Rome(AsiaNews) For many Asia and its small Catholic communities, often barely 1 per cent of the local population, are on the Church's periphery. But for John Paul II the continent is the foremost challenge facing the Church in the third millennium.
In remembering his 1995 trip to Manila in Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, a book he published last year, the Pope said: "In Manila I had before me the whole of Asia. So many Christians! And millions of people in the continent who do not Christ yet! I have great faith in the Churches of the Philippines and Korea. Asia is our common goal for the third millennium."
Inspired by this vision the Pope travelled the breadth of the continent, from the Middle East and South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) to South-East Asia (Thailand and the Philippines) and the Far East (South Korea and Japan).
Home to two thirds of the world's population, half of them young, Asia is the continent of the future. However, it is also home to a host of contradictions, a place where ancient religious traditions meet future-oriented and atheistic societies, a continent where the roaring tigers of world capitalism live (and cooperate) with the leftovers of Communism.
Such a mix victimises billions of people, marginalising minorities, poor shantytown dwellers, and scorned outcasts
What is more, local religious traditions are so intertwined with local cultures and politics that Christianity is seen as a foreign religion.
In this cauldron the Pope has added Jesus Christ and the dignity of Asians as the core issues for any discussion about development.
For a Pope used to the multitudes, meeting smaller groups of Christians was equally important. He visited countries with a handful of Christians or countries like India in 1999 where threats (by Hindu fundamentalists) kept would-be pilgrims away.
To everyone he said that "Jesus was Asian". And with great astonishment, people responded: in Pakistan, India, and even Japan (in 1981), where Catholics are only handful, 400,000 in a population that exceeds 100 million.
For days Japanese papers ran special editions for the Polish Pope. And in a meeting with singer Agnes Chang he showed he could dance.
Known for their restrained formalism, detachment and silence Asians discovered a man of God who could smile, say what he felt, show he cared for others; a man who could stroke a child and embrace a grown-up.
John Paul II has always shown a great respect for all religions. Of all the meetings he has had with religious leaders the one with the Buddhist Patriarch in Bangkok stands outhe met him barefoot and in total silence.
Yet, as profound as this respect may be, he has always asked other religious leaders to work together for peace and demanded "freedom of religion and worship" for Christians.
In a continent divided by fundamentalisms and too often governed by bans against conversion (like in India), he said loud and clear, for everyone to hear: "Let no one fear the Church".
In John Paul II's (and the Church's) vision Jesus Christ fulfills humankind's religious expectations. For this reason, he has always coupled broad-mindedness towards other religions with an urgency to spread the Christian message without fear.
Hence, he was the first Pope to canonise Asian martyrs and offer them to the Universal Church as examples to follow: Saints like Korean Andrew Kim and Filipino Lorenzo Ruiz and martyrs likes those of Vietnam and China.
John Paul II's interest in Asia is so strong that he learnt phrases in Hindi, Filipino and Chinese, and mastered the liturgy in Korean and Japanese in order to bring Christ and the Christian faith to the cultures of Asia.
In an Asian environment closely tied to traditions that are oftentimes self-centred, a strategy of localisation goes hand in hand with an overall missionary thrust. Thus, John Paul has urged Catholics to make a commitment to evangelise the continent and the world.
The greatest experience in this respect was the vigil he held with young people in Manila in 1995, an event that still stands as the biggest human gathering in human history: five million.
To the youth who had come to Luneta Park he said they were the evangelisers of the third millennium. And tens of them heeded his message and chose the priesthood.
To the Church burdened by oversized institutions (schools, universities, hospitals, etc.) he offered the example of Mother Teresa, a diminutive nun he met in his first trip to India in 1986 and a large-than-life woman he beatified in record time in 2003.
Thanks to this thrust, the number of vocations in Asia is growing at about 1-2 per cent a year and the number of Catholics, at around 5 per cent a year; trends that are so different from what is happening in Europe and North America.
China is a topic onto itself, a country the Pope wanted so much to visit and towards which he had great esteem and respect, but also a regime from which he always asked total religious freedom.
"No state, no group," he said in the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, "has the right to control . . . the religious beliefs of a person".
More will be said about China in a separate article, but for now let us remember the Pope's penultimate trip to Asia, in Kazakhstan, a few days after the attack against the Twin Towers in New York.
Braving international fears and concerns of his entourage, John II called Islamic terrorism "a desecration of human dignity in the name of God" and called on all religious leaders to firmly condemn violence as a way to assert human rights.