SEOUL, South Korea — Pope Francis made a new gesture of outreach to China and North Korea on Sunday, saying he “earnestly” hopes to improve relations and insisting that the Catholic Church isn’t coming in as a “con- queror” trying to take away the identity of others.
Francis outlined his priorities for the Catholic Church in Asia during a meeting of the region’s bishops Sunday, urging them to listen to people of different cultures but still remain true to their own Catholic identity.
“In this spirit of openness to others, I earnestly hope that those countries of your continent with whom the Holy See does not yet enjoy a full relationship may not hesitate to further a dialogue for the benefit of all,” he said.
Then deviating from his text, he added: “I’m not talking here only about a political dialogue, but about a fraternal dialogue,” he said. “These Christians aren’t coming as conquerors, they aren’t trying to take away our identity.” He said the important thing was to “walk together.”
The comments appeared to be a clear reference to China, which severed diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951. But they could also apply to North Korea, where the church is under tight government control and is not recognized by the Vatican. There are similarly no diplomatic relations between Pyongyang and the Vatican.
Francis has already broken ground with Beijing on his first Asian trip by sending greetings to President Xi Jinping when he flew through Chinese airspace. He also sent Xi a letter after the two of them were elected within hours of one another in March 2013, and received a reply.
China cut relations with the Vatican after the Communist Party took power and set up its own church outside the pope’s authority. China persecuted the church for years until restoring a degree of religious freedom and freeing imprisoned priests in the late 1970s. The Vatican under then-Pope Benedict XVI sought to improve ties by seeking to unify the state-sanctioned church with the underground church still loyal to Rome.
For the Vatican, the main stumbling block remains the insistence of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association on naming bishops without papal consent. For China, the naming of bishops is a matter of its national sovereignty, while it also objects that the Holy See has diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Upon his arrival in Seoul on Thursday, Francis called for peace and unity on the Korean peninsula, urging diplomacy so that listening and dialogue replace “mutual recriminations, fruitless criticisms and displays of force.”
A day later he stressed that Koreans are one people, “a family,” and that those in the South should pray for their brothers and sisters in the North.
Francis’ diplomatic outreach Sunday followed another gesture of solidarity earlier in the morning: He baptized the father of one of the victims of the Sewol ferry sinking, in which more than 300 people, most of them high school students, lost their lives.
Lee Ho Jin, whose son was killed, took the Christian name “Francis” during the rite, which the pope administered in the Vatican’s embassy in Seoul, according to the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Lee had been one of a dozen relatives of victims and survivors of the April ferry sinking who met privately with the pope Friday. He asked to be baptized and Francis agreed.
Francis has gone out of his way to show support for the Sewol ferry families, who are demanding an independent inquiry into the sinking. Aside from meeting publicly and privately with them, he has worn a symbolic yellow ribbon on his cassock in solidarity.
Lombardi has said Francis isn’t getting involved in their demands for a parliamentary inquiry, but is merely offering them support and prayers. He said Francis was particularly pleased to have been asked to perform a baptism since Korea’s Catholic Church has been growing steadily thanks in large part to an unusually high number of adult baptisms each year.