BANGKOK -- Pope Francis, the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, this week hopes to put his stamp on Asia.
The pope's six-day trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines aims to convey the church's message to billions of potential converts. Asia today is home to 140 million Catholics. There are an estimated 73 million Catholics in the Philippines. East Timor and the Philippines are the only Asian countries with Catholic majorities.
"Asia is one of the greatest frontiers of the church of our times, and Pope Francis is showing it with his enthusiastic travels," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said ahead of the visit.
In the College of Cardinals, the group of senior Catholic priests that elects the church's leader, Pope Francis recently announced new appointments in Thailand and Vietnam. In Myanmar, outspoken Archbishop Charles Maung Bo was named as the country's first cardinal.
"The two big issues in Myanmar are the civil war in the Kachin area and the problems of [the Rohingya] Muslim minority in Rakhine State," Bo told the Nikkei Asian Review in November. Bo also spoke in support of the Rohingya in his Christmas message.
Pope Francis had earlier appointed Archbishop Pietro Parolin, later made a cardinal, as Secretary of State, the Vatican's most senior official. Parolin, who was born in Italy, has held talks with China and Vietnam on the status of the church.
Making up for lost time
The pope's trip to Sri Lanka and the Philippines follows a visit to South Korea last year -- the first to Asia by a pontiff since 1999, when Pope John Paul II toured India. St. John Paul, who was canonized in 2014, made 104 international trips during his papacy.
Pope Francis' trips to Asia address criticisms by regional church leaders, who may feel they have been neglected by Rome since 1999.
"The distinctive thing about the visits Pope Francis makes is his focus on the poor and needy in each country he travels to," Father Mick Kelly, publisher of ucanews.com, the church's Asian news service, told NAR. "John Paul II didn't ignore the poor, of course. It's just that Francis highlights their presence and needs."
Christianity -- and Catholicism in particular -- are surging across the region, especially in South Korea, Vietnam, China and India, Kelly said. "The Catholic Church is growing exponentially. In Vietnam, since 1975, we have estimated growth from about 1.9 million to today's 6.8 million -- so it's trebled in 40 years."
Kelly said there were between 17 million and 20 million Catholics across India, an expansion rate that "keeps pace with the growth in the general population."
In South Korea, Christianity has continued to attract new followers since World War II. It now counts 30% of the population as faithful -- the same level as Buddhism in the country. The number of Catholics among South Korea's Christians has doubled since 1990 to 5.4 million, or just over 10% of the population, with about 100,000 baptisms a year, Kelly said.
The number of new South Korean priests has risen by 17% since 2008. Many are young, in sharp contrast with the church's difficulty in finding youthful candidates in Europe. Kelly said South Korea, the Philippines and even Myanmar today export priests and nuns to the church's more traditional European and North American strongholds.
Like the pope, Kelly is a member of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, an order of priests known for its concerns about social issues. He said it was particularly apt that Francis, the first Jesuit pope, was focusing on Asia. It was largely Jesuit missionaries who brought Christianity to the region.
"Our founder Saint Ignatius Loyola said: 'It is our vocation to travel to various shores,'" Kelly said. "So [Francis] is simply living up to his Jesuit vocation."
Pope Francis, who had "always been fascinated by Asia," signaled early that, "like the U.S., he would have his own pivot to Asia during his time as Bishop of Rome," Kelly said, using an alternative title for the pope. He added that Francis, born in Argentina as Jorge Mario Borgoglio, volunteered as a young man to be a missionary in Japan. He could not go to the country because of illness. "He is making up for lost time," said Kelly.
China is the biggest target for the church. There are as many as 100 million Christians in the world's most populous nation, according to some estimates. But between 70% and 80% are Protestants, with the Catholic community divided between an official church sanctioned by the Communist Party and a more popular "underground" church.
The state-approved Catholic Church's estimate of its China flock has remained unchanged for 35 years to ensure that "the Communist Party doesn't get upset about it," Kelly said. He added: "It is every Jesuit's dream to make friends with, reach out to, and experience the sophistication of the Chinese people. It is the Church's great horizon."
The pope and Chinese President Xi Jinping have exchanged letters and telegrams, following decades without communication between the Vatican and Beijing. But Xi is conducting an anti-Christianity campaign in and around Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province. The city is one of China's most Christian. Some believe Xi will broaden his campaign against Christians to other parts of the country.
Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin has been held under house arrest since he spurned the Communist-sanctioned church after being made Bishop of Shanghai by Pope Benedict XVI, Francis' predecessor, in 2012. Despite this, Kelly said there were strong suggestions that a rapprochement between Rome and Beijing had begun in the last 18 months.
"It is 'core business' for the Vatican [to] come to an arrangement regarding appointments of bishops [in China]," Kelly said. Beijing wants to supervise the church hierarchy in China. "Rome doesn't want the Catholic churches to be controlled by potentates," he added. The church had been troubled by this in the past, when kings of Spain, Portugal and France had sought to dominate Catholic affairs, he explained.
Kelly said the "strongest indication of the sensitive stage [the talks] have reached" was that Pope Francis had declined to meet the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Buddhist leader is regarded as a separatist by Beijing.
There is little doubt Francis will return to Asia in the near future, Kelly said. "He hasn't been to India and China yet, which are the two big apples."