What to watch for as Pope Francis takes Asia by storm

What to watch for as Pope Francis takes Asia by storm

ROME – Pope Francis leaves Monday for a week-long trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the seventh foreign journey of his papacy and his second to Asia after visiting South Korea last August. Like his recent appointment of 15 new voting-age cardinals, featuring 10 from outside the West, this

ROME – Pope Francis leaves Monday for a week-long trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the seventh foreign journey of his papacy and his second to Asia after visiting South Korea last August.

Like his recent appointment of 15 new voting-age cardinals, featuring 10 from outside the West, this trip cements Francis as the “Pope of a Global Village.”

If you’re looking for a measure of how complicated an outing it will be, here’s one: Five different Pope-mobiles will be used, including two in Sri Lanka and three in the Philippines. (In a vintage touch, one is a converted jeepney, the typical mode of transport for poor Filipinos.)

Here’s what to look for along the way.

Sri Lanka
In Sri Lanka, the pope’s top note is likely to be harmony among religions, including the struggle against religious extremism. It’s keenly relevant in a country divided among Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, where memories of a bloody 30-year civil war that ended in 2009 are still fresh.

Inter-faith relations are always a volatile matter in a society that ranks as the third most religious in the world, according to a 2008 Gallup poll, meaning that religious differences are felt more intensely.

Francis arrives just after bitterly contested elections saw challenger Maithripala Sirisena unseat incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Though both hail from the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, which is largely Buddhist, Sirisena was strongly backed by the Hindu Tamil minority, and tensions from the campaign have many Sri Lankans on edge.

Catholics represent just 7 to 8 percent of the country, but many believe they have a mission of reconciliation, since it’s the only faith with a significant following in both the Sinhalese and Tamil camps.

In terms of Church politics, Francis may address the vexed topic of “inculturation,” meaning the extent to which Christian symbolism and worship can be adapted for Asian cultures.

The issue has generated deep tensions, pitting cultural sensitivity against the risk of religious relativism. In the 1990s and 2000s, several progressive Asian theologians, including Tissa Balasuriya of Sri Lanka, were disciplined by the Vatican for going too far in blending Eastern practices and concepts into Catholicism.

Francis is generally seen as more flexible about such things, though on Friday he suggested there are limits.

“A yoga session can’t teach a heart to feel the paternity of God,” he said in a morning Mass in his Vatican residence, “and a course in Zen spirituality can’t make it freer to love.”

The Philippines
In the Philippines Jan. 16-19, Francis will be visiting one of the largest and most dynamic Catholic communities in the world.

Filipinos today are the “new Irish,” forming the backbone of the Catholic Church in a staggering number of places around the world, just as Irish immigrants and missionaries did in the 19th century.

There are an estimated 10 million Filipinos living abroad, and they tend to carry the faith wherever they go. We’re talking about a country, after all, where shopping malls have chapels, and where street signs read “Caution: Masses and prayers always in progress.”

Yet the Church is facing stiff challenges on two fronts:

  • One is the transition to a more secular society. In 2012, a controversial reproductive health law guaranteed universal access to contraception despite strong Catholic opposition, and it was upheld in 2014 by the country’s Supreme Court.
  • Another is a mushrooming Evangelical and Pentecostal presence, symbolized by the conversion of boxing legend Manny Pacquiao from Catholicism. One Filipino priest called the statistic that 85 percent of Filipinos are Catholic an “optical illusion,” based on the large share that don’t come to Sunday Mass.

The country is also still recovering from Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, which killed more than 6,000 people, destroyed or damaged 1.1 million houses, and left 4.1 million people homeless.

On Saturday, Francis will travel to a zone hard hit by the storm in order to comfort the displaced and to bless a center for the poor. He’ll also have lunch with 30 survivors.

Turnout is expected to be enormous. One recent poll found that 88 percent of Filipinos are “crazy excited” about the pope’s visit, 6 percent are “excited,” and the remainder “glad”.

When Pope John Paul II visited Manila in 1995, he drew an estimated 4-5 million people to a Mass, considered the largest crowd ever for a papal event. Many Filipinos would like to surpass that mark, although police are discouraging it for security reasons and because the venue in which Francis will say Mass theoretically holds just 1 million.

