DAILY CATHOLIC    MONDAY     November 8, 1999     vol. 10, no. 211


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      [The following analysis of the apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, released by Pope John Paul II on November 6, is provided by Father Bernardo Cervellera, the director of the Vatican's FIDES news agency. The numbered references shown in parentheses allude to sections of the document's text.]

        NEW DELHI (FIDES/CWNews.com) -- Ecclesia in Asia, the post-synodal document that Pope John Paul II is presenting during this apostolic journey in these first days of November, is an important text. Contemplating the continent where Jesus was born and lived his earthly life, where the Catholic Church is a tiny minority, where problems are never ending and where the Church is even subject to persecution, the Holy Father perceives, nevertheless, new promising horizons, for a "harvest of souls which I see mature and abundant" for the Church 's mission in the Third Millennium (9)

    Christ is Asian

        The Pope's confidence and enthusiasm are based on two factors:
    a) Christ and the Church, despite any superficial impression, are part of the Asian context. God's saving plan was "initiated in Asia (1), God chose an Asian tradition; it was in Asia that the Church first began to spread (West Asia: 4th and 5th century; India 52 AD; China 5th century; 9). Although "it is a mystery why the Savior of the world, born in Asia, has until now remained largely unknown to the people of the continent" (2) the Jubilee is an occasion for proclaiming that "the Savior of the world was born in Asia " (2) and that in the Third Christian Millennium "a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent." (1)
    b) The continent of Asia, notwithstanding many economic, political, cultural, and religious contradictions, is growing in cooperation (7) and in awareness of human dignity and rights (8). This awakening of consciences is the work of the Spirit (8) as is "the desire", the "longing" for God shown by Asian peoples (9, 18, 50): "Asia is thirsting for the living water that only Jesus can give." It is precisely this element of religious searching which distinguishes the Asian continent and its cultures. Challenging meticulous anthropologists-- who rather than to one 'Asia', refer to 'many Asias'-- Pope John Paul II speaks of a sense of "being Asian" (6), rooted in the continent's religions and cultures: silence, contemplation, harmony, filial devotion, family values, respect for the aged, solidarity. The Pope's statement is fundamental because it saves the Asian peoples not only from Western racist cataloguing, (Chinese as "thrifty", Indians as "crafty", Arabs as "dealers"), but also from their own tendency to narcissistic pride, which holds that all authentic culture comes only from Asia and that the rest of the world is savage. The Pope says: "This 'being Asian' is best discovered and affirmed not in confrontation and opposition but in a spirit of complementarity and harmony."

    Proclaiming the only Savior

        The riches of Asian religions and cultures, rather than diminish, actually increase the urgency of the mission entrusted to the Church. After the Council a number of theologians, Asians and non, began to question the necessity of Christian proclamation, judging all religions to be "paths of salvation;" what is more, attempts to inculturate the Christian faith often led to them to compare the salvation of Jesus with that of Buddha or Hindu avatars, thus watering down Christian specificity.

        Pope John Paul II, assimilating indications given by the Synod Fathers, elaborates them magisterially. In Chapter 2 and 3 of Ecclesia in Asia he shows why Jesus is the only Savior and why he is the Savior of all peoples (10). The Pope describes first of all the life of Jesus with its "Asian" traits: he was born poor and lived a life of poverty, he was a refugee, he was obedient to his parents, he prayed constantly. (11) Then the Pope indicates aspects of Jesus which are totally foreign to Asian cultures. His nearness to poor people, to sinners, the unclean, children, the dead. (11). He is judged by the dominating culture to be a blasphemer, a violator of the sacred Law, a public nuisance, a failure. It is, all told, the scandal of Christianity that grates on the cultures of Asia (and not only of Asia), dominated by caste, fear of death, harmony for peace of mind, success, public esteem. The "scandal" is even more radical: the Pope defines the identity of Jesus as a mystery of communion with the Father. (12) His reference to the Father is what distinguishes Jesus from many other "saviors" (who come on their own behalf) or avatars (of faceless and indefinite origin), and from any other religion which sees God distant from mankind and unreachable.

