Pope's Asian Trip Test of Stamina, Diplomacy
Pope John Paul II's 20,760-mile journey through Asia, his 63rd trip outside Italy, began Jan. 11. It was being described as a "toned-down" affair. The Vatican said there would be no evening events. That wouldn't prevent the pope from delivering 30 speeches during his 11-day jaunt through the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Sri Lanka.
He cannot travel without questions dogging him about his health -- or without controversy.
History's most-traveled pope has been recently slowed by illness and infirmity. His stamina remains a concern. His health, including a slowhealing right leg, broken in a fall in April, caused him to cancel a U.S. visit in October.
For months he has expressed the desire to participate in World Youth Day celebrations, planned for Jan. 15 in the Philippines, Asia's most Catholic nation.
Indeed, the 74-year-old pontiff aims to lead the world's 950 million Roman Catholics into the next century, although his health is clearly on his mind.
"They say I'm getting older and not able to walk without a cane. But somehow I keep on going," he told pilgrims from his native Poland last week. "To anyone who cares about these things in Poland, tell them this pope isn't doing so badly."
But even before John Paul had arrived in Manila, he had touched off a controversy with Asian Buddhists over remarks he made about Buddhism in his recent book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Among other things, the pope wrote that Buddhism could be considered an atheistic religion with an almost exclusively "negative" doctrine of salvation.
That did not sit well among some Buddhist leaders in Sri Lanka who threatened to boycott the papal events there. Sri Lanka is an island nation off southeastern India. It has a population of aobut 18 million people. Buddhists comprise about 70 percent; christians about 8 percent.
In an apparent effort to defuse Catholic-Buddhist tensions on the eve of his visit, Pope John Paul expressed deep respect for Buddhism and said he hoped his trip would bring the two religions closer together.
The pope said he was looking forward to meeting representatives of other religions in Sri Lanka, including Buddhists, and he asked a blessing upon them.
The papal remarks and the furor they caused illustrate the delicate line that must be walked by the church and by Pope John Paul in relations with other religions since the Second Vatican Council.
Nostra Aetate, the council document on relations with non-Christian religions, said, "The Catholic church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. …