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The Vatican at the dawn of a new era of geopolitics

HONG KONG (SE): Pope Francis surprised the world when he published a Lunar New Year greeting addressed to the president of China, Xi Jinping, whom he mentioned by name, and all Chinese people, on the Hong Kong-based Internet news site, Asia Times, on February 2 this year.

“On the eve of the New Year, I wish to convey my best wishes and greetings to President Xi Jinping and to all the Chinese people. And I wish to express my hope that they never lose their historical awareness of being a great people, with a great history of wisdom, and that they have much to offer to the world,” the pope said in his greeting.

The author of the pope’s greeting, Francesco Sisci, said at a lunchtime talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong on March 31 that he believes Pope Francis has brought the Vatican to the dawn of a new geopolitics.

He said that in making his greeting, Pope Francis was showing his concern for the faith not only of the 1.4 billion Chinese people, but of the 5.5 billion non-Chinese who are worried about the rise of China as a power in the world today.

Sisci called the rise of China the biggest challenge the west has faced since the fall of Rome, while at the same time noting that China is struggling to operate in a western dominated world that it does not really understand, as the two had been separated for over 2,000 years until the Opium Wars provided a cursory introduction some 150 years ago.

“So this is a big problem. And when we have big problems, historically the easiest way out for either party is to escalate tension, and the pope tries to avoid it, convert it and prevent it,” Sisci said.

He stressed that in his own way the pope is exercising the age-old mission of the Church of working for peace and trying to avoid violent clashes between nations.

While not pretending that this is the only agenda of Pope Francis, he stressed that this was the agenda behind his new year greeting to the Chinese people.

He pointed out that last year, when both Pope Francis and Xi found themselves in the United States of America (US) at the same time, the Chinese delegation was amazed at how the pope totally dominated the media and at how much the people revered him.

Even the gesture offered to the pope by the president of the US, Barack Obama, when he walked across the tarmac at the airport to welcome him at the foot of the plane’s stairs, an extremely rare gesture, was an insight for the Chinese into the tremendous soft power that is embodied in the person of Pope Francis.

The significance of this has been publicly acknowledged through the role the pope and the Vatican have played in negotiations between the US and Cuba, the US and Russia, with the Ukraine and the pullout of Russian troops from Syria.

Sisci noted that although this role for the Vatican goes back centuries, in modern times it regained traction during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

But he noted that in terms of China, Pope Francis is better situated to make progress, as he has never been flagrantly anti-Communist.

Sisci described him as sitting more in the middle, as he reaches out to everyone.

He cited his historic meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, his welcome to the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, when he visited the Vatican, and the succession of people of every colour and shade of politics that he welcomes and speaks with.

“That is now extended to China,” Sisci commented.

Sisci said that Pope Francis prefers to work quietly and is not confrontational. His agenda is to form relations with everybody.

“He is cautious, but extremely determined,” he commented.

“So China’s problem is how to handle it,” Sisci pointed out.

He said that one significant gesture offered by China is the generally good press that the pope’s new year greeting has received, mostly tabloid style without much content, but big headlines and pictures.

However, it has also come without the criticism that the mainland media have often poured on statements by or overtures from previous popes.

But Sisci claims a more salient factor is a much longer article that appeared in the English-language Global Times on February 25, centred on a visit by the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, to China.

Sisci revealed that he had also been interviewed for this article and suggested that the time may be ripe to invite Pope Francis to China.

He was quoted by the Global Times as calling Beijing pragmatic and flexible and focussed on the importance of soft power and, since the Vatican is one of the largest soft powers in the world, China should not miss an occasion to meet the pope.

Sisci pointed out that what he thinks is significant about his comment is that it was not edited out.

He added that he believes that Beijing may have realised that the pope could play a role in helping China to communicate with the world.

Sisci, who is a senior researcher in European studies at the Renmin University of China and former correspondent for two Italian newspapers, stressed that while the pope’s words have been widely referred to as an interview, he was invited to write the piece as an academic, not as a journalist.

He explained that every word was carefully considered and re-considered by Vatican officials and that the pope flatly refused to talk about politics or diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing during his interview.

Sisci added as an aside that to the best of his knowledge, neither side is interested in diplomatic relations anyway—currently it is not an issue.

Sisci went back to the time of Father Matteo Ricci and the clash among the Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans about how to do mission, saying that the Jesuits went about their work quietly and, if someone came to faith, they welcomed them.

He noted that as a Jesuit, this seems to be the model Pope Francis adopts for his mission as well.

He described the pope as being really strong in his own person, citing the occasional negative stories that have been published about him and noting that their media shelf life is short, as they are quickly drowned in the power of the person of Pope Francis.

He called him open and inclusive, which he believes is reflected in his washing of the feet of Muslims, women and outcasts.

“It is the realisation of his faith,” Sisci noted, saying that he does it in the interests of peace and fulfilling the mission to be with the poor by bringing people of many backgrounds together.

He quoted the former president of China, Hu Jintao, as saying in 2007 that religious leaders are good at promoting an amorous society, but up until now, China has not had much incentive to investigate the soft power of religion.

But China is not the only country to be slow in warming to popes and the Catholic Church. It took the US a long time to come to grips with papists.


However, he concluded that although China may be interested in promoting relations with the Holy See, he does not believe that it feels any sense of urgency about it.