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BY Anto Akkara
ZEALOUS MISSIONARIES urging non-Christians to forsake their faith to escape eternal doom are a thing of the past in Asia. These days, inculturation and interreligious dialogue are more typical concerns for the Asian Church. Major Church meetings there tend to end with calls for more harmony with other creeds and greater sensitivity toward native cultures.
“We've looked down on other religions as agents of evil,” said Bishop John Manat of Ratchaburi in Thailand, head of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Office of the Asian Bishops' Conference (FABC). “We need to educate our own bishops, priests and others in this respect. Religion and faith should not separate us. Because we built walls, we have lived separately for centuries.”
Summing up the small steps achieved in the more than 25 years of interreligious dialogue by the FABC, Bishop Manat told the Register that “we have to look for the Kingdom of God which comprises all religions. There are still obstacles within the Church. And though some cracks have developed in the old thinking, the wall has yet to fall.”
Understanding and promoting mutual trust with other creeds has been one of the prime concerns of the FABC, which includes 17 national episcopal conferences. The FABC's Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs has sponsored several series of dialogues under the Bishops' Institute for Religious Affairs (BIRA). The initial sessions were meant to train Church leaders—including bishops—to conduct effective dialogue within the Vatican II framework.
Prior to the last meeting, held under the banner theme of “Christians in Dialogue with Confucius thought and Taoist Spirituality” in April in Taiwan, BIRA had brought together Muslims and Christians in Muslim-majority Pakistan. An earlier meeting with Buddhists took place in Thailand, where Buddhism is almost a state religion; and the venue for the dialogue with Hindus in Oct. 1995 was India, a nation of more than 700 million Hindus.
When FABC launched the interreligious dialogue process, Bishop Deogracias Iniguez of the Diocese of Iba in the Philippines said that “others were skeptical of our efforts. The BIRA series was looked down upon as a ploy to convert others.”
“We have succeeded in changing that cynicism,” he added. “Christianity is no longer considered a conquering religion, but we have a long way to go.”
Indeed, the situation of the Church in Asia is unique. The number of priestly vocations in Asia doubled between 1970 and 1994, from 10,074 to 23,943, according to the Vatican's latest Statistical Yearbook of the Church. Asia also has the most promising ratio for seminarians, with 25.07 for every 10,000 Catholics—compared to 16.65 in Oceania and 10.27 for Europe. The worldwide figure is 10.77. But Christianity has only a nominal presence— 2.83 percent of the population— on the Asian continent, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the world's population. The Philippines, which includes 55 million Catholics among its 66 million people, is the exception.
‘We need to educate our own bishops, priests and others in this respect. Religion and faith should not separate us. Because we built walls, we have lived separately for centuries.’
A year ago, in an attempt to deal realistically with the Church's minority position in Asia, the FABC's Theological Advisory Commission urged Asian Churches to counter “situations that threaten and contradict harmony.” Calling for a theology of harmony “from below” in solidarity with the Asian reality, the Asian Theological Commission noted that Churches in the continent posed a challenge to harmony because of their past failures to assimilate local cultures and traditions.
The colonization of the Philippines, including the imposition of a 16th century-European way of living, was thought of as an almost integral part of the task of evangelization, said Ferdinand Dagmang, professor of Christian Ethics and Popular Religion at Maryhill School of Theology in Quezon City, the Philippines. The dominant Roman Catholic symbols, rituals and practices were expected to supplant native beliefs and practices.
As a result, even in the Philippines, where Christians constitute nearly 90 percent of the population, Christianity is often considered a religion of “foreigners.” In marked contrast, the dominant religions in other Asian countries— Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam—are intimately linked with their cultures and woven into their national history. “Only through an inculturated liturgy will the people of Asia recognize [Jesus] as bread is broken in their midst,” 14 leading liturgical experts in Asia declared after the first meeting of Asian Liturgy Forum (ALF) under FABC last spring.
In its discussion of what was referred to as the “relevant and deeply pastoral problem of inculturating the liturgy in Asia,” the forum concluded that the transplantation of a liturgy “made it difficult for [Asians] to experience the depth of the Christian mystery and [that] their participation in worship became in many ways superficial.” If Vatican II's call for liturgical renewal is to become a reality in Asia, the ALF final statement noted, Churches in Asia need to assimilate the local culture.
Arguing that “inculturation is the manifestation of the urge to proclaim the Gospel to the nations,” the statement said that “only through a meaningful encounter between the Gospel and the culture can the unfolding of the Mystery take place” in Asia.
Salesian Father Paul Puthanangady, an ALF member, stressed that “inculturation is something that Rome itself urges. It was Vatican II that boosted the growing inculturation awareness.” Father Puthanangady, who heads the Indian bishops' preparatory Committee for Jubilee 2000, cited the Congregation of Divine Liturgy's “Instructions on Inculturation of Liturgy” to demonstrate the Holy See's support for the Asian Church's attempts to render itself relevant to the local culture.
Wherever inculturation has taken place, after proper instruction and periodic scrutiny by Church authorities, the people have accepted it whole-heartedly, he said. When, for example, the Syro Malabar Church in south India decided to celebrate Qurbana (Mass) in the local Malayalam language instead of in Syriac—which is unfamiliar to most of the local people—in late 1960s, there were apprehensions. But the switch to their mother tongue in the end encouraged the faithful to become more active participants in the Mass.
In response to criticism that inculturation sometimes undermines the authority of the Holy See, Father T.K. John SJ, a noted Indology professor at the Jesuit Theologate in New Delhi, said that “inculturation does not and should not mean deviation from the faith or challenging the authority of the universal church.”
Diluting the faith becomes a problem “when over-enthusiasm leads to neglect of the necessary link between the adopted symbol or ritual to Church teaching,” he added. “Each Asian country has its own cultural milieu, and faith should not standardize culture. Christianity should be interpreted to the people in their cultural environment, without deviating from the faith. This is certainly a difficult path, one on which we have to proceed carefully.”
Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi.