Features | Society | East Asia | South Asia | Southeast Asia

Asia’s Faithful Respond to News of Pope Francis

Simon Roughneen reports from Rome concerning the local Asian response to the election of a new pope.

By Simon Roughneen for

ROME – The day after the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, was elected leader of the world's estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, Ariadna Estetania Cabello Rendace stood among a group of Argentines in St. Peter's Square and watched Bergoglio hold his first mass as Pope Francis on video screens placed around the vast cobble-stone piazza.

“Last night, when they announced the new papa, we were standing over there, near the fountain,” Rendace told The Diplomat, pointing across the square. “When he said 'Argentina,' I said 'What? Who? I cannot believe (it).'”

Based on demographics alone, there is clear reason to select a Pope from Latin America, home to 4 in 10 of the world's Catholics

By contrast, only 12 percent of the world's Catholics live in the vast Asia-Pacific region. From this contingent, five cardinal electors hail from India, with one each from Australia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam according to the Holy See Press Office

Asia’s Papal Blues

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

As Asians welcome the new pope, they do so with possible tinges of disappointment. Before the white smoke rose and the announcement was made, suggestions circulated that a handful of Asian cardinals were possible contenders.

Father Christopher Ann – a young priest from Gwangju, South Korea, who was showing a group of Korean pilgrims and tourists around St. Peter's Basilica, said that he hoped for an Asian Pope.

“But at the same time, it is not so important where the Pope comes from,” Ann added. “The most important thing is that the new father be able to stand against the materialism that is in the world.”

Pope Francis apparently shares the young priest's sentiment. In his first meeting with journalists on Saturday morning, the new pope explained that he chose the name Francis after Brazil's Cardinal Claudio Hummes congratulated him and asked him not to forget the poor.

“He hugged me and kissed me and told me not to forget the poor, and that word went in here,” Pope Francis said, pointing to his head, while speaking to around 3,000 journalists in the Paul VI Hall. “I immediately thought of Francis of Assisi,” he added, referring to the saint perhaps most closely associated with compassion for the poor.

Of Asia’s papal contenders – Manila's Luis Antonio Tagle, Mumbai's Oswald Gracias and Colombo's Malcolm Ranjith – the Filipino was the most touted, due to his outgoing personality and relative youth at just 55 years old

By comparison, Poland's Karol Józef Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II) was a mere 58 when elected to the papacy in 1978. He would go on to become the second-longest serving pontiff in the two-millennia history of the Catholic Church.

Gollowon Allesandro Cabangcla, a Filipino who has lived in Rome for ten years, explained he was “a little disappointed” that his compatriot Cardinal Tagle was not elected. “Maybe he was a bit too young still,” reckoned Cabangcla, who hopes Francis I will visit the Philippines, following in the footsteps of John Paul II who held Mass for an estimated four million people in Manila in 1995, the largest papal audience in history.

A Numbers Game

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Compared with Latin America, Catholic numbers in Asia are small in relative and absolute terms. In India, there are ten million Catholics, while in other Asian countries with substantial Catholic populations, such as Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, Catholics still make up only three, 11 and six percent of the total populations, respectively. Overall, of the 285 million Christians in the Asia-Pacific region, 131 million of those are Catholic. There are only two Catholic-majority countries in Asia: the Philippines and East Timor.

In China, house church membership in some quarters is estimated to exceed 100 million, far more than those who have joined the 'official' state Catholic Church. Overall, around nine million Chinese are Catholic.

Considering China's rising economic might and given poor relations between The Holy See and Beijing, ties with China will likely be the most pressing regional issue for Francis.

As the rain beat down on the tens of thousands of pilgrims and onlookers awaiting the announcement of the new pope last week, Chinese tourists were among the crowd.

Lost in Translation

One such tourist was Yu Yao, a Chinese student in Paris who was traveling in Italy during the papal announcement. Yu told The Diplomat that she was surprised to hear of Asian cardinals in the running for the papacy.

“I think it would be really interesting and attractive for us if there was an Asian leader of the church,” she said.

But for Yu and others living in countries and cultures that are non-Catholic, the symbolism and rituals of the ancient institution remain shrouded in mystery.

In Japan, for example, only 1.5 percent of the population is Christian. Among them, only 400,000 are Catholic. Jesuit missionaries briefly flourished in Japan in the 16th Century, after which the nation entered a long period of self-imposed isolation that brought with it religious repression.

Today it would seem that the Catholic Church still has work to do in places like Japan where the religion is still largely seen as an exotic faith. While touring St. Peter's the day before the conclave, Japanese student Marika Ishibashi said that the art and history seen in Italy's ornate churches was impressive, but “the first thing that comes to mind when you ask me about Catholicism is the Tom Hanks movie, Angels And Demons.”

Editor's Note: The text had been updated from the original version.