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Mangalore (India)

1st Mission Congress
of Asia and Oceania
( 6 )



Ecclesia in Asia and the Challenges of Evangelization


Fr. Felix Wilfred

Madras University


In the past few decades there has been, as is well known, a serious preoccupation with the mission of the Church. The developments taking place in different parts of the world, especially in Asia raised critical questions regarding the understanding of mission, and more radically about the very necessity for mission. In particular theology of religions and the practice of dialogue as developed in Asia have given rise to serious concerns regarding mission and the recognition of the central place of Christ in Christian faith and the need to proclaim the message of the Gospel. The Roman Documents on mission in recent times such as Redemptoris Missio and Dominus Iesus reflect such preoccupations. There was a feeling that the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) may be moving fast and with more and more radical views that could spell a danger to the task of mission in Asia. This was the impression evoked when in 1990 FABC assembled for its Vth General Assembly in Bandung in which some Cardinals from the Roman dicasteries and Nuncios from some of the countries from Asia were present. There was some tension regarding the understanding of mission as to how most Asians felt and how the Roman representatives viewed it.

The Roman Synod of 1998 on Asia needs to be placed against this background; so too the document Ecclesia in Asia which tried to bring together and synthesize the deliberations of that synod. There are very laudable aspects in this document. But one thing which strikes me is that I am not able to hear the voices of Asian Bishops in this document as I have heard them speak in the Asian meetings! It is a different voice and a language that is not quite the same as they speak in Asia and at FABC. This is something very important to hold in mind to be able to understand the spirit, tone and contents of Ecclesia in Asia- coming out of a synod of Asian Bishops held in Rome.


With these introductory remarks, let me now highlight thematically some of the salient features of Ecclesia in Asia with some comments.


 Presentation of the context


 Ecclesia in Asia seeks to contextualize its thoughts on mission by describing the overall political, social and cultural situation in the continent. The context is completed by presenting the ecclesial situation in Asia in the process of which it paints in broad strokes the history of mission in this continent. The motive for this kind of tour de horizons is clearly enunciated: “A critical awareness of the diverse and complex realities of Asia is essential if the People of God on the continent are to respond to God’s will for them in the new evangelization” (no. 5). The document sketching the complex reality of Asia, recognizes the fast pace of changes in the continent. It refers to the demographic fact of population growth and recalls such situations as urbanization, migration, the condition of women, indigenous peoples, and appalling labour condition in the present-day Asian economic growth. It points to military dictatorships, corruption in public life and growing disparity between the rich and the poor. Ecclesia in Asia expresses concern about the changes in cultural values, growing consumerism and individualism and the threat of external influences in Asian ways of life. This presentation of the situation is meant, also to evoke the challenges posed to the evangelizing mission of the Church.


The situation the document presents is true and the intention is clear. However, we miss on the whole a deeper analysis of the situation with causal connections. The presentation is more in the form of enumerating some aspects of the situation and describing others, and there seems to be a preoccupation to be comprehensive at the expense of going deep into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the described situation of the Asian context. A deeper analysis would have led the document to take note of the role being played by market and by financial capitalism in Asian societies and see many of the situations it describes in relation to market and capitalist forces. The Asian situation is one in which these new forces are in connivance with the oppressive traditional forces such as feudal ways and caste system, to make the Asian societies all the more oppressive.


 The document goes then into the ecclesial context of Asia. Rightly does the document bring us to the awareness that Christianity had its presence in India, right from the times of the Apostle St Thomas. It reminds us that there was a flourishing Church in China from 7th to 9th century, and the missionary efforts made in the same country in the 13th century. Later in the 16th century St Francis Xavier did his memorable missionary labour in Asia. The survey of mission history, unfortunately, is not critical and appears somewhat simplistic. For example, the connection between Christian mission and the colonial powers is underplayed, and is confined to just one statement: “Despite her centuries-long presence and her many apostolic endeavours, the Church in many places was still considered as foreign to Asia, and indeed was often associated in people’s minds with the colonial powers” (no. 9). We would expect a little more detailed treatment of the issue, since this is a question that has its effects even today in the relationship of Christianity to Asian societies. In fact, in the responses of the various Asian Bishops’ Conferences, concern was expressed that the connection between Christianity and colonialism be seriously taken into account, so that the mission history does not appear as a success story. For example, the Indian Bishops in their response stated:


