Pope Francis kicks off his Asian tour

During his visit to South Korea, Pope Francis, the most popular missionary in the world, will bring with him a message of peace and reconciliation to the divided Korean peninsula and a call for Catholics to take up the missionary charge themselves, spreading the faith on a large continent where the Church is small, but is also seeing potential for growth. Asia’s Christians have endured dramatic persecutions over history that are similar in many ways to attacks against Christians today in parts of the Middle East and Africa.

While the pope is trying to reach out to the north during the visit, nobody from that country are expected to attend. The archdiocese of Seoul invited a delegation of North Korean Christians, but authorities informed organizers last week that they wouldn’t come.

The trip marks the first time a pope has been on the Korean peninsula in 25 years and the trip kicks off what is expected to be a very Asian-focused year for the pontiff. He will also travel to Sri Lanka and the Philippines in January and there are rumors of a trip to Japan in the near future.

Despite being a minority religion in every nation on the continent except in the Philippines, the Catholic Church baptizes more Catholics in Asia every year than in Europe, according to statistics from the Church. St. John Paul II said that while Christianity was settled in Europe in the first millennium and in the Americas and Africa in the second, the third millennium belonged to the continent of Asia.

“The pope wants to refresh the evangelization of Asia, which was a major theme that John Paul II had very much in his heart,” said Rev. Bernardo Cervellera, the head of AsiaNews. “Going to meet the young people of Asia means to go find the future of Asia.”

The main reason for the trip is to participate in the Asian version of World Youth Day, the Catholic youth festival that has drawn millions in recent years. Young Catholics from 23 Asian countries are expected to attend the event.

Unlike most countries, where missionary priests brought Catholicism and spread it, South Korea’s church is homegrown in a sense: Members of Korea’s noble classes discovered the faith back in the 18th century by the missionary Matteo Ricci that brought books back from China.

“On this continent, the church may be small but it grows four to five percent a year,” Cervellera stated. “There are abundant vocations, people who are decided in their faith, so it could be in some way a model for all the other churches.”

“The Gospel in Korea wasn’t brought by conquerors or missionaries,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin said. He is the Vatican No. 2, in the introduction of “Young People and Martyrs in Asia: Pope Francis’ Mission in Korea,” a book about the church’s unique history in the country. “This is valid for other Asian countries, where the Christian faith often finds trouble and obstacles and is still seen as a foreign faith.”

Aside from the youth festival, the other event of the visit is a Mass for peace and reconciliation that Francis himself will celebrate on his final day, Aug. 18 in the main cathedral in Seoul. It will be celebrated with the honoring of hundreds of martyrs who were persecuted for their faith in the tumultuous history of the Church in Korea.