Asians wonder about Latin American Pope – The Diplomat


Pope Francis addresses the world's media on Saturday morning Feb. 16 in the Paul VI Hall (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Pope Francis addresses the world’s media on Saturday morning Feb. 16 in the Paul VI Hall (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

ROME – The day after former Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio was elected head of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, Ariadna Estetania Cabello Rendace was among a group of Argentinians standing in the evening cold in St Peter’s Square, watching on video screens in the vast cobble-stoned piazza as the new Pope said Mass under the blue-background splendour of Michaelangelo’s Bibical frescoes inside the Sistine Chapel.

“Last night, when they announced the new papa, we were standing over there, near the fountain,” she said, pointing across the square. “When he said ‘Argentina’, I said ‘What? Who? I cannot believe’.”

But based on nothing more than the logic of demography, it makes sense that Pope Francis is from Latin America, given that around 4 in 10 of the world’s Catholics live there. 

Only 12 per cent of the world’s Catholics live in the vast Asia-Pacific region, from where 11 of the 115 cardinal-electors came – with five from India and one each from Australia, Hong Kong, Lebanon, The Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam 

Asian disappointment

Asians in Rome and elsewhere are welcoming the new Pope, despite some tinges of disappointment after suggestions before the conclave that some Asian cardinals were in contention.

Father Christopher Ann – a young priest from Gwangju in South Korea – took time from showing a group of Korean pilgrims and tourist around St Peter’s Basilica, to say that he’d hoped for an Asian Pope.

“But, at the same time, it is not so important where the Pope comes from,” he added. “The most important thing is that the new father able to stand against the materialism that is in the world.”

The young priest’s suggestion seems to be shared by his new boss. In his first meeting with journalists on Saturday morning, the new pope said he went with the name Francis when Brazil’s Cardinal Claudio Hummes congratulated him after his election and asked him not to forget the poor.

“He hugged me and kissed me and told me not to forget the poor, and that word went in here,” Pope Francis said, finger to his head, while speaking to around 3000 journalists in the Paul VI Hall. “I immediately thought of Francis of Assisi,” he revealed.

Of the Asian contenders – Manila’s Luis Antonio Tagle, Mumbai’s Oswald Gracias and Colombo’s Malcolm Ranjith – the Filipino got the most attention as a possible John Paul II Mark II, given his outgoing personality and relative youth at just 55 years of age.

Poland’s Karol Wojtyła was 58 when elected pope in 1958, going to become the second-longest serving pontiff in the two millennium history of the Catholic Church before his death in 2005.

Tagle’s election would raise the prospect of another long papacy, but nonetheless, Gollowon Allesandro Cabangcla, a Filipino living in Rome for ten years, said that he was “a little disappointed” that his compatriot was not elected. “Maybe he was a bit too young still,” reckoned Cabangcla, who hopes Francis will visit the Philippines. John Paul II’s trip there in 1995 saw him celebrated Mass in front of an estimated four to five million people, the largest papal audience in history.

There are only two Catholic-majority population countries in Asia. The Philippines, where around 76 million Catholics make up the world’s third largest Catholic population behind Brazil and Mexico and ahead of the United States. The second Catholic-majority country in Asia is tiny East Timor, where around nine out ten Timorese are ranked among the faithful. In both countries, however, evangelical Protestant groups are making in inroads and converts, marking – as is the case in Latin America – marking out one of the main challenges for the new pope. 

Challenges for Francis

Francis’ apparent frugal lifestyle and history of hands-on work with the poor, however, will likely appeal in parts of the world where evangelical Protestant fervour has made inroads.

Andrew Holman, an Argentinian of Irish and German descent who says he knows the new Pope, said that “the name he adopted (Francis, after the famous St. Francis of Assisi) is how the man himself is.”

While the Francis will have much to do to address the fall-out of the sex abuse scandals in countries such as Germany, Ireland and the U.S., as well as alleged in-fighting in the Vatican bureaucracy, Mr Holman said that Francis’s election will help the church push back against the Pentecostal rise.

“You know, many of the new Pentecostalist converts in Latin America are still Catholics too, many dabble with new expressions,” he assessed. “I think the new Latin American Pope can help bring people back to the Catholic church fully,” he added.

And, in taking the name Francis, Bergoglio took up the mantle of a man who not only made austerity in the name of holiness a lifestyle choice, but who also sought to mediate with Muslim rulers. Some accounts say Francis of Assissi he tried to convert the Egyptian sultan  – overtures that were apparently politely rebuffed – during the Fifth Crusade. 

But in the wider Middle East, Christians have fled in their hundreds of thousands since the Iraq War in 2003, while elsewhere in Asia, Catholic numbers are small, in relative and absolute terms. In India, there are ten million Catholics, while in other Asian countries with substantial Catholic populations, such as Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, Catholics nonetheless only make up respectively three, six and ten per cent of the totals.

Overall, of the 285 million Christians in the Asia-Pacific region, 131 million of those are Catholic. In China, Protestant church membership is estimated in some quarters to exceed 100 million, far more than have joined the ‘official’ or state-approved variant of the Catholic Church, or who worship in secret according to worldwide Catholic norms. Overall, around 5 million Chinese, or 0.7 per cent of the population, are Catholic.

Given China’s rise – it will be the world’s biggest economy by 2030 according to some U.S. government estimates – and given the poor relations between The Holy See and the Chinese Government, relations with China will likely be the most pressing regional issue for Francis.

A long-mooted trade-off – where The Holy See revokes relations with Taiwan, which China sees as a renegade province, in return for Beijing easing its persecution of Chinese Catholics – could be put on the table.


As the rain beat down on the tens of thousands of pilgrims and onlookers awaiting the announcement of the new Pope last week, some of the growing numbers of Chinese tourists to Europe were among the crowd.

One of those, Yu Yao, a Chinese student in Paris who is currently travelling in Italy, was surprised to hear that there were Asian cardinals in the running for the Papacy.

“I think it would be really interesting and attractive for us if there was an Asian leader of the church,” she said.

But for Yu Yao and others living in countries and cultures that are non-Catholic, the symbolism and rituals of the ancient institution are something of a mystery.

Only 1.4 per cent of Japan’s people are Christian, and of those, there are only 400,000 Catholics. Jesuit missionaries – including St Francis Xavier, a founder of the order to which the new Pope belongs – went to Japan and flourished briefly in the 16th Century before Japan’s long era of self-imposed isolation.

Hinting that the Catholic Church has more to do to bring its message to parts of the world where Catholicism is still an exotic minority faith, Japanese student Marika Ishibashi was touring St Peter’s Basilica the day before the conclave and said she was impressed by Italy’s ornate churches.

But she then explained that “the first thing that comes to mind when you ask me about Catholicism is that Tom Hanks movie,” referring to Angels And Demons, which depicts, appropriately enough, a terrorist plot against The Vatican during conclave time.

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