[A]mong the liabilities is Christianity’s link with colonial oppressors... [in that] along with the spread of Christianity by so many missionaries — clerics, religious and lay — also inevitably came behaviour that was repugnant to basic rights and religious sensibilities. As a result, still today the image projected by some Christians seems definitely foreign both to Gospel teaching and Indian culture... We Christians in India recall especially the colonial period, when some of those professing to be disciples of Jesus were intolerant and unjust towards followers of other religious traditions. There were also certainly harsh apologetics, offensive propaganda, and a disregard for the cultural values and beliefs of those who followed other religions besides Christianity.


The voice of Indian Bishops was not isolated; similar thoughts were expressed by Bishops of Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam and so on, which shows a certain common perception in the Asian Churches about the history of mission. Moreover, we need to ask whether the connection between colonialism and Christianity is a matter of the past, and whether it does not continue even today in many subtle forms preventing the true agency and selfhood of the Asian Churches. This survey lacks also in the presentation of the involvement of Asians themselves in the work of mission. More and more studies have enlightened us on the role played by local Christians, catechists, and others who were active agents of mission, and the Korean Church in fact owes to the missionary efforts of lay people.


Presentation of Jesus Christ and Theology of Religions


It should be duly acknowledged that Ecclesia in Asia does make efforts lest it be misunderstood as if the proclamation of Jesus Christ were against positive relationship to other religions. The document recognizes the importance of 'building unity, working for reconciliation, forging bonds of solidarity, promoting dialogue among religions and cultures, eradicating prejudices and engendering trust among peoples are all essential to the Church's evangelising mission on the continent.' It also takes pain to distinguish clearly conversion from proselytization.


In spite of such efforts, the document, on the whole, comes across to many Christians of Asia and as not giving due value to the religious traditions of their neighbours, and as aggressively promoting the work of conversion. How has that come about? The answer could be found in some of the programmatic statements of the document which seems to inspire the ultimate purpose of the entire body of the text. Let me quote one such statement which appears as a concluding sentence of the very first number.


[J]ust as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent. (no. 1)


This statement formed part of the speech of Pope John Paul II when he officially promulgated this Apostolic Exhortation during his visit to India in November 1999. The reaction in the secular press to this statement was that Pope was encouraging conversion in the old way in a veiled new language. The Hindu fundamentalist groups found it highly aggressive, while on the other extreme, there were reactions to say that there is no danger of such conversion in India (and in Asia as a whole), since numerically the Christians have remained for the past several decades constantly under 3% of the population. In short, the Pope in promulgating this document left a debate behind, and the overall assessment and impression Ecclesia in Asia evoked was not one that would bring Christianity closer to Asian peoples. This is unfortunate, considering the efforts that have gone in bringing together the fruits of the Asian Synod and very valuable thoughts and insights Ecclesia in Asia contains.


 Certainly, as is clear from some of the significant interventions in the synod, there were important questions raised by the Asian Bishops and approaches suggested. Had these been assumed into the text of Ecclesia in Asia, the document would have been less likely to be misunderstood in the way it has happened. For example, an exhortation that Jesus, son of the Asian soil, and his message be made known to the peoples of Asia would have found positive echo among peoples of other faiths. In fact, some of the Bishops Conferences of Asia in their response to the Lineamenta of the Synod had precisely suggested an orientation along these lines. It shows again the importance of listening to the local Churches and the way they relate themselves to neighbours of other faiths and to their context. Though the document is supposed to be from the Synod of Asian Bishops, but in fact, it is cast in a mould that does not represent Asian approach and practice of mission.


A central point Ecclesia in Asia makes is the necessity and duty of proclaiming Jesus Christ as the saviour. In reminding about this, the document tells us that this proclamation should not be interpreted as proselytization. The principle it evokes and the spirit it suggests in proclaiming Jesus Christ are noteworthy: It should be done with “respect for man (sic) in his quest for answers to the deepest questions of his life and respect for the action of the Spirit in man“ (no. 20). We see here reflected an important achievement of Vatican Council II. In the document on Dignitatis Huamanae, the Council recognized the freedom of religion, which means the acknowledgement of and respect to the subjecthood of the believers in their spiritual quest. History of mission shows that, by and large, this principle was not respected, and the failure to accept Jesus Christ was taken as something morally wrong and condemnable. In the spirit of Dignitatis Humanae, the mode of proclamation should be such that the growth process and religious quest of the people to whom Jesus Christ is proclaimed need to be respected. It is gratifying to note that a second principle highlighted in Ecclesia in Asia is a thought that has been emphasized in the reflections of FABC and by Asian theologians, namely the action of the Spirit. In this way, the theological basis for the respect for others is underlined. The religious quest of our neighbours is not simply human efforts. There is the mystery of the working of the Spirit in the hearts of the people.

