TIME faith

Pope Promotes Peace, Not Pacifism, in Iraq

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Pope Francis attends his weekly general audience in the Paul VI hall, at the Vatican on Aug. 20, 2014. Riccardo De Luca—AP

Pope Francis and the Catholic Church are not pacifists

Many were surprised with Pope Francis’s remarks earlier this week suggesting that he was open to military intervention to stop the ISIS’s potentially genocidal campaign in Iraq.

While it’s important to note that he didn’t outright endorse the recent American airstrikes in Iraq, Francis’s remarks that “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor” do seem to mark a shift from the pope’s response to the Syrian crisis last September. On that occasion, he held a worldwide vigil in the hopes of stopping the violence and postponing American intervention in the region. He then famously joined his words with those of Pope Paul VI: “war never again! Never again war!”

But for those who know the intricacies of Catholic moral teaching, Francis’s openness to military intervention in Iraq makes perfect sense. For 1500 years, the Church has promoted the teaching of St. Augustine: that there can be no true peace without justice. This ancient teaching has crystallized into the Church’s modern day just war principle, which holds that nations only ought to enter into military campaigns against unjust aggressors as a last resort and only in limited scope and circumstances.

Under that paradigm, does the current situation in Iraq merit such a military response? Pope Francis isn’t ruling it out. Now contrary to the absurd claim by Vox’s Max Fisher, Pope Francis isn’t calling for the tenth crusade against the Middle Eastern people. Instead, he’s proposing a clear-eyed response to a critical crisis.

Despite what some might think, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church are not pacifists. To promote some kind of laissez-faire pacifism in Iraq is to be quiet and indifferent to the victims of the ISIS’s campaign of violence. To the contrary, the peace that Francis and the Church are calling for at times requires military intervention.

This nuance has played out interestingly over the past fifty years. Though the Vatican unequivocally opposed President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was skeptical of American involvement in Vietnam, the Church did support American intervention in Iraq in 1991.

As President Obama and the United States contemplate the road forward in this current crisis, Pope Francis and the Church cannot offer American political and military leaders specific strategic solutions, but only broad stroke moral principles. What the Church does know is that authentic peace isn’t easy and is only reserved for societies who actively work for justice.

Despite the differences that will likely emerge in the details of President Obama’s and Pope Francis’s vision for American involvement in Iraq, both men will likely agree that peace—not pacifism—is the way forward in the region.

Christopher Hale is a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. He helped lead national Catholic outreach for President Obama’s re-election campaign. You can follow him on Twitter @chrisjollyhale.

TIME diplomacy

Pope Wants China Dialogue, Freedom for Church

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Pope Francis meets the media during an airborne press conference on his journey back to Rome from Seoul on Aug. 18, 2014 Gregorio Borgia—AP

Pope Francis flies over China during his return trip to Rome from South Korea, saying that he wishes to visit China and for the Catholic Church to operate freely there

(ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE) — Pope Francis says he wants dialogue with China and the only thing he asks in return is for the Catholic Church to be able to operate freely.

The pope told reporters the church “only asks to have freedom to do its work. No other conditions.”

“The Holy See is open to all contacts,” he said. “Because it has true esteem for the Chinese people.”

In remarks to reporters returning to Rome from South Korea Monday, Francis recounted how he had a front-row seat to history when his Alitalia charter flew through Chinese airspace en route to South Korea.

Traditionally, popes send telegrams of greetings to heads of state when they enter their airspace.

This flight, however, marked the first time a pope had flown over China, which severed relations with the Holy See in 1951 when the Communists took over. Beijing refused to let St. John Paul II’s plane fly overhead when he last visited the Far East, a 1989 trip to South Korea.

The Aug. 14 flight, then, gave Francis a rare opportunity to reach out to Chinese President Xi Jinping, 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.

“I prayed so much for the beautiful and noble Chinese people,” he said.

He said he would love to visit China: “Absolutely. Tomorrow!”

Francis sent Xi a similar telegram Monday heading back to Rome: “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 also praised Koreans, especially the South Korean women who were used as sexual slaves by the Japanese military during World War II.

Francis spent a few minutes Monday greeting seven “comfort women” who attended his final Mass in Seoul’s cathedral. Francis recalled that they were young girls when they were taken away, “exploited and enslaved.” But he said: “Today these women were there because despite all that they suffered, they have their dignity. They showed their faces.”

