ROME — Pope Francis is back in the Eternal City after his Nov. 20-26 trip to Thailand and Japan, a foray that, despite the tiny Catholic communities in both countries, in many ways represented a weeklong summary of his pontificate, touching on both the religious and social issues that are high up on his list of pastoral priorities.

In Thailand, Francis focused much of his attention, and eight speeches, to talk about the dignity of the human person and the universality of the Catholic Church, calling on the local hierarchy and the religious men and women to continue their efforts to further “inculturate” the faith and the gospel.

Speaking in a country world-famous for its sex tourism, Francis denounced the exploitation of women and children who are forced into prostitution as well as those who fall prey to human trafficking networks, those exploited by the fishing industry, and those forced into begging on the streets, saying that all of them “are our mothers, brothers, and sisters,” and they, too, deserve “the balm of God’s love that heals all wounds.”

In Japan, instead, a country he dreamed of being a missionary in once upon a time when he first joined the Jesuits, Francis honored the memory of the thousands of Christian martyrs who gave their lives rather than renounce their faith, and delivered a strong message against both the deployment and possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Speaking with journalists during the flight back from Japan, he even went a step further than he had during his remarks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said that it is not only “immoral” to own or use bombs such as the atomic bombs dropped by the United States toward the end of World War II, but that the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” needs to be modified to reflect this.

“No one can turn a deaf ear to the plea of our brothers and sisters in need,” he said. “No one can turn a blind eye to the ruin caused by a culture incapable of dialogue.”

The fact that money is “squandered” and fortunes are made through the “manufacture, upgrading, maintenance, and sale” of destructive weapons as millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, Francis said, represents “an affront crying out to heaven.”

“Here in this city, which witnessed the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences of a nuclear attack, our attempts to speak out against the arms race will never be enough,” he said. “The arms race wastes precious resources that could be better used to benefit the integral development of peoples and to protect the natural environment.”

The pontiff argued that “the fear of mutual destruction, or the threat of total annihilation” amounts to defending stability and peace through a “false sense of security” sustained by a mentality “that ends up poisoning relationships between peoples and obstructing any form of dialogue.”

That same day, also in Nagasaki, during a visit to the monument to the martyrs of Japan, he praised them for their courage while noting that there are Christians throughout the world who, “in our day, suffer martyrdom for the faith.”

“They are martyrs of the 21st century, and their witness summons us to set out with courage on the path of the beatitudes,” he said. “Let us pray with them and for them. Let us speak out and insist that religious freedom must be guaranteed for everyone in every part of our world.”

Some estimate that more than 200 million Christians around the world face the daily threat of harassment, persecution, arrest, torture, and even death on account of their faith.

Francis’ trip to Japan began with an address to the bishops of the country, where he listed several of the challenges of Japanese society in which the Catholic community can be a beacon of hope, being present in the lives of many that are marked by loneliness, despair, and isolation, with increasing “suicide rates, bullying, and various kinds of neediness” that create “new forms of alienation and spiritual disorientation.”

Suicide is the largest cause of death among young people in this country, and the Japanese suicide rate is the sixth highest in the world. 

Francis also told the bishops that the numbers of their flock “must not diminish your commitment to evangelization. In your particular situation, the strongest and clearest word you can speak is that of a humble, daily witness, and openness to dialogue with other religious traditions.”

Late in the afternoon he heard the testimony of two atomic bomb survivors, one of whom called the post-blast moments a “scene from hell.”

Answering them, Francis said that humanity will be judged for its failure to reduce the weapons arsenal, saying that future generations will condemn “our failure if we spoke of peace but did not act to bring it about among the peoples of the earth.”

“How can we speak of peace even as we build terrifying new weapons of war?” he asked. “How can we speak about peace even as we justify illegitimate actions by speeches filled with discrimination and hate?”

A secure society, Francis argued, can only be built if we “let weapons fall from our hands.”

“How can we propose peace if we constantly invoke the threat of nuclear war as a legitimate recourse for the resolution of conflicts?” he asked. “May the abyss of pain endured here remind us of boundaries that must never be crossed.”

“On behalf of all the victims of atomic bombings and experiments, and of all conflicts, let us cry out together: Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering! May peace come in our time and to our world.”

After a busy year that saw the Argentine pontiff take seven international trips, his tour to Thailand and Japan marks the end of his traveling, at least until the new year. Although there are rumors as to where he wants to go next (including war-torn South Sudan, which Francis has made no secret of wanting to visit), no trip has been announced as of yet.