The stop in the Philippines will also shine a spotlight on Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, one of the most charismatic and popular Catholic prelates in the world.

The 57-year-old Tagle has been dubbed the “Asian Francis,” exuding a similar humility and, like the pontiff, profiling as a political moderate. Many see him as a contender to take over the Church’s top job someday, and people will be watching to see if Francis broadcasts any signals, subtle or otherwise, that he wouldn’t be displeased at just such an eventuality.

As he did in South Korea last August, Francis will deliver his speeches in English, making this week also a linguistic trial run for his much-anticipated debut in the United States in September.

All this suggests that Francis’ Asian odyssey could be another turning point in a papacy already full of drama.

Crux coverage

I’ll be on the papal plane covering Pope Francis’s trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and Inés San Martín of Crux will be reporting from the Philippines while the pope is on the ground. Watch the Crux site for our coverage beginning Monday.

Cardinal Burke and his discontents

In the language of the journalism business, Cardinal Raymond Burke is always “good copy.” The phrase means that people may love or hate what he’s got to say, but he never fails to stir things up.

Burke has a long history as a hero to the politically conservative and liturgically traditional camps in the Catholic Church. Last October he emerged as a leader of the conservative faction at the Synod of Bishops on the family, taking a strong line against the idea of allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

The 66-year-old American prelate was at it again recently, saying in comments to a men’s ministry project that the Catholic Church has become excessively “feminized” and blaming declines in priestly vocations on the growing use of altar girls.

Some observers wonder if Burke’s outspokenness means Francis miscalculated in November when he removed Burke from his position as head of the Vatican’s Supreme Court and assigned him to a largely ceremonial role as patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Under the heading of “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” the theory goes that Francis may have erred by freeing Burke to become an even greater thorn in his side.

One sees the logic, but frankly there’s scant evidence that leaving him in place would have made much difference. It’s not as if Burke has a track record of muzzling himself because of his job title.

Appointment to his Vatican post by Benedict XVI in 2008, for instance, didn’t stop Burke from blasting the Democrats in the United States as the “party of death.” Nor did it stop him in 2009 from claiming that no Catholic in good conscience could have voted for Obama, or from insisting in 2013 that Irish priests should deny Communion to any politician supporting liberalization of access to abortion.

The truth is, one of the most difficult things to do in the Catholic Church, even for a pope, is to get a cardinal to be quiet who doesn’t feel like it.

Moreover, Burke’s transition may at least contribute to a bit of clarity.

Over the years, it’s been common for newspaper headlines to claim that “Vatican says X” whenever Burke speaks out, simply because he was a Vatican official — even though he wasn’t speaking in any official capacity, and even though his comments often didn’t reflect the majority sentiment in Rome.

In Burke’s defense, he would usually clarify after the fact that he wasn’t speaking as a Vatican official but simply as an individual bishop, but that never did much to alter the narrative after it had been set.

Now, presumably, the headline will be “Burke says X.”

For the record, Francis and Burke had a sit-down Thursday, described by the Vatican as a routine session anytime a cardinal gets a new job, and one that was on the calendar well before Burke’s most recent interview appeared.

Perhaps so, but I suspect lots of folks who would have paid real money to be a fly on the wall in that room.

Anti-Francis backlash in context

The Burke saga has left some observers wondering if the internal opposition Francis faces is unprecedented, especially at senior levels of the Church.

To begin, let’s be crystal clear: According to tradition, Francis is the 266th pope of the Catholic Church, and he’s also the 266th pope to have problems with some of his bishops. The story goes all the way back to the Acts of the Apostles, and a celebrated clash between Peter and Paul.

More recently, both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI faced enormous internal opposition, both from the grassroots and from sectors of the hierarchy. There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and more than 5,000 bishops, and to think that at any given time some share of both aren’t going to be unhappy with their leader is a delusion.

In sum, the notion that there’s anything terribly new about what we’re seeing today is, for all intents and purposes, hogwash.