“The Korean people are a people who haven’t lost their dignity: They are a people who were invaded, humiliated, underwent wars and now are divided,” he said. “The suffering of division is great. I understand this and I pray that it ends.”

___

Follow Nicole Winfield at http://www.twitter.com/nwinfield

TIME Religion

Selfies and the Puritanical Self

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Young woman taking photo of her with smartphone Buena Vista Images—Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

This summer a relative put aside resistance and got his first smartphone, soon after sending us a picture of himself taken with his phone, captioned: “My First Facie.” Initial mirth over this mistaken terminology—“facie” instead of “selfie”—gave way to conviction that his was, in fact, the much better word.

That strange new-ish cultural form the selfie is usually a picture of the face, sometimes captured in an odd expression, sometimes decorated with the presence of others or an interesting backdrop. It is a pose, a mask. It is certainly not a picture of the self.

The self is much too elusive to be captured by a phone snap. And the self as a thing, an identity, seems almost necessarily a religious category. Many writers have pondered the self, but late southern novelist Walker Percy’s words rise to mind most readily, in his whimsical treatment of the lost self in the cosmos.

Why is it, Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos asks, that you can “learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus” than you “presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?” The self, even our own, or especially our own, is hard to see. We try to see ourselves by looking–in the mirror, in a picture–but hardly can. Percy lays bare the difficulty with reference to a few common experiences: “You have seen yourself a thousand times in the mirror, face to face. No sight is more familiar. Yet why is it that the first time you see yourself in a clothier’s triple mirror—from the side, so to speak—it comes as a shock?”

Or this: “Why is it that, when you are shown a group photograph in which you are present, you always (and probably covertly) seek yourself out? To see what you look like? Don’t you know what you look like?”

No.

What could we possibly want with a lot of ephemeral pictures our own face? Selfies are by us and for us. Elements of selfie-taking include showing off, trying to show others the kind of person we want them to envision us, in a glamorous place, or wearing something nice, or with a celebrity. But the compulsion to take selfies seems very secondarily about to showing off someone else. More, they are efforts to see who we are. Many such attempts get instantly deleted out of refusal to believe that is how we really look. But we persist in taking them, because we still haven’t seen what we’re after. It is hard to figure out what the self looks like.

Percy’s odd but wonderful book starts with a quiz for the reader to identify himself with a bunch of options (the “scientific and artistic self,” the “role-taking self,” the “standard American-Jeffersonian-high-school-commencement Republican-and-Democratic-platform self,” etc) but presses on this point. The self can only really know who it is in relation to someone else, and not just a fellow creature. In what Percy describes as the “Christian (and, to a degree, the Judaic and Islamic self),” the self “sees itself as a creature, created by God, estranged from God by an aboriginal catastrophe, and now reconciled with him.” In contrast, the “lost self”—the one the book assumes many readers resemble—is left amidst the “fading of Christianity as guarantor of the identity of the self” and has become dislocated, so that self, “Jefferson or no Jefferson, is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom.”

In this light the pictures we call selfies bear an urgency: who am I? can you tell me?

Christians, generally speaking, are or should be interested in these questions, but among groups in American religious history, few match the self-scrutiny of the colonial New England settlers we call Puritans. Because for a time Congregational churches in New England required prospective members to give an account of how they came to think themselves saved, surviving church records preservesome of these testimonies. A fine collection of these is gathered in Michael McGiffert’s God’s Plot, which presents the private spiritual reflections of Cambridge minister Thomas Shepard along with testimonies from many in his flock. These documents are remarkable for a number of reasons: for words from the lives of mothers, farmers, sailors, servants, students; for illustration of the ways laypeople interpreted the Word as preached; for signs of the shaping of a new identity. Not least, though, they show individuals’ keen interest in an understanding of themselves, the “inner man,” or “man of the heart.” The conversion narratives show men and women trying to answer the mystery most often by looking inside, and most often what they find inside is not pretty or share-worthy. One man “saw no hope of help” in his condition. Another confessed that “I saw an emptiness in myself.” One woman admitted migrating to New England because “I thought I should know more of my own heart.” Another said, “I found myself ignorant…I found my heart dead and sluggy.” “I found my heart altogether dead and unprofitable…I saw myself indeed in a miserable condition,” admitted another.

