In Asia, How Best to Nurture The Seeds of Christianity?

VATICAN CITY—“Jesus Christ was born in Asia,” Pope John Paul II exclaimed at the close of one of the first working days of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia now underway in the Vatican. Despite the fact that God found his home there, Asia's bishops are trying to determine why his Church has not. After 2,000 years of evangelization, Catholics are just a “microscopic minority” — less than 3% — of people on the world's largest continent.

The gathering of more than 250 bishops, experts, and observers from Asia and other continents, which runs from April 19 to May 14, is the third in a series of five regional Synod meetings called by the Pope to prepare the Church ahead of the third Christian millennium. It follows Special Assemblies for Africa (1994) and America (1997). A meeting for Oceania is expected at the end of this year, and for Europe in 1999.

In his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near) the Pope says in Asia “the issue of the encounter of Christianity with ancient local cultures and religions is a pressing one. This is a great challenge for evangelization, since religious systems such as Buddhism or Hinduism have a clearly soteriological character [i.e., claim to offer salvation].”

“There is also an urgent need for a Synod [for Asia],” he continues, “in order to illustrate and explain more fully the truth that Christ is the one mediator between God and man and the sole Redeemer of the world, to be clearly distinguished from the founders of other great religions.”

Asia is home to more than two-thirds of the world's population, and a large percentage are young people. Of the world's 1 billion Catholics, 100 million are Asian. Christianity's earliest seven Churches were all in Asia. Other ancient roots can be found in India, where tradition has it that the Apostle Thomas founded Christian communities that exist to this day.

The Church in other parts of the continent is the fruit of only very recent missionary efforts though. In Mongolia, for example, the Church is only six years old and claims just 77 baptized descendants of Genghis Khan.

The Mongolian government sent delegates to the Vatican in the early 1990s to request missionaries because “they were convinced that the Catholic Church could … contribute to the development of the country in the fields of social work and education,” said Father Wens Padilla, superior of the mission.

Especially through active service in education and health care, Catholics often make a greater impact in Asian societies than their numbers would suggest. Even in politics, where South Korea's newly installed President Kim Dae Jung, for example, belongs to the Catholic community, whose members make up just 2.9% of the population.

Some Synod Fathers warned, however, that an “attitude of Catholic superiority” had landed Churches in trouble.

“In Indonesia,” said Bishop Leo Laba Ladjar, “we were once proud that we owned the best schools and hospitals, the largest newspaper, etc.”

Then, in fierce reaction, some radical Muslim groups in the continent's largest Islamic country began edging out Christian institutions.

“We are being forced to reflect anew about ourselves as a small minority,” the bishop said. “We have to accept ourselves as a minority. Competition is not the Christian way.”

The greatest challenge to evangelization, according to the Synod fathers, is the enduring perception of Christianity as a “foreign” religion.

“We take it for a simple fact that there has been a lack of inculturation in our preaching of the Gospel in Asia,” said Filipino Bishop Francisco Claver.

Bishop Barthelemy Nguyen Son Lam said, “Inculturation in the Church is as old as the Gospel itself, but it has had some regrettable moments of eclipse. In Vietnam the ban against ancestor worship imposed on the Christians for three centuries had the effect of estranging them from that which is the very foundation of Vietnamese society. This explains why they were considered strangers in their own country, and persecuted.”

Liturgy is also an obvious candidate for inculturation. The Synod's opening Mass incorporated elements from the songs, dance, and worship practice of different Asian countries. Still, many bishops called for more independence from Rome in the work of inculturation — especially in the approval of translations of liturgical texts. They pointed out that the vernacular experts were in the local Church, not in Rome.

Other bishops, especially from countries where Catholics are or recently have been persecuted, stressed the universal character of the Church, visibly united under the leadership of the Pope. Bishop Joseph Werth, apostolic administrator of Siberia, said the Pope's solidarity with the Church behind the Iron Curtain during the Soviet era was a great encouragement.

“Today, we can finally come and experience one Church with all of you,” he said. “We are today free in the ex-Soviet Union countries and we consider it our sacrosanct duty … to be united with our other brothers who are not in possession of this freedom.”

Bishop Werth did not have to mention which brothers he meant. Two empty chairs in the synod hall — C23 and C24 — reserved for bishops from mainland China, were a constant reminder of the difficulties facing the Chinese Church. The two prelates had been invited by Pope John Paul but were refused visas by Beijing.

Ninety-year-old Bishop Matthias Duan Yinming sent an April 30 fax written in Latin to the Pope offering his regret for not being able to attend “due to political reasons.”

“I was so sad about this I could not sleep for two nights,” he said. “I am physically absent, but my heart is always present at the Synod of Bishops.”

The elderly churchman is the only Vatican-appointed bishop on the communist mainland, having been appointed by Pius XII in 1949, just before Mao took control of the country. He also enjoys the recognition of the state-controlled “Patriotic Church.” Nonetheless, the authorities cited a lack of diplomatic ties with the Vatican (and the Vatican's diplomatic ties with Taiwan) when asked by journalists about the refusal.

Hong Kong's Bishop Joseph Zen, who is also a visiting seminary professor on the mainland, urged the Synod fathers to come to the aid of the Catholic Church in China — but both Churches.

“Confronted with the sad reality of the divisions of the Church into the so-called Patriotic Church and the Underground Church, our task is to work for reconciliation and not to take sides with one group against the other,” he said. “While admiring the firm stand of those in the underground, let us be understanding and respectful towards those who are struggling in a situation of compromise.”

Nobel prize-winner Bishop Carlos Belo of East Timor said, “defending human rights and the cultural dignity of man is directly linked to [the Church's] spiritual mission. The Church's main contribution to the realization of human rights consists in a continuous and practical process of education to make Christians more conscious of the dignity of the human person, the brotherhood of man, and of the liberty and equality which all men share.”

Human rights work in Asia has taken on a more urgent note in the wake of devastating region-wide economic crises and new poverty caused by globalization. But Sri Lankan Bishop Oswald Thomas Colman Gomis warned the Church must first of all meet spiritual needs.

“The doling out of material assistance without meeting [Asians’] spiritual aspirations is only a further promotion of the common misconception of exploitation of poverty for proselytism.”

“In all its misery and deprivation, Asia sees not only a socio-economic problem but a deeper theological problem — the problem of evil, for which it seeks an answer,” he explained. “Traditional religions have provided different answers. Christianity, which has its answer in the death, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, should present this theological answer in clear and simple categories easily comprehensible to the Asian mind … so that the people of Asia would see that Christianity meets their greatest aspirations.”

One frequently suggested model for Asian evangelization is the late Mother Teresa. Her emphasis on contemplative prayer, renunciation, and love for the poorest fit the Asian model of sanctity.

“People spontaneously recognize the message in the messenger,” said Bangladesh Archbishop Michael Rozario. “In our situation, a person of the Spirit is known for a deep sense of detachment and renunciation, a characteristic of Asian spirituality.”

Pakistani Bishop Anthony Lobo predicted Jesus Christ would return to his home continent during the third millennium.

“We are gathered round, as successors to the Apostles, with the successor of St. Peter,” he said. “This hall [above the Paul VI Audience Hall] is literally and symbolically the “upper room” or cenacle. Mary is present as model [… who stood] side by side with her crucified Son. Today she stands by the cross of the mystical Christ, calling down the Spirit together with us, to bring about a new Pentecost in Asia.”

John Norton writes from Rome.