Pope Francis will be making his first trip to Asia next week, stopping in South Korea to meet with Asia’s Catholic youth and honor 124 Korean Catholic martyrs, marking the first trip to an Asian country by a pope in nearly 20 years. The pope’s landmark trip will also include a rare moment of communication between the officially atheist state of China and the Vatican.
Vatican protocol requires the pope to radio countries that the Papal plane flies over -- this time it includes China, a country with a long history of marginalizing religion. According to the AP, the Vatican’s spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said that Francis’ message to China was still unknown, but did confirm that flight to Seoul would go through Chinese airspace.
The last time a pope paid a visit to South Korea was in 1989, when the now-sainted John Paul II refused to fly over China, and instead opted to travel over Russia, where John Paul II used the opportunity to send radio greetings to the then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, expressing interest in visiting Moscow.
A 1951 fallout between China and the Holy See officially marked the beginning of icy relations between the two and has since only been exacerbated by the Communist Party’s decision to start a sanctioned Catholic church of their own, using Party-appointed bishops and priests.
China’s Catholic population, which is estimated to be between 8 to 12 million, has become divided in their worship. Many practicing Catholics that are loyal only to the Vatican have resorted to "underground" worship, while others practice at churches run by the state-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), which runs more than 6,000 churches across the country.
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Today, Sino-Vatican relations have improved only marginally. Pope Francis revealed that he had reached out to the Chinese president, congratulating Xi when he officially took the helm in early 2013, around the same time Francis was named Pope. The effort was well received by Xi, who reportedly responded to the pope.
The pope will also hope to interact with some of China’s millions of Catholic worshippers while in South Korea as well. During Pope Francis’ five-day trip to Seoul, he will be participating in a Catholic youth festival which is also expected to attract mainland Chinese Catholics.
At the end of his trip, Pope Francis will close his visit with a Mass of peace and reconciliation where he is expected to address North Korea and China.