A Filipino man holds a sign during Pope Francis' visit to the Philippines earlier this month (Photo by Jay Ganzon)
“The rock star Pope’s reference to LGBT community, ‘Who am I to judge?’ is the kind of attitude we are looking for from the Church and the world”, a panelist said to me on a recent TV debate.
That sums up the kind of positive impact Pope Francis has been making on people of all creeds and faiths around the world.
In a globalized world such as ours, Asia and particularly its Catholics cannot but be also affected by both the holiness and graciousness of the leader of 1.2 billion people.
The otherwise critical media is floored by his right bites and quotes that come straight from his heart.
Speaking about the impact Pope Francis is having on the Church in Asia, Bombay Archbishop Oswald Cardinal Gracias, also the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences and one of the nine close advisers to him said, “His visits to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and earlier to South Korea, and the people’s enthusiastic response to them has given much required self-confidence to the Church in Asia as a whole”.
Undoubtedly, the Church in Asia — often facing opposition and persecution in differing degrees, be it in Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and so on — will use this ‘self-confidence’ to stand firm and take it forward in its mission to the poor and to those who know little about Jesus.
More pertinently, it will give impetus to earlier engagement efforts by Asian churches in dialogue with other religions. The high point was for almost two decades following the Second Vatican Council and have now dwindled to a large extent.
This possibly happened because of conservative elements wanting to take the Church back to the pre-Vatican II era.
While evangelization and sharing the Good News will always remain one of the top priorities of the Church in Asia, its other urgent mission is to revisit and enter into a sustained dialogue with people of other religions.
It also means that the Catholic faithful should emerge from their cocoons and mingle more freely and with an open mind with those who profess a faith other than their own.
One of the memorable moments from the pope’s Sri Lanka visit was when during his meeting with the heads of other religions Francis surprised everyone by stepping down from the dais to greet everyone present there.
However, the highpoint of the pope’s zeal to reach out to other faiths came when he made a supposedly unscheduled visit to the famed Buddhist Vihara (temple) in Colombo demonstrating to the world the importance of openness towards people of other faiths.
These events were not merely polite gestures by the pope but acts that could well be emulated, particularly by Asian Catholics.
Pope Francis indicated this during his general audience last week, the first after his return from Asia.
“I encouraged interreligious dialogue at the service of peace, as well as the journey of those people towards unity and social development, especially under the leadership of families and young people,” he said.
His ‘encouragement’ in this particular area of the Church’s mission gives us hope that Church leaders in Asia will pay greater heed to this urgent need in this part of the world.
In Asia, people, be they Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or from another religion, take their faith seriously and hold religious figures in high esteem.
This is evident by how places of worship of all religions are always full. Thus the appearance of a religious leader having a giant following on the Asian horizon would naturally have a huge impact on people of all faiths, particularly Catholics.
Divine Word Missionary and author of the recent book, The Future of the Christian Mission in India, Rev Dr Augustine Kanjamala, who holds the view that the Church’s mission in Asia has been a failure in terms of numbers, said, “The huge crowds that [the pope] is attracting is clear evidence of people's hunger to see, hear and touch saintly religious leaders, a tribe on the decline in the contemporary world.”
It is also true that the crowds the pope attracted were not merely Christians, since in Sri Lanka Christians are only a minority. People of all religions thronged to receive his blessings. Let’s not forget that Pope Francis has also taken big steps in the area of Christian unity by conducting dialogue with several Protestant leaders.
On how the pope’s appearance on magazine covers is having a concrete impact on the lives of people, including Catholics in Asia, Archbishop Anil J T Couto of Delhi says, “Right from the beginning of his pontificate Pope Francis has been conveying the message that the Church is universal and not just West-centered. His personal touch, his humility, his no-nonsense approach and his infectious smile coupled with profound spiritual insights on Christian life and his deeply pastoral approach make him one of the greatest popes of modern times”.
It is now up to the hierarchy and each individual in the Asian Church to further build on the impact that Pope Francis has undeniably left on us all.
Fr Dominic Emmanuel is the director of Sadbhavana, Institute for Communication and Inter-religious Dialogue.