Is Francis a pope for Asia?

by João Vitor Santos

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Fr. Peter C. Phan is the Ellacuria Chair of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University, and the author of many books, including Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue. Earlier this year, Phan was interviewed for IHU On-Line, a publication of the Humanitas Institute Unisino, which is part of Unisinos, a Jesuit university in southern Brazil.

The following is that interview, reprinted with permission.

IHU On-Line: In these two years of his pontificate, what are the most significant marks left on the Church by Pope Francis?

Phan: It is providential that this interview takes place right after Pope Francis's [May 24] promulgation of his encyclical "Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home." From the fierce criticisms, even before the issuance of the encyclical, by those who think that the ecological crisis is invented by anti-capitalism and anti-oil business liberals, especially in the U.S.A., and who fear that the Pope's encyclical would jeopardize their political and economic interests, it is clear that Pope Francis's second encyclical, which opens with his namesake's moving Canticle of the Creatures, also known as Canticle of the Sun, and which touchingly calls the earth "our common home," will provoke lively discussions throughout the world. It is of course too early to assess its impact, nor is it here the place to summarize and evaluate its contents.

However, it would be a serious mistake to answer your question about the most significant marks left on the church by Pope Francis's still-very-young pontificate by focusing solely on this second encyclical of his or on his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ["The Joy of the Gospel"], which can rightly be regarded as the Magna Carta of his pontificate.

I do not wish at all to minimize the importance of Pope Francis's doctrinal teachings ... but clearly there is a new way in which Francis has exercised his papal magisterium, and that is not primarily by means of innumerable documents, often filled with theological jargon and couched in almost impenetrable Latin prose, which very few Catholics, including bishops and theologians, read from cover to cover. I am thinking of shelves of encyclicals and other official documents of John Paul II which remain a closed world to 99.9 percent of the Catholic population!

In our time, there is of course still the need for the teaching function in the church, but it must be done by other, more effective, means in addition to the written word. This is one of the ways Pope Francis has transformed the church radically.

In which ways then has Pope Francis made a significant impact on the church so far?

One of the most significant things Francis has done, literally within hours of his election to the See of Rome, is giving us a radically new image of what the papacy should be, and by dramatic gestures. We can still see him, as he was introduced with the habemus papam to the crowd in Saint Peter's Square, presenting himself simply as the Bishop of Rome, and asking the people to pray that God bless him before he would bless them, and then bowing his head in deep prayer. The whole world was stunned into deafening silence.

Clearly there was a new shepherd in town, one who smells the smell of his sheep, and not the Supreme Pontiff---the Pontifex Maximus---a title for the high priest of the College of Pontiffs in ancient Rome and later claimed by Roman emperors and popes. Pope Francis signs his documents with a simple Franciscus, without adorning it with PP (Pontiff of Pontiffs), as his predecessors were wont to do. He wears no papal accouterments—red shoes, the golden Ring of the Fisherman, the precious stones-studded pectoral cross suspended on a gold chain, embossed cufflinks, water-silk cassock, red mozzetta, ermine-trimmed camauro, and sundry other insignia of power. Instead, his liturgical vestments are exactly like, and even much simpler than, those of any other bishop. No magisterial statement on episcopal collegiality can be more visually potent than Pope Francis's clothing.

Then, there is his decision to live at the Casa Santa Marta rather than at the Apostolic Palace, where he says his daily mass and preaches for ordinary people, and where he eats his cafeteria-style foods with ordinary folks. There is no private meal with the pope as a signal honor reserved for the elites. Popes have piously claimed to be Servus servorum [Servant of servants], but only now do we see what the title entails practically for their personal lifestyle. With these humble gestures and hundreds of others such as embracing a disfigured man, washing and kissing the feet of juvenile prisoners, including a Muslim girl, on Holy Thursday, eating at the same table as Vatican manual laborers in a cafeteria, declining summer vacationing at Castel Gandolfo, Francis has transformed the papacy for good. No future pope can revert to the princely lifestyle without feeling pangs of conscience about how the Vicar of Christ the Crucified must live.