        Jesus Christ, "true man," reveals man to himself: In him we discover "the greatness and dignity of each person in the heart of God;" (13) a "new communion between human beings" and "between heaven and earth." Jesus Christ "alone accomplished the Father's universal plan of salvation," he is the "definitive manifestation of the mystery of the Father's love" (14) and the one and universal Mediator. This implies that:
    a) "no individual, no nation, no culture is impervious to the appeal of Jesus;" (14)
    b) "the authentic values of all religious and cultural traditions" find in Him origin "fullness and realization." This last statement is even more explicit in Chapter 3 dedicated to the Holy Spirit, where the Pope underlines that

      a) the presence of God's Spirit in creation: values of the Spirit are order, harmony, interdependence, at the basis of religions such as Taoism and Hinduism; all Asia's religions are "capable of helping people individually and collectively work against evil and to serve life and everything that is good" (15);
      b) the Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son;" we cannot separate-- as some Asian theologians tend to do-- the activity of the Sprit from that of Jesus the Savior. (16) This is why "the universal presence of the Holy Spirit cannot serve as an excuse for a failure to proclaim Jesus Christ explicitly as the one and only Savior."
      c) the Church, as Body of Christ is the bearer of the same Spirit, who shapes the Church as "a community of witnesses." (17) The presence of the Church can "offer an encounter between Jesus Christ and the peoples of Asia." (18)

    Inculturation and monastic life

        The painstaking and fascinating theological construction of these chapters underlines the definitive urgency and necessity of the proclamation of the Christian faith to Asia free of complexes or fear: "There can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord." (19) Proclamation "respects the rights of consciences" and "does not violate freedom;" (20; we must not be hindered by a complex about Christianity being of "Western origin." We must take on the challenge of inculturation, showing an Asian Christ for Asians, as many missionaries have done (Giovanni di Montecorvino, Matteo Ricci, Roberto de Nobili, 20).

        The Holy Father devotes three paragraphs to inculturation (21-23) indicating the agents (first of all bishops and theologians and the entire People of God), and the areas (thought, study of philosophies, liturgy). With regard to inculturation of the liturgy the Pope says efforts should not only be archeological (using traditional ancient symbols-- but should also discern important signs for the present-day situation and specific needs of the Asian peoples. (2) He recalls that the Synod Fathers proposed new titles for Jesus, significant for the Asian mentality and in line with biblical tradition "Jesus as, Teacher of Wisdom, Healer, Liberator, Spiritual Guide, Enlightened One, the Compassionate Friend of the poor, the Good Shepherd, the Obedient One." (20)

        "Christian life is however the most important ambit for inculturation. The Pope calls on all Asian Christians to bear witness to their new life in Jesus, through prayer and contemplation and charity. (23) Indeed the Pope asks that every form of missionary activity should have as support and form, contemplation and not activism. More than once in this Exhortation, the Pope asks bishops and priests to be not simply "economic administrators" or "humanitarian volunteers," but "primarily men of God." (43) In this way missionary activity will not be only social commitment. Moreover, to meet the spiritual needs of Asia, the Pope "strongly encourages" monastic and contemplative communities to open mission fields in Asia. (44) and also to establish relations with the other monastic traditions of that continent. (31) A special way of proclaiming the faith is that of silence and suffering persecution. Inculturation is done not only at the desk, through study, but also through daily martyrdom. (23) The Pope recalls the "many parts of Asia" where :religious freedom is systematically denied or restricted" (almost all Asian countries!) and calls on governments to recognize this "fundamental right."

