Vatican: Philippines to help Pope reach Asia

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Vatican: Philippines to help Pope reach Asia
Pope Francis' trip to the Philippines fulfills his dream as a young Jesuit: to serve as a missionary in Asia, which he now calls a 'great frontier'

VATICAN CITY – Send me to Japan, Jesuit seminarian Jorge Mario Bergoglio once requested Fr Pedro Arrupe, then the head of the world’s Jesuits, in a letter he wrote before finishing theology in 1970.

Bergoglio, after all, joined the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits, because he liked its “missionary outreach” and wanted to become a missionary.

Now known as Pope Francis, Bergoglio recalled in 2013: “When I was studying theology I wrote to the General, who was Fr Arrupe, asking him to dispatch me, to send me to Japan or to some other place. However, he thought about it at length and said to me, with great kindness, ‘But you have had a lung disease, which is not very good for such demanding work,’ so I stayed in Buenos Aires.”

The 77-year-old Francis, who in his youth had part of his lung removed, gets his wish decades later. Having visited Asia for the first time as Pope in August, he will soon return to his “great frontier.” In January 2015, he will visit Sri Lanka then the Philippines, Asia’s most predominantly Catholic country. (READ: People’s Pope comes close to Filipinos)

The trip to the Philippines is crucial for the missionary in Francis. In an interview with Rappler, deputy Vatican spokesman Fr Ciro Benedettini explained that Francis’ trip to the Philippines will help the Catholic Church “enlarge” the number of Christians in Asia.

Philippines a ‘nice spot to start’

Benedettini, who is also vice director of the Holy See Press Office, pointed out that the Philippines “is the most Catholic country in Asia.”

Up to 80% of Filipinos belong to the Catholic Church, while in general, only 3% of Asians do.

This poses a challenge for the Catholic Church.

“So there is room for enlarging the numbers of Christians, and obviously that’s a very nice spot to start – from the Philippines, which is a Catholic country,” the Vatican official told Rappler on September 10.

FIRST ASIAN TRIP. Pope Francis (center) is greeted by well-wishers as South Korean President Park Geun-hye (2nd from the right) looks on upon his arrival at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, South Korea on August 14, 2014. File photo by Ahn Young-joon/Pool/AFP

He added that Asia is important for the Catholic Church because even if Catholics comprise a minority in the region, “we have to help the human family to stay together, to respect each other, to work together, to be in peace.”

Given the region’s importance, Benedettini said “is possible that in the future,” Francis “will visit other countries in Asia.” “The Pope said he will take care of Asia,” he said.

Tagle: Pope ‘longing’ to visit Asia

Francis himself, in an interview with the Italian daily Il Messaggero, which was translated by Zenit, said the Catholic Church in Asia “holds great promise.”

Speaking to young Asians during the 6th Asian Youth Day in South Korea, Francis said on August 17: “The Asian continent, imbued with rich philosophical and religious traditions, remains a great frontier for your testimony to Christ, ‘the way, and the truth, and the life.’”

In a media conference in the Philippines in June, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle explained that for Francis, Asia “is important for evangelization.”

“The Christian population maybe numerically small but significant. He wants to encourage the Church in Asia,” Tagle said. (READ: Pope to kiss persecuted Christians’ feet – Tagle)

The cardinal also pointed out that Francis, as a young Jesuit in Argentina, “had expressed the desire to become a missionary here in Asia.”

Tagle said: “So Asia has a special spot in his heart. And so this came from the heart of someone who probably has been longing all these years to step foot in Asia and be here.” –

Join Rappler in a 100-day countdown to Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines: a journey from the Vatican to Tacloban. Tweet us your thoughts using the hashtag #PopeFrancisPH!

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email