By: Hector Welgampola
Within the first 22 months of his papacy, Pope Francis has gone on pilgrimage to the Churches in three Asian countries: South Korea, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. As part of a fast awakening vast continent, these countries represent three religio-cultural streams and three varied socio-political realities.
Over recent months, and especially since his return form Colombo and Manila, the Holy Father’s words and actions have evidenced the impact of such exposure to vignettes of Asia’s rich plurality. More than any of the three predecessors who went on pilgrimage to Churches worldwide, Pope Francis keeps recapping and interpreting such pastoral experiences. Just as Saint John wrote the Apocalypse to the Churches in Asia, Pope Francis is using the Asian revelation to enunciate his Francisocalypse.
While enhancing the catholicity of papal teaching with Assisian aura, his spontaneity and off-the-cuff theologizing continue to endear him today to a broader church beyond traditional borders. No wonder, while on pilgrimage, often he went beyond limits set by tour planners as much as he ignored the drafts of papal speechwriters. More important than scheduled speeches were his “from-the-heart” interventions. Far more significant than diplomacy-imposed hobnobbing with politicians and fraternizing with prelates were his Jesus-like skirmishes “into the multitude.” Quite unsurprisingly, they all jived together as a passionate pastoral embrace of the needy and the suffering.
He first visited Asia to attend the 6th Asian Youth Day in Daejeon, South Korea. And while there, he brought alive the theology of Eucharistic sharing and solidarity by grieving with Koreans mourning youths killed in the 2014 ferry disaster.
During his visit to Sri Lanka, he travelled to Madhu Marian Shrine on the Northern border to pray with and console survivors and mourners deeply affected by the country’s 30-year ethnic war. On the Philippine pilgrimage, the Holy Father braved very stormy weather to visit and embrace Tacloban residents grieving the impact of Typhoon Yolanda. His outreach of pastoral presence radiated Jesus.
Such intimate encounters and empathy with the suffering and afflicted endure in people’s memory as a fatherly outreach. Their healing impact may even wipe out bad memories of papal galas or exorcising handshakes with corrupt politicians. And it was encouraging to read that Asian Church leaders have learned from the example set by the Holy Father.
According to a media report, Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias has admitted that the papal visits to Asia have given a big boost to the “self-confidence” of the Asian Church. The cardinal, president of the Asian bishops’ federation, has said that the pope’s example will encourage the Asian Church to take forward the mission to the poor. Such enthusiasm rekindles hope of a renewed outreach to people harried by multiple forms of poverty and deprivation.In fact, just like Pope Francis’ own home Church in Latin America, the Asian Church used to be a pioneer in social apostolate and outreach to the poor, a few decades ago. Committed social apostles such as Japanese Cardinal Fumio Hamao, Korean Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, Filipino Bishops Julio Labayen and Francisco Claver and Japanese Sister Filo Hirota were among stalwarts of the Asian bishops’ Office of Human Development (OHD). A few still survive in ecclesiastical backwoods. Although that office is struggling for survival today, hopefully, the grace of papal visits may herald a new springtime!
May the pope’s Gospel witness be a new Revelation even to latter-day Church leaders dismissive of pro-poor movements such as OHD and shift focus from regional commitment by withdrawing into juridical ghettos. The lived witness of the pope’s Asian pilgrimages is further affirmed by his Lenten message 2015, which urges Christians to overcome the scandal of globalized indifference. Time to live that message!