An Asian education for the Pope
Remember a chilly night more than 2,000 years ago; a pregnant girl trekking from inn to inn was unable to find a place to rest. She settled for an outhouse, or stable, where her son was delivered amid the cattle. It was an unpromising beginning, and the boy was to meet an ignominious end three decades later, crucified as a common criminal.
Yet this child, Christians believe, was the Messiah; God become man. What a truly breathtaking expression of love - almighty God a weak child in his mission of salvation.
That sacred birth is celebrated throughout the world, albeit in a distorted form. Santa Claus is a jolly sight worldwide; Christmas lights twinkle even where God is reviled. Christmas, renamed Winterfest or Winterval by governments that think they are god, has become an opportunity for a year-end boost to the economy by splurging on drink and presents.
The hijacking of a sacred festival by Mammon and its friends is a reminder that Christians are a minority, about 30 per cent of the world's 6.5 billion people. About 1.2 billion of them, or 18 per cent, are Catholics.
Being a minority does not seem to worry the Catholics' leader, Pope Benedict XVI. Whereas his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, seriously tried to embrace the world, Pope Benedict is much more concerned about ensuring fidelity to the teaching of a Rome-centred church.
The Pope is personally charming, but has an uncomprehending intolerance of other religions. He quickly removed Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald from his Vatican post in charge of interreligious dialogue because he regarded the Arabic-speaking archbishop as too soft on Islam. He infuriated Muslims with his infamous quotation from a Byzantine emperor insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
He hurt the feelings of Jews when visiting the Auschwitz death camp by failing to acknowledge responsibility - as either a German or a Catholic - for the Holocaust. Pope Benedict claimed Nazism was the product of a 'ring of criminals', and that the German people were victims.
When he was a cardinal, he upset Buddhists by asserting: 'If Buddhism is attractive, it's only because it suggests that by belonging to it you can touch the infinite, and you can have joy without concrete religious obligations. It's spiritually self-indulgent eroticism.'
The Pope believes that the path to God is the one laid down by a Eurocentric Roman church. But even leading Catholics take issue with that. Japanese Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, who died last month, spent eight years at the Vatican and lamented the 'excessively western- ised' church.
Archbishop Leo Jun Ikenaga, of Osaka, Japan, said this year that western missionaries taught about a 'very, very big image of God and separated it almost infinitely from human beings ... So if we sin against the will of God, he will strongly condemn us.' But, for the people of Asia, he continued, 'God is very, very near to us ... And the character of God is also full of love for each person. He is very kind. If we sincerely express to God the sinfulness of ourselves, God will accept us.'
A new target of Vatican scrutiny is a remarkable Vietnamese theologian, Peter Phan, a professor at Georgetown University. He was educated in Hong Kong at Don Bosco College before becoming a priest in Vietnam, then a refugee who worked as a rubbish collector in the US before resuming his priesthood. The case against Father Phan was begun in 2004 when the Pope was cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, and in charge of doctrine. This month, American bishops accused Father Phan of creating 'considerable confusion' about Catholic teaching concerning Christ, the church and other religions. A separate Vatican investigation may still be continuing.
Father Phan is important because he has tried to build bridges between the Catholic Church and Asia, where Catholics are in a tiny minority.
His work goes to matters of practical concern: life and death. Catholics believe that each individual has one life on Earth - his or her journey to God. There is no reincarnation allowing you to do better next time.
But how does the church reach the 60 per cent of the world who have little opportunity of learning about Catholicism, especially the vast majority who live in Asia's Buddhist, Hindu and communist countries?
This question should matter to the Pope. He is the shepherd of the flock, the servant of the servants of God. Perhaps at Christmas Mass, as he hears the singing of the Gloria, he will remember that it was supposedly first sung by angels announcing the birth of the infant Christ to poor shepherds - the outcasts of the day.
Christ used the image of himself as the good shepherd who would go to any length to rescue his sheep who were lost or gone astray. That, surely, means all of us. He also gave a strict injunction to his apostles to go and teach all nations of his commandments of love.
So far, Chief Shepherd Benedict has hardly strayed from the safe paths, visiting his native Germany, next-door Austria, Poland, Turkey and Catholic Brazil. Next year, he will go to the US in April and to Sydney, Australia, in July. Africa and Asia do not figure in Vatican scheduling, but Asia intrudes: no aircraft can fly from Rome to Sydney without stopping for refuelling.
Here is an opportunity for Hong Kong's Catholic chief executive and Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun to co-operate and to persuade both Beijing and the Vatican that the Pope should stop over in Hong Kong.
Let him give solace to Hong Kong's Catholics by celebrating Mass for the Filipino maids. Let him meet, officially or unofficially, the mainland's leaders and religious leaders. Let him see both the successes and the scars of China's international city. Let him learn about China and the non-Christian world. Let China learn about the Pope.
Does the chief executive have the courage to seize this opportunity for his city and his religion?
Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Happy Christmas.
Kevin Rafferty was editor of The Universe, the British Catholic newspaper