But surely these gestures are only gestures, and as you noted, future popes will not necessarily repeat them. Is there anything else in Pope Francis's life as pope so far that implies a more permanent doctrinal teaching?

To answer your question I must discuss in detail some of Pope Francis's teachings as contained in his Joy of the Gospel and Praise Be to You, with special reference to Asian Christianity, since the focus of our conversation is on the ways Pope Francis can speak meaningfully to Catholics in Asia.

But before doing so, I would like to point out another gesture of Pope Francis that will have a permanent impact on the spiritual life of the church. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have written large and profound tomes on penance and the necessity of the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation, popularly known as confession. But we have never seen them go to confession. The impression is reinforced that they are "Holy Fathers"---as they are called---and do not need to go to confession like the rest of us sinners. I am sure all of them have personal confessors to whom they regularly confess their sins. But that's precisely point. These are personal confessors and the confession is done in private. How many Catholics can afford personal confessors, like personal trainers, to whom they go for confession in private whenever they wish?

Here came Pope Francis to Saint Peter's Basilica on Ash Wednesday. He was supposed to listen to confession, but as the master of ceremonies steered him toward the confessional, the Pope indicated to the utterly stunned monsignor that he wanted to go to confession, and not to a personal confessor and in private. He simply walked to one of the confessional, knelt down, made the sign of the cross, and made his confession. Imagine the shock of the poor priest sitting in that confessional! More powerfully than encyclicals and learned disquisitions on the sacrament of penance Pope Francis's public confession drove the point home on the necessity of confession.

I would like to point out that Pope Francis's way of teaching is very much in tune with the way of teaching of Asian spiritual masters. Confucius, China's teacher of wisdom par excellence, was reluctant, not unlike Jesus, to accept the title of "teacher" and did not advocate teaching as a profession. The Hindu gurȗ can only teach his disciple by virtue of his own enlightenment. In both cases, teaching is most effectively carried out by personal example rather than by intellectual indoctrination.

Turning now to the issue of Pope Francis's possible impact on Asian Catholicism, what do you think are the challenges facing a Latin American, more precisely, Argentinian pope in connecting intellectually, pastorally, and spiritually with the people of Asia, a different continent?

There are lots of similarities between Latin America and Asia, despite their geographical distance and cultural differences. For one thing, both continents belong to the so-called Third World, characterized by large populations and massive poverty. Politically, many countries of the two continents have suffered from colonialism, armed conflicts and violence of proxy wars, especially during the Cold War, and military dictatorship. Religiously, the Catholic Church in Asia and Latin America owes its origins to the same Iberian (Portuguese and Spanish) missions, many leaders of which were Jesuits, and shares a great number of popular devotions.

Thus, as an Argentinian who did his pastoral ministry as priest and bishop during the Cold War and under the brutal rule of right-wing military dictatorship, Pope Francis can personally sympathize with Catholics in countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, East Timor. India, and Korea (North and South) which have been exploited by colonialism and have been victimized by dictatorial governments.

Similarly, steeped in Iberian Catholicism, Pope Francis can readily resonate with devotions to Mary and the saints and with many practices of popular piety that are widespread in Asian Catholicism. For instance, Asian Catholics can easily understand and readily agree with Pope Francis's moving words about popular piety in The Joy of the Gospel: "To understand this reality we need to approach it with the gaze of the Good Shepherd, who seeks not to judge but to love. Only from the affective connaturality born of love can we appreciate the theological life present in the piety of Christian peoples, especially among the poor. I think of the steadfast faith of those mothers tending their sick children who, though perhaps barely familiar with the articles of the creed, cling to a rosary; or of all the hope poured into a candle lighted in a humble home with a prayer for help from Mary; or in the gaze of tender love directed to Christ crucified" (no. 125). Yes, there are lots of rosaries, candles, and statues of the suffering Christ in many Asian Catholic homes.