During the John Paul II years, there was an axis of moderate-to-liberal prelates that routinely cut in a different direction from the pontiff, including Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, Godfried Danneels of Brussels, Basil Hume of Westminster, Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper of Germany, Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, and Paulo Arns and Aloisio Lorscheider of Brazil.

All those men either were, or eventually became, cardinals.

During a 1985 synod of bishops, Danneels took up the issue of collegiality, meaning power-sharing and decentralization, insisting that “it must be understood in a deeper way and put into effect in a fuller way.” It was seen as a criticism of the pope, just like Burke’s comments last October.

In 2000, when John Paul II issued the document Dominus Iesus on the Church’s relationship with other religions, containing the line that non-Christians are in a “gravely deficient” position vis-à-vis salvation, Lehmann objected out loud that it broke with the “style” of the documents of Vatican II.

(As a footnote, Dominus Iesus was prepared by the future Pope Benedict, who was then the head of the Vatican’s doctrinal office.)

At times complaints even arrived from bishops en masse. During a 1998 synod, Asian prelates almost as a bloc complained of what they saw as an over-concentration of power in Rome, not allowing them sufficient flexibility to adapt the faith to Asian cultures, and also a basic Vatican incomprehension of their situation.

At other levels, John Paul also faced stiff blowback.

The 1989 “Cologne Declaration,” signed by 163 leading Catholic theologians from around the world, complained of a “new Roman centralism” and rejected what it called “intolerable” interference and “questionable forms of control” in theological debate.

To take another example, when John Paul II visited the liberal Netherlands in 1985, he drew tepid crowds in some places and angry protestors in others. As one commentator wrote at the time, “Never before were the streets so empty, and the stone-throwers so nearby.”

As for Benedict, arguably no pope in the last century faced such intense internal opposition, both at the top and the bottom of the Church.

For instance, blowback against Benedict’s outreach to the traditionalist Lefebvrite movement and his liberalization of permission for the Latin Mass proved so intense that in 2009 a coalition of French Catholics launched an on-line petition in defense of the embattled pontiff.

Some 38,000 people signed, but it was hard to miss the point that only three of France’s almost 200 Catholic bishops joined them.

Shortly before he died in 2012, Martini, the liberal cardinal in Milan, gave an interview to a Jesuit colleague in which he said that the Catholic Church was “200 years out of date,” a line widely seen as a shot at Benedict.

When Benedict traveled to the United Kingdom in 2010, the trip overall was a success, but an anti-papal rally in downtown London nevertheless drew 10,000 people, the largest street protest against a pope in modern history.

So great was the unrest during the Benedict years that two respected Italian journalists actually brought out a 2010 book called “Attack on Ratzinger,” chronicling a whole series of episodes that had whipped up protest, complaints and controversy.

It wasn’t just Benedict’s reputation for theological and political conservativism that drew opposition.

During those years, it was a favorite parlor game among Vatican-watchers to try to figure out which Princes of the Church were endeavoring to sabotage the pontiff, threatened by his calls for a “purification” and his anti-corruption drive on Vatican finances.

After Benedict resigned in February 2013, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a protégé of the pontiff, told his fellow cardinals during a meeting before the conclave to elect a successor that they should perform an examination of conscience as to whether they’d failed to support Benedict when he needed them most.

Two final points.

It might be tempting to say that what’s new about Francis’ opposition is that it’s coming from the right rather than the left. Tempting, that is, but wrong.

First of all, both John Paul II and Benedict had critics on the right, too, just as there are some on the left who resist Francis’ charms. Moreover, the last time Catholicism had a basically center-left pope, Paul VI in the 1960s and 70s, he also faced severe right-wing backlash.

For instance, when Pope Paul approved a more modern form of the Mass using vernacular languages rather than Latin in 1969, one of his own cardinals, an influential Vatican veteran, wrote the pontiff a lengthy letter basically accusing him of heresy.

As Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once memorably put it, in the Catholic Church everything has happened at least once.

As for how Francis may cope with this resistance, one suspects it won’t be markedly different from how most other popes have done it, with varying degrees of success. The strategy boils down to ignoring it for the most part, and, every once in a while, cracking a head or two to remind people who’s in charge.

On that score, just ask Cardinal Raymond Burke.

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