ROME — Pope Francis leaves on Wednesday for five days in South Korea, his first outing to Asia and a trip that seems almost perfectly to capture both the promise and the peril of his ambition to be a “Peace Pope.”
The pontiff is scheduled to meet government leaders and to take part in an Asian Catholic youth festival. He’ll beatify a group of Korean martyrs from the 18th and 19th centuries, giving him a chance to shine a spotlight on contemporary martyrdom from nearby North Korea to Iraq, where last week the pope named a personal representative to voice his concern for Christians and other minorities fleeing the radical Islamic forces.
Francis also will meet family members of victims of the recent Sewol shipwreck that claimed more than 300 lives, and will lay out a role for the church’s mission in Asia in a speech to bishops from the continent.
The outing poses challenges to Francis the peacemaker on multiple levels.
First is the division of Korea itself. Francis will try to send signals of openness across the DMZ that separates the peninsula, without provoking the North Korean regime. He’ll want to promote reconciliation but can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the problems in the north, including an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Christians believed to languish in forced labor camps.
There’s no indication Francis will spring another surprise by inviting leaders of the two Koreas to join him for a peace prayer in the Vatican, as he did with the Israelis and Palestinians while visiting the Middle East in late May, or that he’ll deliver an iconic moment as he did in Bethlehem by stopping at the security barrier dividing Jerusalem from the West Bank.
On the other hand, as Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, put it last week, “The pope can always surprise us.”
The trip has already drawn a reminder of how complicated reaching across the divide can be, as North Korea has spurned an invitation to send a delegation to an Aug. 18 papal Mass in Seoul.
In addition to the North Koreans, Francis will be speaking to another party that won’t be physically present but will certainly be listening: China, especially President Xi Jinping, with whom Francis has already had backdoor contact.
China is one of just a handful of nations without diplomatic relations with the Vatican and it’s long been the apple of Rome’s eye, seeing ties with Beijing as essential to extending the church’s reach as a voice of conscience. The Vatican also wants to improve the lot of China’s roughly 13 million Catholics, many of whom are compelled to practice their faith underground.
For the first time, a pope will actually fly over China en route to South Korea. (When the late Pope John Paul II visited Korea in 1984 and again in 1989, he skirted Chinese airspace.) It’s traditional for a pope to send telegrams to each of the countries he flies over, and in this case that brief message will be scrutinized for signals of an opening.
Francis is not a European, and on conflicts such as Syria his line has been closer to Russia and China than to the Western powers. That may position him to succeed where other recent popes have failed in terms of détente with China, with this trip a chance to move the ball.
Beyond geopolitics, Francis will also be stretched as a peacemaker on interfaith and ecumenical levels.
Catholicism in South Korea has experienced strong growth, with its share of the population more than doubling in the last 20 years to reach 10 percent, roughly 5 million people. Yet they remain a minority in a majority Buddhist culture, and this will be the first time Francis has been tested in terms of his ability to reach out to one of the great religious traditions of East Asia.
John Paul II got off to a rocky start with Buddhists, angering many by asserting in a 1994 book that Buddhism “is in large measure an atheistic system.” Francis doubtless hopes to avoid a similar stumble while laying the basis for stronger ties.
In terms of the Christian scene, Korea is home to a flourishing Evangelical and Pentecostal revival. Catholic/Pentecostal relations have been notoriously uneven in Korea, as in many other places, but Francis seems to have a special affection for the charismatic spirituality typical of Pentecostalism and could use his trip to build bridges.
Finally, there’s a local conflict Francis may not be able to avoid.
Family members of victims of the Sewol shipwreck currently are camped out in a square in Seoul where the pontiff is to say Mass on Aug. 16, demanding that the government launch an independent investigation. They’ve vowed to resist if police try to run them out, potentially setting the stage for an ugly confrontation, and Francis may be pressed to soothe the situation.
For the first pope named “Francis,” being a peacemaker is a necessary part of the job description, in the spirit of the great medieval saint who once crossed a battle line during the Crusades to try to breach the divide.
The pope’s Aug. 13-18 journey to South Korea looms as one of the sternest tests to date of his ability to translate that lofty aim into concrete reality.
Globe coverage of the papal trip
The Globe’s Inés San Martín, who will also be one of the mainstays of our soon-to-launch Catholic site “Crux,” is already on the ground in South Korea reporting in advance of the pope’s arrival. Watch for her stories on Bostonglobe.com beginning Monday. I’ll be on the papal plane with Francis, and will begin posting reports on Thursday, when we arrive in Seoul.