What about diversity of religions, which is widespread in Asia but practically absent in Latin America, where Christianity predominates. Can someone like Bergoglio who grew up in a Christian country like Argentina enter into dialogue with people of other faiths?

It is true that Pope Francis grew up in an almost exclusively Christian---and more precisely, Catholic---environment, just like Pope John Paul II did. But not unlike his predecessor, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis had formed deep friendship with Jews, such as Rabbi Abraham Skorka, with whom he co-authored Sobre el cielo y la tierra [On Heaven and Earth]. While experiences in interreligious dialogue are helpful, far more necessary is the requisite attitude toward it, which Bergoglio describes splendidly: "Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other people, from a conviction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue entails a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation. To dialogue, one must know how to lower the defenses, to open the doors of one's home and offer warmth" (On Heaven and Earth, xiv).

Has Pope Francis displayed this attitude in his trips to Asia?

So far Pope Francis has travelled to Asia twice, the first time to Korea, August 13-18, 2014 on the occasion of the Sixth Asian Youth Day, during which he beatified 124 Korean martyrs; the second to Sri Lanka (January 12-15, 2015) and then to the Philippines (August 15-19, 2015). With regard to interreligious dialogue, the country of greatest interest is Sri Lanka, where according to the 2011 census, 70.19% of 21 million Sri Lankans were Theravada Buddhists; 12.6% Shaivite Hindus; 9.7% Muslims (mainly Sunni); and 7.4% Christians (6.1% Roman Catholics and 1.3% other Christians). But interreligious dialogue is no less urgent in the other two countries with Christianity as their majority religion. In the Republic of Korea (South Korea), of the population of 52 million 30% are Christians (20% Protestants, 10% Catholics), 23% are Buddhists, and 46% profess no belief. In the Philippines, nearly 90% its population of 100 million are Christians, and dialogue with Muslims is pressing as there is a sizable portion of its population (11%) following Sunni Islam.

In Sri Lanka, at the impromptu invitation of Banagala Upatissa, the head monk of the Agrashravaka Buddhist temple in Colombo, Pope Francis changed his schedule to pay a visit to the temple, the second pope, after John Paul II, to visit a Buddhist temple. The visit coincided with the sacred ritual of opening the casket containing the relics of two of the Buddha's disciples. The Pope listened respectfully to the monks' chanting their prayers during the ceremony, and Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, made a point to note that the Pope did not pray or meditate during the visit, in an apparent effort to show that there was no religious syncretism involved. During his visit Pope Francis canonized the 17th-century Indian missionary to Sri Lanka Joseph Vaz and took the opportunity to exhort Sri Lankan Catholics to follow the example of Vaz in "transcending religious divisions in the service of peace" and to call upon all Sri Lankans to practice religious tolerance.

It is very interesting that you mentioned Rev. Federico Lombardi's point that the Pope did not pray or meditate during his visit to the Buddhist temple. In your opinion, could the Pope have done so? Would common prayer among the followers of different religions not be a natural thing in Asia where there are so many different religions?

Your question broaches a very difficult and controversial issue. As you may recall, in October 1986 Pope John Paul II gathered a group of leaders of different religions in Assisi to pray for world peace. Cardinal Ratzinger, then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, voiced his strong opposition to the plan for fear that the spectacle of leaders of different religions praying together would give rise to the scandal of "religious syncretism" To avoid this danger, a clear distinction was made between "gathering together to pray" and "gathering to pray together," with only the first alternative being permitted. In fact, in Assisi, religious leaders did not pray together with a common prayer, but came together in a common place to pray, each in his or her own religious tradition.

Strictly speaking, common prayer between Jews and Christians is possible, since Christians make use of the Hebrew psalms in their liturgy and private prayer, and indeed Christian must pray as Jesus the Jew did. Regarding Islam, Pope John Paul II has affirmed that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and therefore it is possible in principle for Christians and Muslims pray to God together. Furthermore, in 1964, during his visit to India Pope Paul VI quoted the celebrated Hindu prayer: "From the unreal lead me to the real; from darkness lead me to light; from death lead me to immortality" and went to say: "This is a prayer which belongs also to our time. Today more than ever, it should rise from every the human heart." It would seem therefore that it is not theologically impossible for the followers of monotheistic religions to pray together to God despite their different conceptions of divinity.

