Pope Francis' global appeal opens pathway to improving ties between China and the Vatican

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 12:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 September, 2015, 12:50am

Pope Francis is a religious leader, but his appeal transcends religion. His US visit made clear why he can draw crowds like no other, with multitudes representing all creeds and beliefs turning out to watch and listen. His speeches to Congress, leaders at the UN and the throngs in New York and Philadelphia laid bare the attraction, his talk of unity, peace, goodwill, compassion and faith winning praise. Such popularity is inevitable when there is a paucity of leadership on universal issues.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics styles himself as a simple man unafraid to confront that which he sees as wrong. His attacks on capitalism and the inability of the world to deal with poverty and climate change are hallmarks; within the church he has struck at corruption and rankled with his forgiveness of women who have had abortions. He confronted lawmakers, divided on the political left and right, with the issues of refugees, immigrants, climate change and global conflicts. Politicians politely applauded the points they supported, but all were reminded of their duty, as representatives of the world's only superpower, to work together for the common good.

Being true to beliefs and having a common touch rounds out Francis' popularity. He turned down lunch with lawmakers to have a meal with the homeless and met victims of sexual abuse by priests, vowing the perpetrators would face justice. That leadership and warmth have given him unmatched status.

Not all Catholics agree with the pope on belief and doctrine. Nor despite Francis' instrumental role in helping the US and Cuba re-establish diplomatic ties, did his earlier four-day visit to the communist island lessen its oppression of freedoms and political opponents. Unlike in the US, he was careful about what he said, trying to appease his hosts. Three papal visits since 1998 have not made gains, but are proof of the Vatican's commitment to long-term diplomacy.

The same rule should be applied to relations with China. Although President Xi Jinping and Francis were in the US at the same time, their itineraries were timed so that their paths did not cross. Yet the pope is passionate about causes, and ties with China should be high among them. Efforts should be made to broach talks and overcome the obstacles hampering relations.

Francis is, after all, a pope whose popularity can bridge divides. Like his predecessor, John Paul II, he has charisma, but it is not the cult of personality that gains supporters. Rather it is the grace, strength and conviction with which he speaks.