Many features of these narratives deserve reflection, but two seem most relevant here. First, while these confessions have a dour tone (and I admit I picked some for that reason), they were articulated in the context of great good news, the speakers’ conviction that that self-knowledge was part of a process wherein they discovered grace. And that discovery of grace helped place them not only in a heavenly sense, but in some very practical, earthly ways helped to establish their identity. Second, these were not private self-assessments but speeches informed by others’ words, examples, interactions; “shared” out to their “friends,” the testimonies revealed what was internal, personal, significant. While there is some anachronism in using the term, these are type of presentation of the self. These are real selfies.

But those casual snaps of ourselves, and those tedious off-center, peace-sign-gesturing portraits that middle-schoolers take of themselves and send, those are not selfies. Those are facies.

teaches history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, specializing in early America.

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TIME Religion

Preachers Focus on Faith in the Shadow of Ferguson

Lesley McSpadden the mother of slain teenager Michael Brown joins a capacity crowd of guests at Greater St. Marks Family Church to discuss the killing of her son and the civil unrest resulting from his death on August 12, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri.
Lesley McSpadden the mother of slain teenager Michael Brown joins a capacity crowd of guests at Greater St. Marks Family Church to discuss the killing of her son and the civil unrest resulting from his death on August 12, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri. Scott Olson—Getty Images

From the St. Louis suburb at the epicenter of the protests to mega-churches in cities nationwide, religious leaders aim to figure out how faith can help communities come to terms with the crisis in Missouri

To say it has been a tough week in Ferguson hardly begins to address the scope of all that has gone down in the country’s heartland these past seven days. The week has brought a teenager’s death, protests, looting, clashes with police, the national spotlight and a nationwide uprising, not to mention deep questions about race and justice in America.

On the first Sunday since the unrest exploded and the morning after Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew, many in the Missouri town will attend worship services at one of the dozens of churches that line its streets, giving religious leaders the challenging task of somehow trying to help their communities make sense of their new reality.

Karen Knodt, the pastor of Immanuel United Church of Christ in central Ferguson, plans to preach about the week’s events when her community gathers this Sunday. She is one of the many pastors worldwide who base their weekly sermons off the lectionary, a schedule for reading Scripture aloud in church. One of the main texts scheduled for this weekend comes from the prophet Isaiah, and is timely given the week’s context: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right,
for my salvation is close at hand, 
and my righteousness will soon be revealed.’”

Many congregants in her 700-person-strong church have been lifelong residents of Ferguson, Knodt explains, and have watched the town’s demographics change from a predominantly German to African-American community. This week she has been checking on members to gauge their safety and stress, and meeting with other clergy to work together to plan their response. Some church members have been working to help clean up looted businesses, she says, and others have launched a special food drive to address empty food pantries in town.

This Sunday, one of her main challenges is to encourage members not to give in to fear. “The reactions in the congregation range from lock the doors to let’s be on the front lines and offer what we can,” she says. “Spiritual needs are mostly how not to live in fear, but to be present to the tragedy and the frustrations, to have compassion for all our neighbors and courage to face our divisions and find ways to live and unify the community across racial, geographic, and class lines.”

Down the street is St. Stephen’s Episcopal, where Reverend Steve Lawler has been reaching out this week to members of both the white and black communities. No one he has talked with so far knew Michael Brown, the 18-year-old killed last Saturday, but some have known the police officer involved in his death. “The Ferguson people I have talked to are hopeful, saddened, outraged, defensive, engaged, scared, prayerful and deeply committed to getting through this difficult time together,” he wrote in an update letter to friends and family in the Episcopal community.

The Ferguson Ministerial Alliance, the St. Louis Clergy Coalition, and the NAACP have been working to bring people together, Lawler says. He is also noticing ways his community is taking pains to support the town—from a group of women making its way through town eating at local restaurants to thank them for staying open, to a young mom and her kids dropping off sandwiches and water to protestors gathered at the QuikTrip on West Florissant, to a man whose son was murdered two years ago dropping food to the food pantry and talking about the sorrow of the family, police, and community.

“I have been living with this quote, ‘Do your little bit of good where you are,’” Lawler says, citing the words of Desmund Tutu. “‘It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.’”

The preachers of Ferguson are not alone in their challenge of guiding congregants through what has happened and what lies ahead. Ferguson has sparked a national moment, and pastors across the country face the challenge of speaking to congregations who have watched the crisis unfold all week.

The Rev. Otis Moss III, a black liberation theologian who preaches at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, said he would quote from Psalm 142 — “a psalm of lament and cry for help when the writer felt like an outcast [or] criminal, and not a citizen in his own nation” — and also from the song “Makes me Wanna Holla” by Marvin Gaye. “There is a line in the song that states it makes me wanna holler and throw up both of my hands,” he says.