On the other hand, common prayer between Buddhists and Christians would present serious difficulty since Buddhism as a philosophy is non-theistic (note: not "atheistic" in the sense of explicitly denying the existence of God). Furthermore, in Theravada Buddhism Siddhartha Gautama is not regarded as divine, as Jesus is in Christianity, but as an enlightened (buddha), wise, and compassionate teacher who is not to be worshipped. Perhaps that is why Pope Francis did not pray or meditate with the monks in the Agrashravaka temple. However, in Mahayana (popular) Buddhism, the Buddha, though not regarded as divine, is prayed to, like saints in Catholicism, for his blessings and assistance. There is of course no theological objection for anyone, including Christians, to praying to the Buddha for his blessings since he is a saintly person.

Was there any time in which Pope Francis prayed with non-Christian believers?

During his visit to Turkey, November 28-30, 2014, Pope Francis visited the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. He took off his shoes before entering the mosque. In a gesture of interreligious harmony, standing next to Istanbul's Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran and facing Mecca, he bowed his head and prayed silently for several minutes, in what a Vatican spokesman described as a joint "moment of silent adoration" of God.

Another significant example of Pope Francis's interreligious prayer is his prayers at the end of Praise Be to God. At the conclusion of what he calls his "lengthy reflection" on ecology, the Pope proposes that we offer two prayers: "The first we can share with all who believe in a God who is the all-powerful Creator, while in the other we Christians ask for inspiration to take up the commitment to creation set before us by the Gospel of Jesus" (no. 246). This is, to my knowledge, the first time ever a papal document explicitly composes an interreligious prayer side by side with a Christian prayer. It would be fascinating to compare the two prayers and highlight their similarities and differences. Pope Francis hopes that his interreligious prayer will be shared by all those who profess faith in God the Creator, not only, as I mentioned earlier, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, but also people of the so-called primal religions. But, it may also be shared, I suggest, by Buddhists, who. though philosophically not professing belief in (but not necessarily denying) God the Creator, can replace the name of God with that of the Buddha and pray for help in caring for our common home.

Let's move to another topic: Pope Francis also visited Korea and the Philippines. Is there anything he said and did there that appeals especially to Asian Christians?

South Korea is one of the three Asian countries where Christianity is a majority religion (the others being the Philippines and East Timor) and the only country in Asia where Catholicism was introduced not by foreign ordained missionaries but by lay Korean Catholics. It is also one of the world's economic powerhouses. South Korea's market economy ranks 13th in the world and is one of the G-20 major economies. Politically, it is the only country in the world still divided by political ideology into North and South. Pope Francis tailored his message to this division of Korea by exhorting the Korean Catholic Church to work for peace and national reconciliation. To Korean youth who are tempted by material wealth and hedonism, he issued the challenge of worshiping God "by seeking to serve the poor, the lonely, the infirm and the marginalized."

Is there currently any special form of oppression and marginalization in Asia that Pope Francis's words and deeds address?

Among the poor and the marginalized, Pope Francis has drawn our attention to the tragedy of migrants and refugees, as hundreds of thousands of terrorized and impoverished migrants risked their lives to reach European harbors, especially Italy, from Africa across the Mediterranean. In recent decades Asia too has been experiencing a huge phenomenon of migration, often in the form of war victims and guest workers, especially to the richer countries such as Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and to the Middle East. These migrants suffer physical abuse, sex trafficking, labor discrimination, and emotional trauma, and because their sufferings are less graphic, their voices are not heard, their faces not seen. But Pope Francis's words and deeds on behalf of migrants and refugees have given Asian migrants hope, and hopefully will draw the attention of international powers to their plight. 

In addition to interreligious dialogue and work for justice, peace and reconciliation, has Pope Francis said anything about Asian cultures and the need for inculturating the Gospel into Asia?

