Michael Sainsbury, Yangon and Joe Torres, Manila
Updated: August 14, 2018 04:56 AM GMT
Pope Francis made his way through some 150,000 people for his first public Mass at Yangon's Kyaikkasan Ground park in November 2017. (Photo by Htoo Tay Zar)
When Pope Francis sent his August 2014 telegram to greet Chinese President Xi Jinping, it was the first move in his promised focus on Asia during his papacy. The pope's greeting to Xi was sent as the papal plane was flying over China en route to the World Youth Day in South Korea.
The move, less than six months into his papacy — after he was elected as pope March 13, 2013 — would quickly lead to the resumption of talks between the Vatican and China about the normalization of the appointment of bishops, an issue that has been left to drift and had been complicated as much by the Holy See as Beijing for several decades.
While still cloaked in secrecy and conjecture, some observers say ultimately striking a deal could prove impossible, although others believe that a deal could be announced as soon as the coming Holy Week at the end of March.
Whatever the case, the talks have been one of a string of initiatives that has seen the pope keep his promise of turning to Asia during his papacy, a region where his Jesuit order has long been prominent.
Only six months after his visit to South Korea, the pope was on his way back to Asia to give Sri Lanka its first saint and to visit the Catholic Asia's beating heart, the Philippines where more than 80 percent of its 100 million or so people are Catholics.
Nissanka Jayaweera, 36, a Catholic teacher who worked for the organizing committee for the pope's visit, recalled that Pope Francis stressed that all religions should work together to heal the country in its post-civil war period.
"The pope said that Sri Lankan Catholics should look to St. Joseph Vaz, an Indian missionary as an example of devotion in trouble times," said Jayaweera who attended the canonization Mass of St. Joseph Vaz in 2015.
"The pope called for reconciliation, peace and justice for all communities following the 26-year civil war. The pope urged all religious leaders to work together to heal the wounds of war victims," said Jayaweera.
"Sri Lankan Catholics donated a cash gift for more than 8 million rupees (US$ 51,360) for papal charities but Pope Francis gave it back to the bishops' conference to be used for the poor in the country," said Jayaweera.
Father S. Anthony, a Tamil priest from a former war-affected diocese said the pope met families of victims of the country's civil war in Madhu church in 2015.
Pope Francis visited the 400-year-old Madhu shrine which offered shelter for thousands of Tamil refugees several times during the war.
"The pope had courage to say that many families were killed in the terrible violence and bloodshed of those years," said Father Anthony.
The visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines in 2015 deeply touched the lives of many Filipinos, especially those who survived a devastating typhoon that hit the country a year earlier.
Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan said the pope has been constant in leading the church to become "more missionary, Catholic, and life-giving."
"He is God's gift to the Universal Church. His pontificate is grace to us," said Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga, head of the country's Episcopal Commission for Migrants and Itinerant People.
"He has huge compassion for the vulnerable and the voiceless," said the bishop, adding that "like the boat of St. Peter, the church is safe, steady, and in the right direction" with Pope Francis at the helm.
Fidelino Josol, a typhoon survivor in Tacloban, said seeing the pope after losing homes and loved ones was the "most comforting experience" the people of the province of Leyte had.
"[Pope Francis] inspired everyone to hold fast on to their faith" amid their suffering. "When the pope visited us, it was like a moment with God," said Josol.
During the pope's a visit, another storm hit the province, drenching thousands of people who attended Mass.
"Despite the storm that day, the pope stood with us and for us, never leaving us," recalled Josol who was part of the choir who sang during the celebration.
Father Lenox Garcia from the Diocese of Borongan in the central Philippines said the pope's meeting with typhoon victims "gave us hope and courage to go on with our lives."
Myanmar, Bangladesh in 2017
If his visit to name a saint and to the Catholic heartland seems like easy picking, his trip at the end of 2017 to strife ridden Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh where hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees are was not.
He personally sought the trip to Myanmar, sidestepping normal protocols and once there, delicately trod the line between his refugee and peace advocacy and respect for the wishes of his Cardinal Charles Maung Bo and Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi not to inflame the Rohingya situation.
Father Alexander Kyaw Win, parish priest of St. Michael the Archangel's Catholic Church in Dalla, near Yangon, said the pope's visit to Myanmar was very significant and historic and it had positive impact on the Catholic Church in Myanmar.
"Many people don't know about Catholicism so the pope's visit promotes the image of the Catholic Church and paves the way for the church's contribution to nation building," Father Kyaw Win told ucanews.com.
The most significant event in the trip to Bangladesh was the interfaith gathering on Dec. 2. On stage, Benedict Alo D'Rozario, secretary of the Central Committee for the Papal Visit to Bangladesh 2017, told ucanews.com.
"Pope Francis prayed together with Rohingya refugees, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists side by side. He had a crowd composed of all communities in front of him," said D'Rozario. "This picture would be engraved in the minds of the people of Bangladesh forever."
Bishop Gervas Rozario of Rajshahi and vice-president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh said the pope's visit was a recognition and appreciation for Bangladesh.
"He recognized the greater society as well as the small Christian community," said Bishop Rozario. "This is good support and moral backing for us all that he loves and stands beside us. We can feel this encouragement and power in us," he said.
Still, unfortunately, for Filipino Catholics and the people of Myanmar and Sri Lanka, in particular, the pope's messages seemed at times to have fallen on deaf ears.
Franciscan Father Pete Montallana noted that Filipinos, even Catholic Church leaders, "did not take the message (of Pope Francis) seriously."
"We are worse than before because we do not get out of our comfort zone," said the priest. "It's much easier to focus only on beautiful liturgy and spacious buildings," he said.
During his visit, Pope Francis challenged government and church leaders to address the issues of climate change, poverty, and injustice.
Retired Bishop Fernando Capalla of Davao said the pope's challenge "to do away with social inequality and exclusion were regrettably ignored."
The pope has consistently called on church leaders to "smell like the sheep," even urging priests to come up with brief and more sensible homilies.
But despite his pleas for peace — another centerpiece of his papacy — it seems further away than ever in Myanmar and only this past week, religious conflict has reared its ugly head once more in Sri Lanka.
Rock Ronald Rozario, Quintus Columbage and John Zaw also contributed to this report.