Reverend Leslie D. Callahan, who leads the historically black St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia, has been preaching a series called “Freedom Summer,” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer in Mississippi. “From the beginning I have noted that discussions of “freedom” and “citizenship” in our nation are too often narrowly constructed, leaving out the poor, black folks, immigrants,” she says. “Events in Ferguson over the last week express this fact more poignantly than I can bear.”

She believes that the lectionary message from Isaiah is particularly instructive. “I believe that clergy of all colors need to speak a word condemning the bloodshed on the ground and the suppression of truth-telling,” she says.

Even still, she is fully aware of just how difficult preaching in the face of such communal upheaval can be. “What’s happening flies in the face of everything I believe about human beings and justice,” she says. “I don’t even know where to start.”

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Visits ‘Cemetery For Abortion Victims’ in South Korea

It's a strong anti-abortion gesture

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Pope Francis visited a symbolic “cemetery for abortion victims” Saturday during his visit to South Korea, a gesture that strongly reaffirms the Church’s stance against abortion, after suspicion by some that the pontiff might hold tepid anti-abortion views.

The abortion memorial, located at the Kkottongnae home for the sick about 120 miles from Seoul, is a field dotted with white crosses and statues of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as a child. Francis paused briefly at the site, bowed his head and folded his hand in prayer, the Boston Globe reports.

Jung Kwang-ryul of the Kkottongnae community, described the site as a “one-of-a-kind memorial,” saying the pope’s stop is “a clear testimony of his defense of life.”

South Korea is believed to have one of the highest abortion rates in the world, despite it being illegal except in the case of rape or incest.

During the early days of his papacy, some within the Church questioned Francis’ commitment to opposing abortion. In early interviews, Francis complained that the Church is “obsessed” with moral debates. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods,” Francis said in one interview.

But since then, Francis has strengthened his anti-abortion credentials with starker statements. “It is necessary to reiterate the strongest opposition to any direct attack on life, especially innocent and defenseless, and her unborn child in the womb is the innocent par excellence,” the pope said in April.

[Boston Globe]

TIME Religion

Christianity Can’t Replace My Zoloft

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Chris Gallagher—Photo Researchers RM/Getty Images

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

I have been taking Zoloft (anti-depressant) for four years. I began taking it during my freshman year in college because I had been suffering from severe panic attacks for about five years and they were beginning to severely interfere with my ability to function in school. Before I became a Christian at the age of twelve, I suffered from severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. When I came to Jesus, I was told that I would be healed and finally find joy and lasting peace.

For the first few months it worked. I didn’t have any panic attacks, my suicidal thoughts went away, and my depression vanished. It was a miracle! But slowly, as the new-Christian buzz wore off, my struggles began to reemerge. I would suffer regular panic attacks almost every day and would experience severe bouts of depression. When this began to happen, I was sure that I was doing something wrong. Jesus was, after all, the Prince of Peace. I was told that if I would just cast my anxieties at the “foot of the cross” then I would be released from the burdens that weighed so heavily on me. I so desperately wanted the formula that I had been taught to work- read my Bible, pray everyday, and go to church and all will be well. But the problem was nothing I was doing was working. In fact, it was causing me more anxiety and depression. I hung crosses around my room, only listened to Christian music, and would never lay down in bed to sleep unless I had spent time reading my Bible. When nothing worked, I began to suppress and hide my struggle. I was, after all, one of the leaders in my Youth Group. I wanted to be a Pastor. I had to have it all together.

This struggle has plagued me for years. The fact that my depression and anxiety didn’t go away when Jesus “came into my heart” and the reality that I had to be medicated to live a normal life made me feel like a second-class Christian. I have been told multiple times that God doesn’t want me on depression medications. I have been told that the root issue of this all is my sinfulness and the Jesus would heal me when I dealt with my depravity. But as I have grown in my faith and studied more about psychology and theology, I have finally come to a realization that has been liberating for me:

Jesus isn’t going to take away my Zoloft and none of us will ever find lasting satisfaction in life.

Now I know that this may sound pretty cynical and well…depressing. But in the words of philosopher Peter Rollins, “I am not making you depressed, I am just telling you that you already are depressed and just don’t know it.” Just think. What if Jesus didn’t come to make us happy? What if his message and mission has less to do with improving our “quality of life” and more to do with equipping us with ways to cope and live within our various neuroses?

