COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Just like Francis’ last trip to Asia, when he visited South Korea in August 2013, the pontiff’s Jan. 12-19 outing to Sri Lanka and the Philippines has been fascinating so far on many levels, one of which is the power of narrative in shaping how he’s perceived.
The broad outlines of the usual narrative about Francis, as it has taken shape in the media and in the popular imagination, are by now familiar. He’s seen as a peace-loving advocate for the poor and downtrodden, as well as a maverick reformer steering Catholicism in a broadly progressive direction.
It’s exposed him to some intra-Catholic blowback, especially among more conservative and traditionalist believers. Yet in terms of public opinion and media coverage in most places, that narrative often means Francis gets a free pass where other popes might find themselves in hot water.
The dynamic was clear last August, for instance, when Francis visited a Catholic charitable facility outside Seoul, South Korea, called Kkottongnae. The center, which houses 5,000 sick and disabled people, was founded by a charismatic priest named the Rev. John Oh who’s been dogged over the years by corruption scandals.
Some in the Korean church see the operation essentially as a scam, more interested in raising money than in serving the needy; prior to the pope’s arrival, those critics staged a series of protests.
In the end, however, none of it spilled over onto Francis, whose love for the poor has become the stuff of legend.
This week in Sri Lanka, we’ve seen a similar effect.
On Tuesday night, the pontiff delivered a speech to an inter-religious meeting which, at times, was almost worthy of Pope Benedict XVI in terms of the cautions he voiced about the limits of inter-faith dialogue.
“As experience has shown, for such dialogue and encounter to be effective, it must be grounded in a full and forthright presentation of our respective convictions,” he said, calling on participants to be “honest” in stating their beliefs.
“Men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters,” the pope said.
Had Benedict XVI said the same thing, many listeners likely would have heard echoes of decades-long controversies that pit Rome against progressive Asian bishops and theologians over these very issues.
The debates include the risks of incorporating Eastern practices and beliefs into Christianity, and the extent to which dialogue can sit aside missionary work as a primary way Asian Catholics engage the followers of other religions.
Critics of Benedict might have detected a looming theological crackdown in the remarks, or at least a subtle rebuke. With Francis, known for his outreach, zest for dialogue, and centrist theological stance, the comments didn’t cause a ripple of reaction.
Similarly on Wednesday morning, Francis formally declared that a 17th- and 18th-century missionary priest from India who helped keep the faith alive in Sri Lanka in a time of persecution, Joseph Vaz, is a saint.
In the pope’s homily, he urged all Catholics to follow the new saint’s example and become “missionary disciples,” saying “we are called to go forth with the same zeal.”
Granted, Francis also stressed the need for “sensitivity” and “reverence for others,” but so did Pope John Paul II when he visited India in 1999 and called for “a great harvest of faith on this vast and vital continent,” meaning Asia.
“Just as the first millennium saw the cross firmly planted in the soil of Europe, and the second in that of America and Africa,” John Paul said, in the third millennium it’s the turn of Asia.
The comments incensed many Indian Hindus, already leery of Christian proselytism in the county. They staged angry protests along the pope’s itinerary, and demanded an apology. Some observers rated the trip among the least successful of John Paul’s almost 27-year papacy.
Yet when Francis on Wednesday issued a similar call for stepped-up missionary efforts — in the shadow of India, and in a country with a substantial Hindu minority — no one got up in arms.
Here, too, Francis’ narrative may have protected him, since this is also the pope famously quoted as calling proselytism “solemn nonsense.”
Following Pope Francis around, one could probably compile a lengthy catalogue of words and deeds that might have been explosive coming from someone else, but from him draw mostly smiles and applause.
This pope’s narrative, in other words, may create headaches among some sectors of his own flock, including in Rome. When he hits the road, however, it’s possibly the best friend he could have.