Pope's nod to China, on a wing and a prayer

SEOUL, South Korea -- Pope Francis landed in the South Korean capital Thursday on his first trip to Asia as pontiff.

CBS News' Seth Doane says 10 percent of South Koreans are Catholic, and the numbers are growing. The Vatican is said to be focusing its attention in areas where the church is growing, and Asia is undoubtedly one of those regions.

More specifically -- and more significantly -- some people say the Church is also gaining significant followers in China, and when you're the Pope, even the path your plane takes is important.

On his chartered Alitalia flight to Seoul, Pope Francis flew directly over China. The last time a pope wanted to fly through Chinese airspace was 1989, and Beijing refused the request.


Despite an estimated 12-million Catholics in China, the communist government does not have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and it hasn't since the Communist Party came to power in 1949.

As is customary for each country he flies over, Pope Francis sent a telegram to China's President Xi Jinping.

"Upon entering Chinese airspace, 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," read his message.

Francis and Xi had also exchanged letters after they were both elected last year.

In China, the majority of Catholics worship in underground Churches. Another 5.5 million are members of the "official" Chinese Catholic "Patriotic Association," which does not let the Vatican appoint bishops.

Yang Guangyun's family has been Catholic since the Yuan dynasty, 700 years ago, when missionaries first came to China.

Yang told CBS News many Chinese Catholics are loyal to the pope and were encouraged by his telegram.

"I hope China and the Vatican could reach a common ground," she said, "and one day the Pope will visit China."

That may still be a long way off, but his mere visit to the region -- and the path he took to get there -- were enough on Thursday to give quiet hope to many Catholics in China.