When Pope Francis touches down in Asia next week, home of half the world and a destination his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI signally failed to visit, he will land in an unusual place, a choice so unexpected as to be inspired, at least with a little bit of the new papal way of looking at things.

He will not follow in the footsteps of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who brought modern mathematics and cartography to China, today the world’s largest country and booming potential megapower, which has more than 100 million suffering Christians, 12 to 15 million of them Catholic. He has not chosen India, where the other sainted Jesuit, Francis Xavier, lies buried after a life in the Asian mission fields and where there are 17 million Catholics. He will not go to Japan, where Xavier and other missionaries had success until the shoguns cracked down.

He has decided to bypass the Philippines, the only “Catholic” country in Asia, where there are 78 million Catholics among 100 million Filipinos. In 1995, 7 million people attended Pope John Paul II’s closing World Youth Day mass in Manila, a world record for a religious event.

Instead, Pope Francis will arrive in South Korea, where Catholics are 11 percent of the 51 million people, although a growing influence. The greater significance is that he is attending Asian Youth Day and will be in a place that will give him both a challenge and an opportunity to make his voice heard far beyond Korea and the region.

Modern South Korea was formed in the cruel crucible of war, which is still potentially tragically alive. As professor Rana Mitter of Oxford University reveals in his masterly book, “China’s War With Japan, 1937-45: the Struggle for Survival,” World War II really began in 1937 with Japan’s full-scale invasion of China. In a wider sense, the struggle started when Meiji Japan successfully copied Western industrialization and its political and military leaders wanted their own empire to help feed the growing economy.

Korea suffered badly as a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945, and was then split in two as China and Russia on the one side and the U.S. and its allies on the other offered a prelude to the Cold War with a nasty hot one. The peace finally reached in 1953 was not a true peace, but an armistice.

South Korea is a fascinating study. The people are far different from the Japanese, less bureaucratically driven, more open and volatile. Some people say jokingly that Koreans are the Irish of Asia, hot-tempered, though that might be an overexcited reaction to too much hard liquor and kimchi, the fiery garlic-chili cabbage dish that is a hallmark of Korean cuisine.

Others claim that if the Earth were flat, South Korea would be the place where you jumped off the edge.

At the start of the 1960s, South Korea seemed a basket case impoverished by Japanese colonialism and war that left most of the raw materials in communist North Korea. With few resources except dictatorial government planning of Park Chung-hee, the entrepreneurial ideas of big business groups and hard work of its people, South Korea grew into an economic powerhouse. Per capita income grew from $100 in 1960 to $32,000 today when South Korea is the 15th biggest economy, or the 12th according to purchasing power parity exchange rates.

The growth of Catholicism is a story on its own. Unusually Catholicism did not come to Korea through priests but was inspired by lay people, who brought books by Ricci from China. Yi Seung-hun was baptized in China in 1784, taking the name Peter, and returned home to inspire other Koreans to be baptized.

The first, French, missionary priests did not arrive in Korea until 1836. But the ruling dynasty denounced Catholicism as “evil” because it was opposed to Confucian practices including ancestor worship. Through the 18th and 19th centuries Catholics faced persecution. An initial 103 martyrs were canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1984, and Pope Francis will preside over the beatification of another 124 Koreans killed in those persecutions.

After the war, Protestantism grew rapidly. Catholicism began to grow rapidly with the Church’s role in the coming of democracy to South Korea. Catholics increased by 70 percent in the last decade, although Protestant Christians outnumber Catholics and are about 19 percent of the population.

The late Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan (1922-2009) offered quiet diplomacy with the military rulers reinforced by prophetic warnings about the “long dark tunnel” of military dictatorship. He told one leader: “I feel like we’re watching a Western cowboy movie: whoever grabs the gun first wins the game.”

In the 1987 protests, the cathedral on the hill of Myongdong in Seoul, then a shabby area of local shops, became a safe haven for students protesting for democracy. Kim told the military they would have to overcome him and the priests and nuns to get to the students.

Today, South Korea faces many of the problems of roaring economic success. The approach to Myongdong Cathedral is now a brightly lit landmark to glitzy shopping and nightlife. Corruption has been uncovered among the chaebol, the powerful industrial groups.

Bishop Peter Kang U-il, president of the South Korean bishops, warned that the country “is struggling with the conflicts surfacing from increased social polarization” of economic success.

But the pope’s first Asian visit is not only about South Korea and the martyrs of past centuries. He is going to a divided land, where North Korea is ruled by an unpredictable dynastic dictatorship that brandishes the threats of nuclear weapons while its people suffer all sorts of basic deprivations.

Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, the Archbishop of Seoul, said Koreans are hoping for a “miracle” for the peninsula. Organizers are still waiting to hear whether a token number of Catholics from the North will be allowed to go to South Korea. Francis’ challenge goes far beyond the Korean Peninsula as he is going for Asian Youth Day.

The wider Asian region is an area of immense economic growth and of rising tension as China flexes its muscles and challenges the prevailing Pax Americana. Asia is half the world’s population, but the excited supporters of the pope have to recognize that Catholics are a mere 3 percent of Asia’s population.

If they are honest, they will admit that few Asians give a damn about the Catholic Church. This is a region where keeping up with the Kims, Lis, Nakamuras and Nguyens is the most important factor with, at state level, the growing fears about China’s imperial reach.

Some population experts speculate that China could become the world’s biggest Christian country, with 250 million adherents by 2040. On Chinese social media “Jesus Christ” and “the Bible” are more popular than “Mao Zedong,” “Karl Marx” or Mao’s “Red Book.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China’s ruling Communists seem hellbent on another anti-Christian wave. Churches have been torn down. In one ludicrous case, local Christians repaired the metal cross that the security forces had hacked down from their church, and were charged with the offense of welding without a proper permit.

Soviet dictator Josef Stalin once asked how many divisions the pope commanded. But when the pope speaks, the world listens, at least for a short while. In schools, universities and hospitals — from India and Thailand to Hong Kong and Japan — the church offers learning and healing that is respected Asia-wide.

This pope has already established a reputation for offering an authentically different message of peace. You can be sure that China’s Xi and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will be listening as Francis speaks in South Korea: What will be his message of hope and peace for a prosperous but troubled Asia?

Kevin Rafferty, a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University, was editor of The Universe, the largest-selling Catholic newspaper in English.

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