On his voyage to South Korea, the plane carrying the Holy Father was permitted to enter and travel through Chinese airspace. He was technically within the territorial boundaries of mainland China for a number of hours, and Francis (in a stroke of diplomatic genius, aided by Fr. Lombardi) deftly managed to make something important out of the moment, despite the fact that he did not set foot on Chinese soil.
The Pope has “Universal Jurisdiction” over the Church, apart from his temporal jurisdiction over the Vatican City-State (temporal jurisdiction is a holdover from the time of the Papal States). Wherever he goes, he has supreme authority over the Church, without regard for the particular temporal authority in a particular place. From the Catholic Encyclopedia on New Advent:
In the Constitution “Pastor Aeternus”, cap. 3, the pope is declared to possess ordinary, immediate, and episcopal jurisdiction over all the faithful: We teach, moreover, and declare that, by the disposition of God, the Roman Church possesses supreme ordinary authority over all Churches, and that the jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is true episcopal jurisdiction is immediate in its character (Enchir., n. 1827).
On the return flight to Rome, Pope Francis held a press conference aboard the plane. According to the Transcript, he was asked:
You were the first pope to fly over China. The telegram that you sent to the Chinese president was received without negative comments. Are we passing on to a possible dialogue and would you like to go to China?
The Transcript indicates that before Pope Francis could answer, Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi announced that “…we are now in Chinese airspace so the question is pertinent.”
Before we deal with Fr. Lombardi’s characterization of the moment, check out Pope Francis’ response:
When we were about to enter into Chinese airspace I was in the cockpit with the pilot. One of them, showed me the registry. Anyway, he said, there were 10 minutes left before entering Chinese airspace. we have ask for authorization. You always ask. ‘Is it normal to ask for permission in every nation? Yes.’ I heard how they asked authorization and how they responded. I was a witness to this. Then the pilot said, now we send the telegram. But I don’t know how they will have done it by like that. So, then i said goodbye to them and went back to my seat and i prayed a lot for that beautiful and noble Chinese people. a wise people. i think of the great Chinese sages, a history of science and knowledge. Also we Jesuits have a history there, also Father (Matteo) Ricci. And, all thees things came up to my mind. Do I have a wish to go.? Certainly, tomorrow. Yes. We respect the Chinese people. It’s just that the Church ask for freedom for its role and for its work. This is another condition. But, do not forget that fundamental letter for the Chinese problem which was the letter sent to the Chinese by Pope Benedict XVI. That letter today is current. Rereading it is good for you. The holy see is always open to being in contact, always, because it has a real esteem for the Chinese people.
The 2007 letter to which Pope Francis refers can be found here, and is worth reading. In it, Benedict states:
Catholic doctrine teaches that the Bishop is the visible source and foundation of unity in the particular Church entrusted to his pastoral ministry. But in every particular Church, in order that she may be fully Church, there must be present the supreme authority of the Church, that is to say, the episcopal College together with its Head, the Roman Pontiff, and never apart from him. Therefore the ministry of the Successor of Peter belongs to the essence of every particular Church “from within”. Moreover, the communion of all the particular Churches in the one Catholic Church, and hence the ordered hierarchical communion of all the Bishops, successors of the Apostles, with the Successor of Peter, are a guarantee of the unity of the faith and life of all Catholics. It is therefore indispensable, for the unity of the Church in individual nations, that every Bishop should be in communion with the other Bishops, and that all should be in visible and concrete communion with the Pope.
Returning to the moment itself, I respectfully disagree with Fr. Lombardi. This is not simply “pertinent“; rather, for the Holy Father to stand within the territorial boundaries of China and refer to Pope Benedict’s letter, in which it is stated that “every bishop should be in communion with the other Bishops, and that all should be in visible and concrete communion with the Pope” is significant and important for the progress of the Church’s mission in China.
This is exactly the sort of thing the Chinese were likely worried about in connection with Francis entering their airspace. He exercised his universal jurisdiction as Supreme Pastor in China and the Chinese Government permitted it (and were powerless to stop it).
This reminds me an awful lot of St. John Paul II’s first apostolic pilgrimage to Poland, when the Soviets still strictly controlled the Eastern bloc countries. St. JPII’s mere presence in the country of his birth had a profound impact on the collapse of communism there. The flame he sparked quickly spread to other satellites. The Soviets might have been “between a rock and a hard place,” (thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit) but no one can say that it was better for them that they permitted St. JPII to visit.
Here, the Big Question will be whether the Chinese permit Francis to enter airspace again, or — just imagine! — to land in China next time.