Will Asia feel the benefit of the Pope’s winds of change?

Pope Francis, who became the first Latin American and the first Jesuit to assume the papacy in March last year, immediately won the hearts of many and continues to exert a powerful presence.

Mar 14, 2014

By Kagefumi Ueno
Pope Francis, who became the first Latin American and the first Jesuit to assume the papacy in March last year, immediately won the hearts of many and continues to exert a powerful presence.

Yet, I believe the true significance of the rise of this new pope lies beyond the enormous popularity he enjoys.

While reforming the scandal-ridden Vatican is certainly an important issue, I am drawn to the fact that Pope Francis appears to be embarking on a much grander quest of launching a civilizational challenge aimed at changing the nature and culture of the Vatican that has lost touch with global diversity and the minds of contemporary people, to modernize and diversify the entire Catholic world.

In doing so, the pope has laid emphasis on revolutionizing awareness from three angles – redefinition of the Church's mission, transformation from a centralized structure to a decentralized structure and transformation from a "culture of exclusion" to a "culture of inclusion".

Among these, the second angle – decentralization -- is of particular importance to the Church in Japan and Asia.

Over many centuries the Catholic Church has governed the entire world through a European paradigm without giving sufficient consideration to the indigenous cultures of each region.

The resultant gap between Catholic teachings and local cultures has at times brought difficulty to the Church in Latin America and Asia.

The pope seems to be considering the idea of tolerating the distinctive character of the Church in each region, even at the expense of diminishing the authority of the papacy and the Vatican.

This signifies a move away from Europe and Rome in the Catholic world, and the pope has already embarked on two challenges towards this direction.

One is the incorporation of Jesuit perspectives in the Vatican way of thinking. By preaching clergy to change their extravagant habits and to stand by the poor, Pope Francis is bringing into the Vatican a Jesuit 'frontier' culture of frugality and selflessness.

The other challenge lies in the incorporation of Latin American perspectives. The view that "it is more important to stand by the poor than to be overly obsessed with family ethics," advocated by Pope Francis, is one that has never been heard from successive predecessors, who were European and thus unaware of the devastating reality of "authentic poverty".

As a Latin American with a thorough understanding of extreme poverty, Pope Francis has brought a Latin American perspective into the Vatican and has already begun to close the psychological gap between Rome and that part of the world.

Will Pope Francis strive as hard to bridge the psychological gap between Asia and Rome?

While we must judge from his future words and deeds, there are positive elements.

"Inculturation" is the word used to describe the way the Catholic Church promulgates its faith by passing it first through the sieve of indigenous culture to make it more familiar for local people in various regions around the world.

It was an idea advocated four centuries ago by Father Valignano, a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan, where he sought to put the idea into practice.

Although his efforts failed against the anti-Christian edicts of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the idea gradually tapered out since his death, Pope Francis, with his Jesuit DNA, may be more open to the Asianization of the Church in Asia through inculturation.

What would that "Asian" mean?

For reference, let’s turn to the discussion that took place during the Asian Synod held in Rome in 1998.

At that conference, many Asian participants complained that Catholicism has remained incompatible with Asian cultures, signifying a lack of inculturation.

For example, the Archbishop of Osaka pointed out that Christianity nurtured in the West is characterized by an excessively paternal, black-white dualistic tendency, whereas Asians seek an all-embracing maternal deity.

This comment from a Jesuit Archbishop resonates with the thoughts of a seminary student and protagonist in Deep River, a novel by Catholic author Endo Shusaku.

In the story, the student points out that (European) Catholicism is characterized by excessive clarity, logic and disregard of nature which are unfamiliar to the Japanese.

However, such opinions raised by Asia in 1998 have been deliberately ignored by the Vatican.

Pope Francis has expressed his intention to give priority to visiting Asia this year and the next.

How he will respond to the unaddressed voices of Asian discontent is an issue that evokes infinite interest from a civilizational perspective.

The tug-of-war between "center" and "periphery" and between "universality" and "locality" is an eternal theme that haunts any civilization. The arrival of Pope Francis, who personifies the "periphery" as a Jesuit from Latin America, presents the churches in Asia and Africa with a golden opportunity for getting Rome to accept their distinctive character.

Pope Francis stands against a Rome-centric paradigm that has persisted for over 1,700 years. Whether his challenge holds up will depend on the depth of his conviction for diversifying and modernizing the Catholic world.

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