VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to South Korea will provide him with an unusual opportunity to speak directly to the Chinese leadership: His plane is due to fly through Chinese airspace, and Vatican protocol calls for the pope to send greetings to leaders of all the countries he flies over.
When St. John Paul II last visited South Korea in 1989, China refused to let his plane fly overhead. Instead, the Alitalia charter flew via Russian airspace, providing John Paul with a first-ever opportunity to send radio greetings to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. He said he hoped to soon visit Moscow.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Thursday he didn’t know what Francis’ Chinese greetings might entail. But he confirmed the Aug. 13-14 flight plan to Seoul involved flying through Chinese airspace.
Relations between Beijing and Rome have been tense since 1951, when China severed ties with the Holy See after the officially atheistic 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.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI sought to improve relations with China and encourage the estimated 8 million to 12 million Catholics who live there, around half of whom worship in underground congregations.
Francis has continued the initiative, revealing in a recent newspaper interview that he had written a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping after his election, which occurred within hours of his own, and that Xi had replied.
Recently, Francis’ No. 2, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told the Italian Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana that the Vatican was in favor of “a respectful and constructive dialogue” with Chinese authorities to try to resolve problems that limit religious freedom in China.
For the Vatican, the main stumbling block is the insistence of the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association to name bishops without papal consent.
Beyond the in-flight greetings, Francis’ five-day visit to South Korea is expected to offer him other opportunities to reach out to China: The main reason for the visit is to participate in an Asian Catholic youth festival that some mainland Chinese Catholics are expected to attend.
In addition, he will celebrate a Mass of peace and reconciliation on Aug. 18, his final day, in which he will refer to North Korea and possibly China as well.