The Pope in Asia in 2019... a trip to Japan

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A catholic church in Japan

The Pope in Asia in 2019... a trip to Japan

By Paolo Affatato/ lastampa.it

The Pope from the Far West looks auspiciously to the Far East. Pope Francis’ special pastoral care for the small communities of the faithful in the Asian continent is expressed and substantiated with ever greater clarity during his pontificate. And it could have a worthy crowning with a trip to Tokyo, Beijing and Pyongyang.

The “Continent of the Continents”, with a total population of 4.4 billion inhabitants, marked by a pluralism of cultures, nations, ethnic groups, religions, which confirms to be an area of the globe that hosts Catholic faithful in communities scattered almost everywhere in small minorities, and that counts, in total, 144 million souls, just over 3 per cent of the total population.

Faced with a reality in which speaking of mission ad gentes still means something - that is, of people who until now have never received the announcement of Christ - in 2013 Pope Bergoglio had already said with foresight, at the beginning of his pontificate, “We must go to Asia”, speaking on the flight back from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. That expression has not only remained a pious intention for the Argentine Pontiff who, moving towards the East, has already made pilgrimages to Korea and then Turkey in 2014, to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in 2015, to Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017.

Now begins a phase that could be even more challenging and interesting, from the spiritual and pastoral point of view, but also from the historical, cultural and geopolitical ones.

In fact, the Pope announced his intention to visit Japan in 2019, the country where he dreamed of going as a missionary of the Society of Jesus as a young man. The news has aroused the enthusiasm of the Japanese faithful: “We look forward to the Holy Father’s visit. It will be a great opportunity for us Catholics in Japan to strengthen our missionary zeal and understanding of unity as the one body of Christ,” Tarcisius Isao Kikuchi, Archbishop of Tokyo, tells Vatican Insider hoping for a new apostolic journey to East Asia.

Among the dates of a possible journey, we must consider that in 2019 the nation will go through the imperial transition and that Emperor Akihito has chosen as the date to abdicate - a unique in history - April 30. The new emperor Naruhito will be enthroned on 1 May, so any visit by the Pope is unlikely to take place before that date. Between September and November 2019, then, Japan will host the Rugby World Cup, an international sporting event with which one would prefer not to overlap. “It is the task of pontifical and Japanese diplomacy now to finalize the preparation of the apostolic journey,” the pastor of Tokyo says.

“Compared to the visit of John Paul II who was in Japan in 1981, there is a significant difference”, the bishop notes. “At that time, there were less than half a million Catholics in Japan. Today there are as many Catholics living in Japan as expatriates, many from the Philippines but also many Latin Americans, Africans and Europeans”, Kikuchi continues, and observes: “With these migrant Catholics, who are today a precious heritage of the Japanese Catholic Church, we must cultivate the spirit of unity”.

The archbishop notes: “The Pope could visit and pray for the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. And his presence in the archipelago would also have great significance for launching a universal message of peace, for Asia and for the whole world. He could in fact visit Hiroshima or Nagasaki, remembering the fallen of the Second World War and the disaster of the nuclear conflict. This is a subject on which the Japanese Church has never failed to speak out, fully supporting the pacifist approach of the Japanese Constitutional Charter, in the face of attempts to change it”.

Precisely with the same interpretative key - an apostolic journey that sees the Pope as a pilgrim of peace - the possibility of a possible journey to North Korea takes shape. This is no caprice, it’s not just a chimera, they rush to clarify in the South Korean Catholic Church. After the official visit to the Vatican by South Korean Catholic President Moon Jae-In, glimmers of hope - unthinkable until just a few months ago - have opened up. The whole affair underway in the East Asian peninsula, the North-South rapprochement and the “giant leaps” towards peace, mean that the bishop of Daejeon Lazzaro You, one of the synod fathers, can say with enthusiasm: “We believe in it, we work on it and we say with faith: everything is possible to God”.

Pope Francis officially told Moon that he was “willing to visit Pyongyang” and therefore a door is open to organize a stopover beyond the bamboo curtain, despite the complexity of the local situation (the government is in the hands of a military elite that leaves no freedom to the population) and the unknowns that remain open in such a scenario.

In the country, among other things, there are no bishops or priests, while the Catholics who remained after years of persecution - an estimated three thousand - have only recently been recognized by the regime that brought them together in the “Korean Catholic Association”, a government body that strictly controls every expression of worship. A recent conciliatory sign was president of the Bishops’ Conference of South Korea, Bishop Igino Kim Hee-joong’s recent trip to the North, in accompanying the government delegation that took part in the summit in Pyongyang last September.

But the panorama does not only include Japan and Korea: it also touches China. Pope Francis, in fact, has never hidden his desire to go to Beijing as well. The recent positive developments, with the signing of the Agreement between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China on the nomination of bishops, certainly opens a door in that direction. The two Chinese bishops who participated in the Synod on Youth did not hesitate to state in an interview with the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops Avvenire: “We have invited Pope Francis to come to China. We await him. The Lord knows the moment. But we pray for this, we pray the rosary so that this moment may come soon”.

Even if it is a personal initiative, and not an institutional one; even if there are still knots to be untied in the complex situation of the delicate relations between the Holy See and China; even if the political steps necessary only to imagine such a hypothesis have not yet been taken; and even if there are not yet diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China; despite all odds, given the acceleration that has been recorded on that front and given the convergence of interests between the two players at stake - for the Holy See the pastoral concern for the baptized; for Beijing political legitimacy and undoubted diplomatic success in the international arena - it can be said that the visit of Pope Francis to China is realistically possible.

The scenario of a possible apostolic visit to Tokyo, Pyongyang and Beijing in 2019, then – providing the above-mentioned preconditions are fulfilled - is not only pure imagination. The fact that in the East the Catholic faithful in Japan, Korea and China are talking about it, dreaming about it, are beginning to hope for it is an unprecedented fact.

Sat, 10/27/2018 - 12:18
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