The Pope said he wanted to visit China as soon as possible, expressing his wish to mend ties that were cut off more than half a century ago.
“Do I want to go to China? Of course, even tomorrow,” Pope Francis on Monday told a group of reporters who travelled with him to South Korea and were flying back with him to Europe.
“I have prayed a lot for the beautiful and noble Chinese people,” he said. “I think about […] the history of science and wisdom; even we Jesuits have a history there.”
The pope told reporters the church “only asks to have freedom to do its work. No other conditions”.
The 77-year-old is the first Jesuit to rise to the papacy. Members of the religious congregation, most prominently Matteo Ricci in the 17th century, have for centuries played a crucial role in proselytising the Catholic faith in China.
China broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951. Although Catholicism is one of five recognised religions in China, its Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association acts independently from the Holy See and ordains bishops without the Vatican’s consent.
The pope’s declared wish to visit China is the latest in a series of signs that both sides are trying to rekindle ties.
China congratulated the pope on his election in March last year and the Pope returned congratulations for Xi Jinping’s election to the Chinese presidency a day later.
Last week, China allowed the pope to fly over its territory on his way to South Korea, unlike when his predecessor John Paul II had to detour around China on his trip to the Philippines in 1995.
Francis sent his thanks with a telegrammed blessing to President Xi.
Traditionally, popes send telegrams of greetings to heads of state when they enter their airspace. The August 14 flight gave the pontiff a rare opportunity to reach out to Xi, albeit from 35,000 feet.
Francis recalled he was in the cockpit chatting with the pilots when the plane was about 10 minutes out of Chinese airspace and it was time to request permission from the air traffic control tower to continue on.
“I was a witness to this,” Francis marveled. “And then the pilot said, ‘And now the telegram goes out.”’ After witnessing that, the pope returned to his seat and prayed.
Prior to his departure back to Europe, the pope told the region’s bishops on Sunday that the church should not seek political, but “fraternal” dialogue in the region.
“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.
Deviating from the prepared text, he added: “These Christians aren’t coming as conquerors; they aren’t trying to take away our identity.”
On his return trip from Seoul to the Vatican, Pope Francis again flew over China and sent another message to China.“I wish to renew to your excellency and your fellow citizens the assurance of my best wishes, as I invoke divine blessings upon your land,” he wrote.
But the new rapprochement has its opponents. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Hong Kong’s outspoken former bishop, called on the pope not to visit China in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera last month.
“Don’t come, you would be manipulated,” Zen said.
The visit in Seoul was also marred by reports that more than 60 Chinese had been barred from travelling to Seoul to attend the event.
With additional reporting from Associated Press