The document reflects on the difficulties that have been put forward in the intervention of bishops at the synod in regard to the proclamation of Jesus Christ. In an attempt to classify those difficulties, the document notes how proclamation of Jesus Christ as saviour is “fraught with philosophical, cultural and theological difficulties, especially in light of the beliefs of Asia‘s great religions, deeply intertwined with cultural values and specific world views“ (no. 20 ). The document does not go into a discussion of these difficulties and propose solutions. Rather, it takes a more practical route on the assumption that those difficulties could be mitigated by a pedagogical approach. We find here some novelty in the document. It suggests that we need to present Jesus in categories and symbols which are familiar to Asians and which can vibrate with their cultures. Recalling the suggestions made by Asian Bishops at the synod, the document notes:


In this perspective, the Synod Fathers stressed mainly the need to evangelize in a way that appeals to the sensibilities of Asian minds and cultures and, at the same time, faithful to Sacred Scriptures and Tradition. Among them were ‘Jesus Christ as the Teacher of Wisdom, the Healer, the Liberator, the Spiritual Guide, the Enlightened One, the Compassionate Friend of the Poor, the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd, the Obedient One’(no. 20).


The document speaks also how narrative methods and story-telling could help the presentation of Jesus in Asia. The novelty of these suggestions, however, gets dampened when the document speaks of the “ontological notions involved ” in the presentation of Jesus. The question is inevitable, whether here we have the case of one step forward and two steps backwards. The pedagogy the document has suggested, however, remains a very valuable insight.


We may ask why this insistence on the proclamation of Jesus Christ straight away after presenting the context of Asia and the ecclesial context? This may be accounted by the fact there has been some debates and controversies regarding the understanding of mission and the mystery of Jesus Christ in the theologies pursued in Asia and in the statements of FABC. In particular, the importance Asian Churches have given to dialogue was perceived as a neglect to courageously proclaim Jesus Christ. I may refer here another reason for this way of approaching mission by Ecclesia in Asia. It has to do with a central thought that gets repeated throughout the document: It is the assumption that Asian people are in a spiritual yearning, and this yearning is responded to and the thirst is quenched by proclaiming Jesus Christ as saviour. But the point is that the thirst of Asian peoples for Jesus Christ is a theoretical assumption, and shall we say, a wishful thinking. But the actual realities at the ground are different. Our neighbours of others other faiths seek Jesus Christ with great devotion, not because they feel that they lack something in their religious tradition. It is the sense of the sacred and the mystery that brings them to seek a greater understanding and experience of Jesus. The document basically reshapes the traditional fulfilment approach to religions. But development in theology of religions in Asia has gone far ahead and these developments which can be found also in the statements of the FABC do not get reflected in Ecclesia in Asia.


The chapter on the proclamation of Jesus Christ is intimately linked in the document to what it says in a few pages on the Holy Spirit. There is an inspiring passage which acknowledges the role of the Spirit in unifying people and building relationships.


The forces of death isolate people, societies and religious communities from one another, and generate the suspicion and rivalry that lead to conflict. The Holy Spirit, by contrast, sustains people in their search for mutual understanding and acceptance. The Synod was therefore right to see the Spirit of God as the prime agent of the Church’s dialogue with all peoples, cultures and religions (no. 15).


We wish this inspiring opening were further developed and related to mission. But we find the document at this point being weighed down by suspicion that the role of the Spirit may be used in Asia “as an excuse for a failure to proclaim Jesus Christ explicitly as the one and only Saviour” (no. 16).


