of his visit to South Korea on Sunday, urging a closer dialogue and insisting that Catholics did not view Asia with the mentality of “conquerors.”
In a speech to Catholic bishops from 22 Asian countries, the pope stressed the need to adopt a “creative” Catholicism that reflects the region’s diversity and that listens with “empathy” to its different voices.
He made a particular appeal for better communications with nations like China, North Korea and Vietnam that do not have formal ties with the Vatican.
“I honestly hope that those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not enjoy a full relationship, may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all,” he told the bishops.
Deviating from his prepared text, the pope said the dialogue he referred to was “fraternal” in nature rather than political.
– Not ‘conquerors’ –
“Christians are not coming to Asia as conquerors,” he said at a martyrs’ shrine some 150 kilometres south of Seoul.
It is the first papal visit for 15 years to Asia — a region the Vatican sees as having enormous growth potential to offset dwindling numbers in the United States and Europe.
But nearly a dozen Asian countries in the region do not recognise the Vatican’s authority over their Catholic communities, including China which remains the great elephant in the Vatican’s Asian room.
Chinese Catholics number 5.7 million according to official data, and 12 million according to independent sources. They are divided between an official Church dependent on Communist authorities and an “underground” Church loyal to the Vatican.
Beijing and the Vatican have been at loggerheads since China severed ties with the Holy See in 1951.
In March last year, Beijing warned the newly elected Francis against interfering in China’s internal affairs, “including under the pretext of religion”.
The pope had offered his blessings in a message to China’s President Xi Jinping as his plane flew over China on its way to South Korea last week.
But the message never got through, a failure Vatican officials put down to technical issues.
An even more impenetrable country is North Korea, which carried out a series of short range-rocket launches into the sea just as the pope arrived in Seoul for his five-day visit.
Francis will focus on North Korea, which keeps all religious activity under the tightest control, when he holds a special Korean “peace and reconciliation” mass in Seoul before his departure Monday.
South Korea has a thriving and fast-growing Catholic community, but across Asia as a whole, Catholics account for only 3.2 percent of the population.
– Be ‘creative’ –
In his speech to the bishops, Francis acknowledged that the communities they tended to were a “small flock” in a “vast expanse of land”, but encouraged them to find a way to shrink the cultural and social differences they encountered.
“On this vast continent, which is home to a great variety of cultures, the Church is called to be versatile and creative,” he said.
Later, however, at a mass for thousands of young Catholics gathered from around the region for Asian Youth Day, Francis made it clear that being creative did not involve an abandonment of religious principle.
“You can appreciate the many positive values of the diverse Asian cultures,” he said.
“(But) you are also able to discern what is incompatible with your Catholic faith … and what aspects of contemporary culture are sinful, corrupt and lead to death,” he added.
Francis is a staunch opponent of abortion, a key point of contention with China where nearly 330 million abortions were performed in the last 40 years, according to Beijing’s Health Ministry.
According to various reports, scores of Chinese Catholics were prevented from travelling to South Korea for Asian Youth Day, and Beijing also warned Chinese priests in attendance not to participate in any event involving the pope.