ROME — Pope Francis’ soft spot for China is well known, and he has made it evident yet again by granting an exclusive interview to an Asian newspaper urging the world not to fear China’s growing power and conveying a message of friendship to President Xi Jinping.
In the interview, published last week by the Hong Kong-based newspaper Asia Times, Francis delivered a message of hope, peace, and reconciliation.
During the hour-long interview with columnist Francesco Sisci, the pope described China as a “great country,” and said that the world should not fear China’s growing power. However, he warned, the “true balance of peace is realized through dialogue.”
“Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me,” Francis said. “This is what happened in Yalta, and we saw the results.”
His Yalta reference was to the February, 1945 conference at which World War II allies British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt were seen by historians as agreeing to divide the world into Western and Soviet spheres, setting the stage for the Cold War.
“For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country,” Francis told the Asia Times columnist. “But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom.”
Sisci, the reporter, said he purposely didn’t ask the pope about politics or the relationship between China and the Vatican, so the subject of religious persecution by the Chinese government never came up.
“I hoped he could convey to common Chinese his enormous human empathy by speaking for the first time ever on issues that worry them daily — the rupture of the traditional family, their difficulties in being understood and understanding the western world, their sense of guilt from past experiences such as the Cultural Revolution,” Sisci wrote.
Asked about the “tragedies without comparison” the Chinese have suffered, such as the one-child policy that led many to abort or put their children up for adoption, Francis avoided criticizing the government.
“Every people must be reconciled with their history as its own path, with its successes and its mistakes,” Francis said. “Here I would use the word mentioned in the question: mercy. It is healthy for a person to have mercy toward himself, not to be sadistic or masochistic.”
The interview closed with the journalist asking Francis if he wanted to send a message to the Chinese people, authorities, and to Xi for the beginning of the Chinese New Year on Feb. 8.
“I wish to express my hope that they never lose their historical awareness of being a great people, with a great history of wisdom, and that they have much to offer to the world,” Francis said. “The world looks to this great wisdom of yours.”
He also called on the Chinese to cooperate in the protection of the environment.
Pope Francis has said several times that he wants to visit mainland China. If it were to happen, he would be the first pope to do so.
The Vatican and Beijing severed diplomatic relations in 1951 after the Communist Revolution; since then, they’ve remain divided over a variety of issues, such as the Church’s independence to appoint local bishops.
“I’d really love to go to China,” Francis told reporters last September. On other occasions he has revealed that he sent a letter to Xi shortly after his election, and that the dream of doing missionary work in this country originally led him to become a Jesuit priest.
Although rumors about a possible papal visit are never lacking, reaching an agreement won’t be easy. There’s a long history of back-and-forth that pre-dates the Chinese Communist Party and its view of the Church as a form of Western imperialism. For instance, in 1715, a papal decree was issued condemning traditional Chinese rites and Confucian rituals.
Talking to Sisci, Francis said that when he became the first pope to ever fly over Chinese airspace, on his way to South Korea in 2014, he got emotional.
“I confess that I felt very emotional, something that does not usually happen to me,” Francis said. “I was moved to be flying over this great richness of culture and wisdom. The Catholic Church, one of whose duties is to respect all civilizations, before this civilization, I would say, has the duty to respect it with a capital ‘R’,” the pope said.