Martyrdom in the here-and-now
Martyrdom is one of the big-picture themes of the pope’s Korea trip, and in light of recent events it’s about as timely as anything one could imagine a pope discussing.
On Saturday, Francis will beatify Paul Yun Ji-Chung, an 18th-century layman considered one of the founding fathers of Catholicism in Korea, along with 123 other believers who perished during crackdowns by authorities of the Joseon dynasty for, among other things, refusing to take part in Confucian rites then seen as part of national identity.
Beatification is the final step before sainthood, which will allow these martyrs to be referred to as “blessed.” Korean Catholicism sees itself as a church of martyrs, with the official list including some 16,000 Catholics killed during different periods of persecution.
Though these martyrs belong to the past, Francis will certainly be conscious that martyrdom is very much with us in the here and now.
For one thing, he can’t ignore the fact that just across the DMZ to the north, Christians face a systematic form of persecution that’s arguably the most grotesque anywhere in the world. Since the armistice in 1953 that stabilized the division of the peninsula, some 300,000 Christians in North Korea have simply disappeared and are presumed dead.
The anti-Christian animus in North Korea is so strong that even people with Christian grandparents are frozen out of the most important jobs — a grand irony, given that founder Kim Il Sung’s mother was a Presbyterian deaconess.
It would be odd indeed if Francis were to celebrate the memories of martyrs from three centuries ago without at least acknowledging the reality that many Koreans today are paying a similar price. Figuring out how to do that in a way that doesn’t anger the North Koreans, potentially making life even more difficult for Christians, will be among the pontiff’s stiffest challenges.
At the same time, Francis has another burgeoning crisis of martyrdom on his mind — Iraq, where some 100,000 Christians are now believed to be refugees from the new caliphate decreed by the radical Islamic State in the country’s north.
On Thursday, the Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad, Louis Raphael I Sako, described what’s happening as “a real genocide” and issued an urgent plea for help.
“Christians are walking on foot in Iraq’s searing summer heat towards the Kurdish cities of Erbil, Duhok, and Soulaymiyia, [with] the sick, the elderly, infants, and pregnant women among them,” Sako said. “They are facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide. They need, water, food, shelter. . . ”
A day before, Pope Francis issued a statement on the Iraqi crisis calling on the international community “to protect all those affected or threatened by the violence, and to guarantee all necessary assistance — especially the most urgently needed aid — to the great multitude of people who have been driven from their homes, whose fate depends entirely on the solidarity of others.”
On Friday, Francis named Cardinal Fernando Filoni, currently the head of the Vatican’s missionary department and a former papal ambassador in Baghdad, as his personal representative to pledge solidarity and aid for the Iraqi people.
Filoni is the pope’s top Iraq expert, having served as the papal nuncio, or ambassador, to Baghdad from 2001 to 2006. That put Filoni in the thick of things during the 2003 US-led invasion, when he was the lone Western diplomat who didn’t abandon his post as the bombs fell.
Filoni remained for the aftermath of the war, as Christians found themselves primary targets amid rising chaos. He refused to adopt special security measures, wanting to face the same risks as locals who didn’t have access to guards and armored vehicles. He said his aim was to be seen “as an Iraqi, by the Iraqis.”
That choice almost cost him dearly in February 2006, when a car bomb went off outside the nunciature, demolishing a garden wall and smashing window panes, but luckily leaving no one hurt. Afterwards a Muslim contractor showed up with 30 workers to repair the damage, out of respect for the solidarity Filoni had shown.
Filoni, who was supposed to accompany Francis in Korea, will instead leave Monday or Tuesday for Iraq. He’s expected to meet Christian leaders and government officials, and also to organize help for refugees and asylum seekers. A Vatican spokesman said this week that Francis also plans to convene a summit in Rome in September for all his ambassadors from the Middle East to talk about possible initiatives to help the region’s Christian minority.
Beatifying 124 martyrs in Seoul next Saturday affords Pope Francis a platform to raise consciousness about the plight of the martyrs of this generation, and given the drama unfolding right now, much may depend on how he rises to the challenge.
Vatican reaction to US airstrikes in Iraq
When the United States went to war in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the Vatican was a vociferous critic of those conflicts. On the other hand, Pope Francis and other Vatican officials have been clamoring for months for the international community to come to the aid of the country’s embattled minorities, including Christians.
As a result, Vatican-watchers have been anxious to gauge the response to the limited US airstrikes that began Friday. It’s a case in which Rome seems pulled in different directions, perhaps accounting for what has been so far a muted reaction.
