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Will the Pope Francis breeze reach Asia?

TOKYO (SE): “Pope Francis, who became the first Latin American and the first Jesuit to assume the papacy in March last year, immediately won the hearts of many and continues to exert a powerful presence,” the former ambassador to the Vatican from Japan, Kagefumi Ueno, says in an essay published by the English-Speaking Union of Japan on March 5.

Yet he says that he believes the true significance of the rise of this new pope lies beyond the enormous popularity he enjoys.

While reforming the scandal-ridden Vatican is certainly an important issue, Ueno says that he is drawn to the fact that Pope Francis appears to be embarking on a much grander quest of launching what he calls a civilisational challenge aimed at changing the nature and culture of the Vatican that has lost touch with global diversity and the minds of contemporary people.

He summarises the pope’s ambition as to modernise and diversify the entire Catholic world.

Ueno points out that the pope is taking a three-pronged approach.

Firstly by emphasising and revolutionising awareness through a redefinition of the Church’s mission, then affecting a transformation from a centralised structure to a decentralised structure and finally, working towards a transformation from a culture of exclusion to a culture of inclusion.

He says that among these, the second angle—decentralisation—is of particular importance to the Church in Japan and Asia.

Ueno points out that over many centuries the Catholic Church has governed the entire world through a European paradigm without giving sufficient consideration to the indigenous cultures of each individual region.

“The resultant gap between Catholic teaching and local cultures has at times brought difficulty to the Church in Latin America and Asia,” he says, adding, “the pope seems to be considering the idea of tolerating the distinctive character of the Church in each region, even at the expense of diminishing the authority of the papacy and the Vatican.”

Ueno notes that this signifies a move away from Europe and Rome in the Catholic world, and the pope has already embarked on two challenges leading in this direction.

He names one as the incorporation of Jesuit perspectives in the Vatican way of thinking. “By preaching to the clergy to change their extravagant habits and to stand by the poor, Pope Francis is bringing into the Vatican a Jesuit frontier culture of frugality and selflessness,” he says.

He describes the other challenge as the incorporation of Latin American perspectives.

“The view that it is more important to stand by the poor than to be overly obsessed with family ethics advocated by Pope Francis, is one that has never been heard from successive predecessors, who were European and thus unaware of the devastating reality of authentic poverty,” Ueno comments.

He describes Pope Francis as a Latin American with a thorough understanding of extreme poverty and says he has brought this Latin American perspective into the Vatican.

“He has already begun to close the psychological gap between Rome and that part of the world,” Ueno notes.

He then asks whether Pope Francis will strive as hard to bridge the psychological gap between Asia and Rome or not, saying, “While we must judge from his future words and deeds, there are positive elements.”

Inculturation is the word used to describe the way the Catholic Church promulgates the faith.

It first passes it first through the sieve of indigenous culture to make it more familiar to local people in various regions around the world.

Ueno points out that this is an idea advocated four centuries ago by Father Valignano sj, a Jesuit missionary sent to Japan, where he sought to put the idea into practice.

Ueno points out that although his efforts failed against the anti-Christian edicts of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the idea had gradually tapered out after his death, Pope Francis, with his Jesuit DNA, may be more open to the Asianisation of the Church in Asia through inculturation.

But he names the crunch question as being, “What would that Asian mean?” saying that a discussion that took place in Rome in 1998 may shed some light on the matter.

At that conference, many Asian participants complained that Catholicism has remained incompatible with Asian cultures, signifying a lack of inculturation.

Archbishop Jun Ikenaga, from Osaka, pointed out that Christianity nurtured in the west is characterised by an excessively paternal, black-white dualistic tendency, whereas Asians seek an all-embracing maternal deity.

This comment from a Jesuit archbishop resonates with the thoughts of a seminary student and protagonist in Deep River, a novel by Japanese Catholic author, Endo Shusaku.

In the story, the student points out that European Catholicism is characterised by excessive clarity, logic and disregard of nature, which are unfamiliar to the Japanese.

“However,” Ueno stresses, such opinions raised by Asia in 1998 have been deliberately ignored by the Vatican. Pope Francis has expressed his intention to give priority to visiting Asia this year and the next.”

Ueno then asks whether the pope will respond to the unaddressed voices of Asian discontent is an issue that evokes infinite interest from a civilisational perspective.

“The tug-of-war between centre and periphery and between universality and locality is an eternal theme that haunts any civilisation,” the former ambassador to the Vatican says.

“The arrival of Pope Francis, who personifies the periphery as a Jesuit from Latin America, presents the Churches in Asia and Africa with a golden opportunity for getting Rome to accept their distinctive character,” he says.

Ueno describes Pope Francis as standing against a Rome-centric paradigm that has persisted for over 1,700 years.


However, he wonders whether his challenge holds up or not, saying that it will depend on the depth of his conviction for diversifying and modernising the Catholic world.