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Pope Francis heads East, pointing to a new future for his Western church

First Published      Last Updated Aug 08 2014 01:03 pm

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That's actually not the way Rome saw Ricci at the time. After his death, the Vatican effectively shut down the Jesuit mission to China over concerns about watering down traditional doctrine and adapting the Roman liturgy to Chinese ways.

The legacy of that decision continues to play out in the pope's biggest geopolitical headache in Asia: China. The Vatican and Beijing remain in a stalemate over the freedom of the so-called "underground church" and a state-sponsored Catholic Church that many say serves the government's interests, not Rome's.

China, as Francis carefully put it, "is a great cultural challenge, very great."

An opening to China, with its huge population and enormous potential for converts, likely won't happen on this Asian trip; relations are so delicate that Vatican officials won't even say whether Francis will follow the usual protocol and send a telegram of good wishes to the government when he flies over Chinese territory on his way to South Korea.

Even so, Beijing is allowing the papal plane to cross Chinese territory, a first, and another tea leaf for Sinologists and Vaticanistas to read. Even a marginal parting of the Bamboo Curtain would be a coup on par with John Paul II's historic contribution to bringing down the Iron Curtain.

What Francis can do right now, however, is to push Rome to be more open to Asian Catholicism. That alone could have an enormous impact on the church, in terms of how the institution operates, how the faith interacts with the wider culture, and how Catholics view themselves.

"It behooves the older churches, especially in the West, to develop an attitude of respectful listening to these churches that have much to teach people for whom a traffic jam in the church parking lot seems to be an insurmountable obstacle to Christian living," said the Rev. William Grimm, an American Markynoll priest in Tokyo and publisher of UCANews.

To be a Christian in Asia "takes a degree of commitment that would be heroic in the West," Grimm said. "It would be easy, and even sensible, to just fade into the dominant culture. But they don't."