Pope Francis stretched a hand out to Asian Christians during his homily Sunday at the Asian Youth Day. Speaking in Seoul, South Korea, the Pope extended his hand to the Church in China and North Korea, too. While in South Korea, Francis beatified 124 Korean martyrs, most of whom were murdered for converting from Confucianism in the late 1700s to early 1800s.
Francis told his audience that he hopped for Christians in the region to have a better relationship with the Vatican, and that Asian nations would “not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all.” China and the Vatican cut diplomatic ties in 1951, and the Catholic Church has no relations with Pyongyang (North Korea) either.
In 1951 the Communist Party took the reins of power in China, and set up the government as officially atheistic. For many years the Church in China persecuted religious believers, imprisoning priests, and set up its own Church that operates outside the Vatican’s authority and control.
Although on Thursday the Chinese Foreign Ministry had issued a statement indicating a desire to improve ties, China’s state-run media gave no coverage to the visit at all, and thus few Chinese Catholics knew of the trip. The Papal flight was a first: No Pope prior to Francis had traveled over Chinese airspace. During the flight, Francis sent a telegram expressing his greetings and well wishes to Chinese president Xi Jinping and to the Chinese nation. The last time a Pope requested permission to use Chinese airspace was in 1989, and at that time the Chinese government refused a request from Pope John Paul II.
In Beijing, the Associated Press reported that Chinese Catholics, those few who knew of the Papal visit to South Korea, were encouraged by his presence in the region. Some expressed their hope that Francis would visit China soon. However, some Chinese clergy reported that government officials threatened reprisals against any clergy or Catholic Christians who might take part in the Papal visit to Seoul.
Despite the fact that Pope Francis is stretching his hand to Asian Christians, there are two main stumbling blocks in the strained relations between the Roman Catholic Church and China. One of those misunderstandings is over how bishops are selected, and by whom. The Chinese consider the selection of bishops to be an internal matter, one of national privilege. The Church considers the election of bishops to be one of apostolic authority, and thus reserved only for the Church.
The second disagreement is over Taiwan, and the fact that Rome has diplomatic relations with the island nation. Taiwan calls itself the Republic of China and claims to be independent. The People’s Republic of China, in Beijing, claims that Taiwan is simply a province of the larger China.
In North Korea, the church is tightly regulated despite claims to the contrary by Pyongyang. North Korea launched three test rockets into the sea, just a day prior to the arrival of Francis in South Korea. North Korea’s state media, the Korean Central News Agency, blamed the Pope for landing on the date that North Korea celebrates liberation from Japanese occupation on August 15 in 1945. Perhaps Francis does not feel too badly; North Korean did the same thing when Chinese president Xi Jinping visited Seoul earlier in the year.
By making this visit, Pope Francis stretches his hand to Asian Christians, and he prayed for peace and unity on the Korean Peninsula. To believers all over Asia, he promised his continuing support and prayers.
By Jim Hanemaayer