First of all, to be clear: While pacifism is a legitimate option within Catholic social teaching, it’s not mandatory, and recent popes haven’t been pacifists. The late Pope John Paul II helped coin the term “humanitarian intervention” in the 1990s in places such as Haiti and Bosnia, where he supported peacekeeping exercises intended to defend civilian populations and to disarm aggressors.
In the case of the new American campaign in Iraq, the strikes are aimed in part at facilitating delivery of humanitarian aid, which Francis has identified as an urgent priority.
Moreover, the action came after the United Nations Security Council condemned aggression by the Islamic State and called for support for Iraq, giving the US campaign some degree of international warrant — one of the Vatican’s tests for a morally legitimate use of force.
On the other hand, most Vatican diplomats believe the 2003 US-led invasion laid the basis for the instability and sectarian tension which the radicals are now exploiting. As a result, there’s a built-in skepticism any time American forces deploy in the country.
In addition, the Vatican believes the ideal formula for a humanitarian intervention is one that occurs under the formal sponsorship of the United Nations, with a clear footing in international law, so that it’s not just one state or a “coalition of the willing” pursuing its own agenda.
Most basically, the Vatican believes, as recent popes have said repeatedly, that “war is always a defeat for humanity,” so nobody’s going to come out and applaud bombing campaigns.
Arguably, this is a case in which silence signifies grudging consent. Usually when a country starts dropping bombs, Vatican officials are among the first to protest. In this instance, mum has been the word.
“No one here is celebrating,” one Vatican diplomat told the Globe on Saturday, “but when people are at risk, they have to be defended . . . that’s clear.”
In other words, the Vatican hasn’t issued a green light, but it hasn’t put up red either. It’s more like amber — proceed with caution.
As a footnote, another reason for the Vatican’s discretion is concern that it not be perceived as calling for an armed crusade to defend Christian interests, which could be exploited for propaganda value for by radical Islamists.
For the same reason, officials were at pains over the weekend to stress that Filoni’s mission isn’t aimed just at Christians, but at all vulnerable minorities, and that the Vatican supports local political solutions to protect everyone’s rights.
Religious orders and money
Pope Francis has made financial glasnost the leading edge of his Vatican reforms, and from the beginning, the architects of his cleanup operation have insisted the aim is not simply to get the Vatican’s own house in order. Instead, it’s to set a tone for the church at all levels, making transparency and accountability the order of the day.
This week brought one indication that the effort is taking hold, as the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life – better known as the “Congregation for Religious” — issued a new set of guidelines for how religious orders are supposed to handle their money.
Orders such as the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits are among the most important financial actors in the church, often running the biggest and most complex universities, schools, and hospitals, so how they administer their assets has consequences across the board.
The new guidelines are the result of a symposium held by the Congregation for Religious on management of goods in March, and, in broad strokes, the aim is to insist that religious orders adopt secular best practices of budgeting and accounting, including independent audits.
“Transparency is fundamental for the experience and effectiveness of the mission,” the 23-page document states.
Among other things, the guidelines state that accounting methods should keep the assets of works sponsored by orders, such as hospitals or schools, separate from those of the order itself – in part, presumably, to avoid the temptation of dipping into the former to subsidize the latter. They also insist on standardized reporting across the various branches of an order, and that each unit within the order should have a clear annual budget.
The guidelines ask orders to reflect on whether all their activities are truly in line with their original mission, which in Catholic parlance is known as their charisma. That tends to be a special conundrum in traditionally Catholic cultures such as Italy, where over the centuries orders have sometimes found themselves administering all sorts of enterprises bequeathed by wealthy benefactors, from hotels and gift shops to restaurants and vineyards and beyond.
It remains to be see what the Congregation for Religious will do to determine if these guidelines are being implemented. To be honest, Vatican departments are notorious for issuing edicts that have little real-world impact because no one follows up, and there doesn’t seem a slam-dunk reason to assume that this case will be any different.
Yet if even some orders adopt some elements of the standards, the Catholic Church will be several steps further down the road to transparency about money, the zone of life where reform under Francis is hitting first and, so far, hardest.
A compelling ecumenical read
If you didn’t catch it earlier this week, be sure to check out a compelling read from British Catholic writer Austen Ivereigh on the surprise death of Pope Francis’ Protestant friend, Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer, and the major ecumenical initiative the two men were pondering for 2017.
Among other points, the piece is a taste of the sort of thing that will be standard fare when the Globe’s new site dedicated to Catholic coverage, “Crux,” is up and running. If you haven’t done so yet, visit the new home of Crux on Facebook for the latest developments as the site rolls out.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook, www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.