As you know, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) has been espousing three main tasks of the church's evangelizing mission in Asia: liberation, interreligious dialogue, and inculturation in the form of dialogue. Pope Francis has profound things to say about the third task as well. Speaking to the representatives of the FABC gathered at the Martyrs' Shrine in Haemi in the Daejeon Diocese on August 18, 2014, he said: "On this vast continent which is home to a great variety of cultures, the Church is called to be versatile and creative in her witness to the Gospel through dialogue and openness to all. Dialogue, in fact, is an essential part of the mission of the Church in Asia (cf. Ecclesia in Asia, 29).  But in undertaking the path of dialogue with individuals and cultures, what should be our point of departure and the fundamental point of reference which guides us to our destination? Surely it is our own identity, our identity as Christians. We cannot engage in real dialogue unless we are conscious of our own identity. Nor can there be authentic dialogue unless we are capable of opening our minds and hearts, in empathy and sincere receptivity, to those with whom we speak. A clear sense of one's own identity and a capacity for empathy are thus the point of departure for all dialogue. If we are to speak freely, openly and fruitfully with others, we must be clear about who we are, what God has done for us, and what it is that he asks of us. And if our communication is not to be a monologue, there has to be openness of heart and mind to accepting individuals and cultures."

A final question: You began our conversation with reference to Pope Francis's encyclical on ecology. Is there anything there that is specifically relevant to Asia and Asian Christianity?

If I may be permitted a hyperbole, everything in Praise Be to You is relevant for Asia. The encyclical refers to environmental pollution, climate change, the poisoning of water and land, and the loss of biodiversity. If you think that this ecological destruction is just a natural cycle and not a human product, take a walk in Beijing, Manila, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City, just to mention a few Asian cities, and fill your lungs with air and slake your thirst with unfiltered water. Of course, if you are a tourist from a rich country, you can stay at a five-star air-conditioned hotel and drink Perrier water or something more fortifying.

But what about the poor people of these cities and countries? Here is what Pope Francis says about them "Its [climate change] worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or services which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited" (no. 25). Any Asian (and African and Latin American) will be deeply grateful to Pope Francis for his concern for their well-being.

However, if I must choose parts of the encyclical as most relevant to Asia, I would select Chapter Four ("Integral Ecology") and Chapter Six ("Ecological Education and Spirituality"). In Chapter Four the Pope insists that ecology is not only an environmental, economic and social issue but also a cultural one. Given Asia's rich cultures, Asian heartily applaud the Pope's assertion that "the disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems" (145). Chapter Five stresses the necessity of rejecting the "myths" of "a modernity grounded in a utilitarian mindset (individualism, unlimited progress, competition, consumerism, the unregulated market)" and living "an ethics of ecology" which values "solidarity, responsibility and compassionate care" (no. 210). This "ecological ethics" resonates deeply with the Asian ideal of universal harmony, which has been the constant teaching of Asian religions and of the FABC.

Running through Pope Francis's encyclical on "Care for Our Common Home" is his deep concern for the impact of ecological destruction on the poor. This concern for the poor is the leitmotif of The Joy of the Gospel. Ecclesiologically, it is embodied in Pope Francis's vision of the church as "a poor church for the poor" and as "a field hospital." The church, the Pope repeatedly insists, must not exist for itself but must "go forth"---to the periphery of the world, "above all the poor and the sick, those who are despised and overlooked" (no. 46). Pope Francis goes on to say: "I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security…. More than my fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: 'Give them something to eat' [Mk 6:37]" (no. 49).

I do not recall any pope within recent memory having said something like this, so forthrightly and simply, so passionately and eloquently. As an Asian, I find it gratifying---and humbling---that ideas and sentiments as Pope Francis's have been repeatedly expressed by the FABC and Asian theologians in the last fifty years. In view of this I would like to turn the question "Francis, a Pope for Asia?" into a resounding affirmation: "Francis, a Pope for Asia!"

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 11-Sept 24, 2015 print issue.

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