 In Ecclesia in Asia, dialogue is seen as a matter primarily of a doctrinal nature. Christians with their firm faith-conviction enter into dialogue with their neighbours of other religions. On the other hand, in Asia, dialogue is seen in a much more comprehensive way, of which doctrinal questions of faith is but one. Dialogue is a matter of forging relationships, and it starts with “dialogue of life” which also creates the proper climate for sharing of faith-convictions. Moreover, given the fact that Christians share with their neighbours of other faiths the same conditions of daily life, it is important that dialogue reaches out to others and bears fruit in common engagement for the welfare of all and the transformation of the society. Dialogue for example helps Christians and others come together and jointly respond to issues of justice, defence of life, violation of human rights, questions relating to religious freedom, etc., and to act together transcending religious barriers, especially, in times of tragedies and natural calamities. Experience in different Asian countries shows that this involvement of Christians with others has contributed to a refreshing understanding of dialogue. Ecclesia in Asia, for fear of any possible compromise of Christian faith through dialogue has not been able to incorporate all these rich dimensions which make up the practice of dialogue in the Asian situation.



Evangelization through Witnessing


The entire chapter seven is dedicated exclusively to witnessing to the Gospel as an integral part of evangelization. This is a very positive point of the document. Though the issue is recognized as crucial in Asia, however, the line of development Ecclesia in Asia pursues is one of exhortation to the various agents in the Church for a life of witness since it has evangelizing potential. Thus pastors, clergy, religious, laity are addressed about the importance of witnessing in their lives and through the modern means of social communication. The chapter ends with martyrs as supreme witnesses.


It may be remarked here that, while talking about witnessing, the approach Asian Bishops take, as seen in the various FABC documents as well as in their response to Lineamenta, is of fundamental significance. Whereas for Ecclesia in Asia the mission begins with the proclamation of Jesus Christ, Asian Bishops, while not denying this, trace out a different path and approach to mission in Asia. For Asian Bishops mission begins not with the proclamation but with witnessing. This is the crucial difference we note in Ecclesia in Asia and in the documents of FABC. In the context of plurality of religions, cultures, philosophies, worldviews and ethical conceptions, evangelization begins with presence following the mystery of incarnation and the way Jesus related himself to the people and society of his time. For the Asian Bishops, evangelization begins with presence and forging relationships, and moves towards Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. In Ecclesia in Asia, we have a different approach, dictated perhaps by the fear that the place of Jesus Christ may not be sufficiently affirmed. It starts with the proclamation of Jesus Christ as a gift to Asia. Witnessing is seen by and large as a means to this proclamation.


Dialogue and Inculturation


Given the above-sketched orientation to mission, we realize that dialogue that has been a theme developed in depth in Asia in the past several decades, is downplayed in Ecclesia in Asia. There is just one number that speaks about interreligious dialogue (no. 31). Even in that one number, the dominant tone is that of caution regarding dialogue, rather than positive encouragement. Beneath the surface, there seems to be a sense of serious apprehension in the document that dialogue could become a practice opposed to the duty of proclaiming Jesus Christ. This dominant preoccupation leads the document to state the following:


From the Christian point of view, interreligious dialogue is more than a way of fostering mutual knowledge and enrichment; it is a part of the Church’s evangelizing mission, an expression of the mission ad gentes. Christians bring to interreligious dialogue the firm belief that the fullness of salvation comes from Christ alone and that the Church community to which they belong is the ordinary means of salvation (no. 31).


Asian Christians who are involved in relationship with neighbours of other faiths know that an attitude such as the one expressed in this statement is far from helpful. It could serve more as extinguisher of dialogue than promoter of it. They also know that position as this could only foment the suspicion about the real intention of dialogue on the part of Christians. The relationship between dialogue and evangelization is a theme that has gone through a lot of reflections among Asian theologians and bishops, and has involved also ecumenical reflections. To cite one example, the first ever common meeting of the FABC with the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) held in Singapore in 1987 was precisely on the theme of dialogue, and it went on to explore the relationship between dialogue and proclamation. It was said that both dialogue and mission have their own autonomy and one is not to be made instrument of the other.