What if “becoming a Christian” doesn’t actually psychologically change us in any real way and that “Sanctification” is really about living and loving in the midst of our brokenness? What if the cross isn’t there to offer us satisfaction but rather to show us love amplified in suffering?

For far too long, Evangelicals have preached a Gospel that says if you come to Jesus that you will find shalom, satisfaction, health, wholeness, rightness, certainty, a foundation, clarity, abundance, and direction. This message doesn’t belong to the “Prosperity” churches, but also to the neo-reformed, the mainstream, and the progressive Evangelical communities. We have promoted a Gospel that says peace and wholeness can be yours today, when in fact, they cant. We have said that “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in him” when the reality is “God is most glorified in our reliance on him in the midst of our brokenness, dysfunction, and lack of satisfaction.” There isn’t a single human being on earth who has “perfect peace” or “total wholeness”. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Everyone is searching for meaning and satisfaction and no one has ever found it. Not even in Jesus. Because that’s not the point. Throughout the Bible the narrative of Exile is found in almost every story. The reality that we have not arrived at home and that we are, in fact, wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. We all are hoping for the Promised Land. We even get to taste glimpses of it- in our manna from heaven, water from the rock, and seeing it from a distance like Moses. In our wandering, we see glimpses of God to remind us that we are not alone and that there is more than this. The pillar of fire by night and the cloud of smoke by day. God is guiding us. But the reality still exists- we are not satisfied. We aren’t in the Promised Land. We are still dry, thirsty, and lost. I’m still depressed. You still have you’re struggles. None of us are “Whole”. None of us are “satisfied”. But very few of us are humble enough (or free enough) to admit it.

The truth is, I will probably always need my Zoloft.

No, I am not “limiting God’s ability to heal me”, but rather am admitting that maybe “healing” would be the worst thing God could do. As Christians, we have over-realized our eschatology. We believe that the full benefits of salvation are meant to be experienced today. But that’s not true.

The Christian life and indeed, the human life, is one of sojourning and traveling through brokenness and pain. It’s one of struggling and failed expectations that are occasionally interrupted by a glimpse of “the Kingdom”. We all live for those moments of joy, peace, and fulfillment. Whether that is the embrace of our lover, the satisfaction of a job well done, our the moment of peace we experience in worship. But the embrace ends. Another job comes along. And the worship experience will pass. And the fallenness of this world will become our reality once again. It’s in this fallenness that God is most present. It’s in this suffering that our longing and motivation to work for the Kingdom of God is fueled. It’s in this brokenness that faith becomes essential- we must hope for a better day. And it’s that hope that quenches our soul in the desert of life. The hope that we will one day be united with God and neighbor. The hope for no more fears, tears, or suffering. The hope of lasting satisfaction. But until then, I’m going to take my Zoloft. You’re not going to be satisfied. Life is going to be hard. We all will continue wandering. But take heart- Jesus wanders with us. And maybe its time that we start to admit that. Live into that. And embrace that. Because that’s Good News.

Brandan Robertson is the host of the Project:Awaken Podcast and the director of an action-oriented social justice initiative called Revangelicals for a Better Tomorrow.

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TIME Religion

Pope Francis Says ‘Si’ to Philadelphia Visit in 2015

Pope Francis Visits South Korea - DAY 1
Pope Francis attends the meeting with the bishops of Korea at the headquarters of the Korean Episcopal Conference on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Getty Images

Pontiff confirms rumored trip to city of brotherly love next year

Pope Francis told NBC News on Thursday he will be paying a visit to the city of brotherly love. NBC’s Anne Thompson spoke to the pope in Italian on Thursday as the pontiff flew to Asia for his first-ever trip. Thompson asked – in Italian – if the pope would travel to Philadelphia at any point.

“Si,” replied Francis, going on to mention the city’s World Family Day, due to take place in September 2015.

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TIME South Korea

Pope Francis Arrives in South Korea With a Message for All of Asia

Pope Francis Visits South Korea - DAY 1
Pope Francis walks with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye upon his arrival on August 14, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. Pool—Getty Images

The Vatican says that Catholicism is growing faster in the region than anywhere else on Earth

Making the first trip to Asia by a Pontiff in 15 years, Pope Francis landed in South Korea on Aug. 14, beginning a five-day visit to one of Roman Catholicism’s few regional strongholds.

