Pope Francis will arrive in South Korea for Asian Youth Day this Thursday. It will be the first trip to Asia for the Argentine pontiff, but he already has two more visits in his diary for next year — to the Philippines, the region’s most Catholic nation, as well as to Sri Lanka. Trips to Japan — where the Pope had wanted to go as a missionary in his youth but was knocked back for health reasons — and China, the biggest opportunity for the church in Asia, are on the drawing board.
By any measure, Francis has kicked off his papacy, which began in March 2013, with a bang. Since his installation he has spoken out on sexual abuse, stating clearly there would now be a “zero tolerance” policy for any members of the clergy who sexually violate children, and has emphatically told the world the Church is obsessed with divorce, contraception, homosexuality and abortion. While many assumed this heralded a more liberal approach, he has also excommunicated Melbourne’s Father Greg Reynolds, who publicly supports the ordination of women and gay rights.
But the Pope’s supporters say that while he missed out on being a missionary in his youth due to a bad lung, he is now a missionary in Rome determined to reform the opaque and sometimes corrupt operations in the Vatican. On July 18 last year Francis established a Pontifical Commission for Reference on the Organisation of the Economic-Administrative Structure of the Holy See.
The commission’s brief is to gather information, report to the Holy Father and co-operate with the Council of Cardinals, in order to draft reforms of the institutions of the Holy See, with the aim of a “simplification and rationalisation of the existing bodies and more careful planning of the economic activities of all the Vatican Administrations”. The commission comprises nine members, only two in holy orders, all of them European except for George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore. Australian Cardinal George Pell is one of a number of offshore church leaders who have been drafted in — in Pell’s case to clean up Vatican finances — to strip back the influence of the Italians.
That’s fixing the core business, if you like, and then there’s the growth strategy. For decades now, the big opportunities for the Christian churches are outside increasingly secular Western countries and Latin America — and while the latter remains a big focus, the Catholic Church is turning its attentions to Asia and Africa. South Korea itself is something of an anomaly in north Asia, being more heavily Christian than similar cultures such as China. A report entitled Statistics of the Catholic Church in Korea 2011 states there were 5,361,369 Catholics in the country. Accounting for approximately 10% of South Korea’s population, the number of Catholics had increased by 1.6% — or 84,959 individuals — over the previous year. The report claimed numbers have “slightly and consistently increased at a yearly average of 2-3 per cent during the past 11 years”.
In China, Christianity is growing quickly. Estimates range between 60 million and 100 million, but so far it’s the evangelical churches, established by mainly American missionaries, that have the biggest share. In an interview with newspaper Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis explained, “We are close to China … I sent a letter to President Xi Jinping when he was elected, three days after me. And he replied. There are relations. It’s a great people that I love.”
Despite the Pope’s communication with Xi, all is not well for the Christian churches in China. In the key, wealthy province of Zhejiang, known these days as the Jerusalem of the East because of the number of Christians, a concerted campaign against Christianity – which the Communist Party fears will bring “Western values” to China [read: individualism and democracy] – is underway. A number of churches have been torn down and more than 200 crosses ripped from buildings and places of worship. The Church is split in China between the official Patriotic Catholic Church, controlled by the Communist Party, and the underground version, which is allied to the Vatican, as well as being split on whether Francis should go to China (if indeed the Communist Party decides to invite him).
In a plea to not visit China, Hong Kong’s pro-democratic 82-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, the city-state’s former bishop, said this: “The few courageous [Catholics] could not meet [the Pope], and the Communist Party would show him the illegitimate bishops of the Patriotic Catholic Church, including the three excommunicated ones.”
So while Francis will be welcomed with open arms in places like South Korea, the Philippines and even Japan, other parts of Asia present a real challenge. The Catholic Church is growing in Indonesia and India — there, particularly among the bottom tiers of the Hindu caste system — and has about 10 million followers in Communist Vietnam. And while he has already cast himself as a doer, he must tread carefully when dealing with China’s (and Vietnam’s) atheist Communist parties. There is an even greater chance that he could upset Muslims in Indonesia or Hindus in India if he doesn’t make the right moves.