As for inculturation, the document, as I noted above, has spoken of a pedagogical method consonant with Asian cultures. Moreover, trying to capture the discussions in the synod, the document notes that inculturation should happen in the fields of “theology, liturgy, formation of priests and religious, catechesis and spirituality” (no. 21). That is well taken. There is certainly encouragement to pursue inculturation. On the other hand, the perspective in which inculturation is viewed is that of evangelization. Like in the case of dialogue, inculturation is also presented as a means for evangelization. Here a more biblically oriented understanding of inculturation would have taken the document to relate it to the mystery of incarnation, and see it as the very mode of the existence of the Church-community and its various expressions. It is this latter kind of orientation which has been followed in the Asian Churches. This orientation involves an encounter of the Gospel message with the cultures of people in a process in which our understanding of the Gospel itself gets enriched, and therefore inculturation may not be reduced to simply a pedagogical device.


Mission and Human Promotion


 Asia is a continent in which most numerous poor of the world live. Today with globalisation, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened as never before. There are numerous social issues to be addressed. The document names with a lot of empathy some of these social and developmental issues: The plight of women, children, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, tribals, aboriginal peoples, etc. It speaks of violation of human rights in Asia and the situation of illiteracy and the condition of workers. In response to such a plight, the document recalls certain basic principles of Christian faith: The dignity of human person, preferential option for the poor, solidarity, etc. In this context it advocates the need to put into effect the Social Teachings of the Church. There are many helpful insights and suggestions. However, as in the case of the first chapter in which the context of evangelization was set forth, here too a deeper analysis of the social issues is wanting. Socially conscious South Asian Christians will be disappointed not to find any mention about caste and about the social and economic oppression of Dalit people. These are issues touching the life of millions of Asians, even if it is something related to South Asia.


 Ever since the Synod on Evangelization (1974) and the Apostolic Exhortation of Paul VI Evangelii Nuntiandi, there have been efforts to view mission in a more comprehensive way by pointing to various dimensions of it. Ecclesia in Asia reflects that orientation in that its understanding of mission is presented with various aspects such as proclamation, witness, human promotion, etc. While admitting the validity of all these aspects, what seems to be important in Asia (and elsewhere in the world) is the way these various aspects are integrated. Here lies the crux of a new and different understanding of mission. In Ecclesia in Asia these aspects seem to be juxtaposed, and there has not been the effort to bring them together.


 Speaking of human promotion, it will be too little to reduce the matter to a question of education, charity, development, etc. Obviously we need to understand human promotion in an integral way. But there is another aspect that has come up through the experience of marginalized people in Asia, which needs to be woven into our understanding of evangelization. I mean to say that it is of utmost importance that human promotion be understood first and foremost as enabling the agency of the people and their subjecthood.





 It would be interesting to study to what extent this synod and the apostolic exhortation that followed have had impact on the leaders, priests, religious and the laity of Asia. Certainly it has found some enthusiastic support, but that is outweighed by a general neglect of this document in Asia, supposed to promote mission in the continent. This need not surprise us, since for many Asians the method the document has adopted, the presupposition it makes and the analyses it does, do not vibrate with their concerns. Moreover, for many critically thinking Asian Christians, the document neither really captures the mood of Asia, nor represent adequately the situation prevailing here.


You may raise the question as to what is new in Ecclesia in Asia. It is remarkable that the questions treated in the document have been already treated extensively in the study and reflections of Asian Bishops as clear from the FABC documents, and indeed in a much more incisive manner, and these have been found most helpful in understanding Asian Christianity and responding to the challenges of the continent. This again underlies the importance of reflection on mission in the local Churches in relating to specific contexts. These reflections need to be promoted today.


However, we must recognize that there was an important achievement made through the Asian Synod and the document Ecclesia in Asia. The voice of Asian Bishops and the concerns of Asian Churches were given a Roman forum for expression, and thanks to the synod, the issues and questions Asian Churches had been dealing with came to be known in other continents and local Churches. What has been said need not prevent us from continuing to reflect on the task of evangelization in a continuously evolving Asia and the challenges of Asian continent. The Asian Synod could be taken as a special moment in the life of Asian Churches to pause and recapture what has been reflected upon in the continent in the last few decades on the manner of Christian presence, involvement and mission. The synod and the document Ecclesia in Asia will help us to pursue the great task of evangelization in our societies in fidelity to the Gospel and the promptings of the Spirit. They have also been wonderful opportunities to share with the rest of the world our issues and questions, our problems and hopes. Some of the issues which have found expression in the synod and the document will, hopefully, be of service to the other sister Churches.

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