Pope Francis and his Journey East

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope March 13, 2013 and took the name Francis. He became the first pope from the Americas, the first non-European and the first Jesuit priest to be named pope. Prior to the 2013 papal conclave, he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998. His papacy has been characterized by humility, his championing of the world’s poor and marginalized people as well as advocating for environment and peace.

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Although Pope Francis, now 82, has only one lung and other health issues, he has until May 2019, undertaken 29 foreign trips in his six-year pontificate. That’s five more than Benedict XVI made in his entire eight years as pope. It took St. Pope John Paul II a little more than seven years to make as many trips abroad.  A person of his age should not have traveled so much, but he has done so. Among those trips, he has chosen countries in Asia. Why?

As the leader of 1.3 billion Catholics around the world, the pope has a duty to visit his people. Of course, he cannot go everywhere and must choose his destinations. He goes where he is needed most — to become the voice of the voiceless. Yes, diplomatically, he cannot do much, but he can draw the world’s attention to problems, especially those concerning women and children.


Be Fruitful and Multiply

South Korea (2014)

Christianity is seeing robust growth and dynamism in South Korea, where more than 25 percent of the population of 51 million identify themselves as active Christians.

His main objective in visiting South Korea was not just to attend Asian Youth Day in Daejeon but also to call for reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula as well as to call for forgiveness and inclusiveness.

The highlight of the trip was the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs who died for their faith and to raise awareness for the faithful to follow in their footsteps.

Sri Lanka (2015)

Pope Francis made a stop in Sri Lanka before going to the Philippines. He canonized the country’s first saint, Blessed Joseph Vaz. It was his way of reiterating his call for reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamil people, using the saint as a model for national unity.

Apart from calling for people of different faiths to overcome the pain inflicted by Sri Lanka’s civil war, he also appealed for the truth about wartime injustices to be revealed.

Catholics comprise slightly more that 6 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million.

The Philippines (2015)

The Philippines has the largest Catholic population in Asia — 86 percent of its population of 106 million.

The main purpose of his trip to the Philippines was to visit sites affected by a hurricane that killed many people and destroyed homes. Another storm was about to hit when Pope Francis was due to celebrate Mass. And he did so with a cheap raincoat over him.

Afterwards, his entourage encouraged him to immediately return to Manila even though he wished to stay longer. En route to the airport, he asked for his motorcade to stop so that he could see destroyed houses. And when he knew that an elderly person was house-bound, he went to greet her, dismaying his security officers. But he told them that it did not matter what happened to him because there was a system to choose a new pope, so there was no need to stop him seeing his people.

Myanmar and Bangladesh (2017)

Why did he choose to visit these two countries? It was because his people there needed him the most. He could not do much but he caught the attention of the world.

He made the first-ever papal visit to Myanmar with the purpose of working for reconciliation, forgiveness and peace. The people hoped he would bring a message of peace. His biggest diplomatic challenge was to be the voice for persecuted minorities in Myanmar, not just Rohingya Muslims but also Christians.

Pope Francis was the second pope to visit Bangladesh, 31 years after Pope St. John Paul II made the trip in 1986. His visit aimed to show that the country was not in the throes of terrorism or religious fundamentalism. He also wanted to speak clearly and loudly about the situation facing Rohingya refugees who had fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh.

Catholics account for about 1 percent of Myanmar’s population of 52 million and only 0.2 percent of Bangladesh’s population of 157 million.

Japan (2019)

In January 2019, Pope Francis was on a plane taking him to the World Youth Day gathering in Panama when he confirmed that he would visit Japan in November.

He will be the second pope to visit Japan, nearly 40 years after Pope St. John Paul II did so. Pope Francis has often spoken of his admiration for the missionary work carried out by the Jesuits to bring Christianity to Japan in the 16th century.

His itinerary will include a visit to Nagasaki, where he will visit the 26 Martyrs Museum and Monument where Christians were killed for their faith in 1597. He will also draw attention to Nagasaki’s atomic legacy as he often speaks of the danger of nuclear weapons.

The pope will show his support for atomic bomb survivors and honor the “hidden Christians” who kept their faith through decades of persecution.

Japan has about 509,000 Catholics, accounting for about 0.5 percent of the population, served by 1,589 priests in 848 parishes.