    Solidarity with the suffering Churches

        The urgency of the Christian mission re-emerges again in Chapter 5 where communion, the unity of the Church, is affirmed regarding the truth of the faith and mission in Asia, a continent "full of divisions." (24) The Roman Curia contributes towards this unity. (25) During the Synod some interventions criticized Vatican bureaucracy for centralization and lack of sensibility for Asian cultures.

        Unity must be increased by giving more space to the laity in pastoral planning, particularly women and young people. But above all it must be expressed as solidarity among the churches. (26) The Pope calls for greater recognition of the ancient Oriental churches, rich in traditions and experience of dialogue with the Orthodox world and with Islam. He also asks for support for the very young churches in former Soviet Union territories, but above all he urges solidarity with the suffering and persecuted churches. (28) He mentions the Church in mainland China, with a touching message for Chinese Catholics ("never allow hardship and sorrow to diminish your devotion to Christ and your commitment to your great nation"), that of North Korea (for reconciliation between North and South), that of Jerusalem (for that city's "peace and integrity").

        Efforts for ecumenical unity must be sustained above all through "ecumenical centers of prayer and consultation;" (39) dialogue with other religions through places of "Christian asceticism and mysticism." The Pope clearly states that dialogue with other religions is not irenicism, it is "an expression of mission ad gentes."

    The service of human promotion

        Chapter 6 focuses on the Church's service for human promotion. Asia is presented with its assortment of political and religions oppression (33), economic misery (34), cultures of death and marginalization (35) which create an army of millions of poor people, exploited children, women treated as slaves, refugees, migrants, aboriginal people, those without medical care. The defense of human rights and the promotion of justice is an "inescapable and unrenounceable" challenge for the Church. (33) The means for doing this are to teach the Church's social doctrine; to create new solidarity between underdeveloped and affluent (32); commitment to education and health care offered with a "clear Christina identity," (37) international and inter- religious efforts for peace (38). In this regard the Pope recalls "the sufferings of the people of Iraq"-- "the lack of basic commodities deriving from the continuing embargo"-- calling on those responsible to find "a just solution to the crisis." (38) He traces a map of commitment for the Church in the globalized world, urging lay Christians to find "ethical and juridical norms" to ensure "globalization without marginalization;" (39) to reduce the international debt, calling also on governments of debtor countries to eliminate corruption; (40; to defend the environment; commitment for justice is part of "true worship of God." (41)

    The pillars of mission

        The final chapter, Witnesses to the Gospel, offers guidelines for Christian missionary activity in Asia. In addition to what he said before about bishops, priests, and monastic communities, the Pope encourages long-established missionary institutes "not to waver in their missionary commitment." (44) and to focus on Christ and deep spirituality, besides the integration of mission into diocesan pastoral plans. At the same time every diocese is asked to encourage the opening of local missionary societies of apostolic life, with specific mission ad gentes, ad exteros, ad vitam. (44)

        The empowerment of the laity-- young people in particular-- must focus above all on the family, the founding pillar of Asian society and of the Church in Asia. (46) As new means of evangelization the Pope stresses the media (radio, news agencies, publications) saying these should be used not only for proclaiming the Gospel but also for integrating the Gospel into the new culture of communication. (48)

        But the most important tool for evangelization in Asia remains "the great host of heroes of the faith"-- the martyrs who are the "seed of new life for the Church in every corner of the continent." (49) To the martyrs of the past we must add present-day persecuted Christians; "they are hidden pillars of the Church," a part of this Asian Church, a minority but "full of hope and vitality." (50)

        In the closing prayer to the Mother of Christ (51), Mary is proclaimed as the model of every missionary in Asia, who can "teach us never to fear to speak of the world to Jesus and of Jesus to the world."

Articles provided through Catholic World News and Church News at Noticias Eclesiales and International Dossiers, Daily Dispatches and Features at ZENIT International News Agency. CWN, NE and ZENIT are not affiliated with the Daily CATHOLIC but provide this service via e-mail to the Daily CATHOLIC Monday through Friday.

November 9, 1999       volume 10, no. 212


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