The Argentine, who made history as the first Latin American Pontiff, took the opportunity to hail the populous continent, where Catholic fervor is burgeoning in contrast to dwindling congregations in Europe. “As I begin my trip, I ask you to join me in praying for Korea and for all of Asia,” tweeted Pope Francis, whose visit will coincide with a large gathering of young Asian Catholics. In January 2015, he will return to Asia, with stops in Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

While in South Korea, the Pontiff will pray for peace for a divided Korean peninsula. On Thursday morning, less than an hour before Pope Francis landed in Seoul — where he was greeted by South Korean President Park Geun-hye, North Korean defectors and families of those who perished in the Sewol ferry disaster in April — North Korea fired three short-range rockets into the sea. Two more followed in the afternoon.

Much like in Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain years, Catholic churches served as safe havens for South Korean human-rights defenders standing up to the dictatorships that held sway from the 1960s to the late 1980s. But the roots of Catholicism in Korea go back further than that. During his five-day visit, Pope Francis will beatify 124 Korean martyrs, including those who were persecuted in the 18th and 19th centuries by Confucian-bound dynastic rulers wary of foreign faiths. Around 10,000 Koreans are believed to have been killed for their faith.

Asia currently boasts the fewest number of Catholics of any region of the world, with only around 3% of Asians identifying as Catholics, according to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center. But the Vatican claims that Catholicism is growing faster in the region than anywhere else on earth, outstripping even Africa. The greatest numbers live in the Philippines, with roughly 80 million Catholics, or around 85% of the national population. India counts about 20 million believers, and the faith is believed to be growing in Vietnam. Yet tensions between Catholic communities and adherents to majority faiths like Islam have erupted in South Asia and Southeast Asia, sometimes violently.

In South Korea, the Catholic congregation has grown to about 5.4 million, or roughly 10% of the population. President Park was baptized at a Catholic church although her official biography says she holds no religious affiliation. Protestantism remains a more popular religion, although the primacy of evangelical mega-churches appears to have waned from an apex in the mid-90s. (Other South Koreans are Buddhists.)

In China, the ruling Communist Party maintains an official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association that has to answer in part to atheist apparatchiks. The Holy See and Beijing do not have formal diplomatic relations, since China refuses to recognize the Vatican’s sway over what have been termed “underground churches” or those professing loyalty to Rome. Nevertheless, a religious revival in recent years has seen the growth of many faiths, including underground Catholic worship as well as belief in the state-sanctioned church.

In a rare hopeful sign, Pope Francis’ plane was allowed to travel through Chinese air space on its way to South Korea, something his predecessors’ jets had not been able to do. Following papal tradition, Pope Francis issued a radio message to Chinese President Xi Jinping as his plane passed over the People’s Republic. “Upon entering Chinese airspace,” the Pope said, “I extend best wishes to your Excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and well-being upon the nation.”

Still, some Chinese Catholics who planned to join the Asian Youth Day in South Korea were dissuaded by Chinese authorities. On the Chinese side of the border with North Korea, foreign missionaries and charities (both Catholic and Protestant) have been facing scrutiny in recent weeks for what is officially illegal activity.

Meanwhile, on Monday, in Seoul, Pope Francis plans to hold a special mass praying for peace and reconciliation among the two Koreas. The same day, joint military exercises involving the U.S. and ally South Korea are slated to begin. North Korea will surely not be pleased.

TIME Religion

Pope Francis Goes to Korea: The Spiritual Meaning of Travel During Turmoil

The trip poses a new test for the Holy Father’s global spiritual leadership

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Pope Francis is headed to South Korea on Wednesday, in the midst of what continues to be a particularly difficult month for the world.

Violence in Gaza and Israel continues to escalate. Religious minorities in Iraq are fleeing ISIS brutality. The Ebola virus is spreading through West Africa. Children are flooding the United States border to escape Central American violence. A civilian airliner was downed in Ukraine amid Russian separatist fighting.

It is safe to say that global spirits are down, and it is a heavy overall context surrounding Pope Francis’ third international trip, a five-day visit to the southern half of a divided Korean peninsula. In Seoul, he will join Asian Youth Day, where thousands of Catholic youth from some 30 countries are gathered. He will also beatify dozens of 18th-and 19th-century Korean martyrs, meet with families of the recent Sewol ferry wreck, and give 11 speeches as he travels through four cities: Seoul, Daejeon, Kkottongnae, and Haemi.

On its face, the trip is important for some obvious political and religious reasons. It has been almost 20 years since a pontiff visited the continent. Pope John Paul II visited South Korea twice, in 1984 and in 1989, then the Philippines in 1995, but Pope Benedict XVI never made the trip. Pope Francis is expected to stress reconciliation and the problems of division, as he will be honoring Christians who died during periods of persecution. He also symbolically comes to minister to the Christians to the North as well, as the archbishop of Seoul, Cardinal Andrew Yeom Soo-jung, is also the apostolic vicar for Pyongyang, meaning that he is appointed to guide the North Korean church as well, even if they are inaccessible.

Political relations with North Korea are off to an expectedly rocky start, as the country already turned down the invitation to send a delegation to Seoul for the Pope’s visit. Holy See spokesman Frederico Lombardi has made it clear that Pope Francis is not planning a visit to the Demilitarized Zone, and it does not seem likely that Pope Francis will announce that he is inviting North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean president Park Geun-hye to pray together at the Vatican—an approach he tried during a visit to Bethlehem to promote Middle East peace.

Francis’ trip will also be the first time that a pope’s plane flies through Chinese airspace. The Vatican does not have formal relations with Beijing, and the Chinese government did not permit Pope John Paul II to fly over the country in 1989, several months after the Tiananmen Square protests. It is customary for the Pope to send a message to the leaders of the countries he flies over, and so any message to China carries historic weight.

Religiously, Francis’ trip signals his continued focus on new regions of Catholic Church growth. Christianity in South Korea has grown exponentially in recent decades. In 1910, only 1% of the region identified as Catholic, Protestant, or with another denomination of Christianity. By 2010, that share had risen 29%, according to the Pew Research Center. Protestant Christianity, especially its evangelical and Pentecostal strains, is the more common variety: for every five Catholics in the country, there are about eight Protestants. But Francis is no stranger to evangelical strains of Catholicism, or to ecumenical moves bringing the two genres of Christianity together. It is a trend familiar to Latin and South America for decades, and so the first trip of the first Latin American Pope—one who personally knows the ins and outs of these two communities—has special meaning for a region that is experiencing similar change.

But there is another reason that this trip is important right now, and it is harder to quantify: the trip poses a new test for the Holy Father’s global spiritual leadership. It is easy for a religious figure to symbolize a new era of hope and peace when everything is peachy. It is another hallmark of spiritual influence altogether to inspire hope when violence abounds. What can a peace-making trip mean in the midst of such all-encompassing violence? Can he point to a hope that goes beyond mere words, to a hope that is somehow real?

How Pope Francis represents the answers those questions matters, not just for pilgrims in the Korean peninsula, but also for seekers across the world.

TIME Religion

LGBT Americans Less Likely to Be Religious

While 41% of non-LGBT Americans identify as highly religious, only 24% of LGBT Americans feel the same

Lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender Americans are far less likely to identify as religious than non-LGBT people in the U.S., according to new Gallup poll.

Only 24% of LGBT Americans identify as “highly religious” — meaning that religion is an important part of daily life and services are attended weekly or almost weekly — compared with 41% of non-LGBT Americans. For LGBT Americans, 47% identify as nonreligious, while only 30% of non-LGBT Americans do.

One common explanation behind the disparity is that LGBT Americans may feel less welcome to participate in religious congregations or organizations, although religious groups have become more accepting in recent years. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, same-sex marriage was opposed by most religious groups as recently ago as 2003. Today, a majority of Jewish Americans, white mainline Protestants, and white and Hispanic Catholics support marriage equality.

Other explanations are demographic: LGBT Americans may be more likely to live in cities, where religious participation is less frequent. The population of self-identified LGBT Americans also skews younger, and young people are the least likely to be religious in the country. The poll, however, notes that age structure alone doesn’t explain it all — young LGBT Americans are still less religious than non-LGBT Americans within the same age bracket.

Other findings include:

  • While 83% of non-LGBT Americans identify with a particular religion, only 67% of LGBT adults do.
  • While 66% of non-LGBT Americans say religion is important in their daily lives, only half of LGBT Americans feel the same way.
  • More than half of the non-LGBT population in the country is Protestant, but only 35% of LGBT adults identify as the same.
  • 42% of non-LGBT Americans attend services regularly, while roughly a quarter of LGBT Americans do.

The data was collected during 104,000 interviews conducted between January and July of this year. A total of 3,242 adults interviewed identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

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