Pope Francis will return again to visit Asia for the second time. Why is Pope Francis so interested in the continent of Asia? The following is a possible key to the answer to this question.
This new journey to the Asian continent after less than five months, shows how deeply interested Pope Francis is in the Church in Asia. This interest is not due solely to his former desire to be a missionary in Japan which derived from his admiration for the great Jesuit missionaries of the XVII century (Alessandro Valignano, Matteo Ricci and companions), but to objective considerations.
Is Asia to be the field of evangelisation of the third millennium, just as Europe was in the first and America and Africa in the second? Apart from these rather loose analogies, it is clear that, in the historical framework, the third millennium shows that Asia, with its technology and scientific progress, its economy and population, will be the continent of the future. As far as evangelisation is concerned, we may well say that Asia has features that are contrasting but yet complimentary: a continent with few but genuine conversions, a continent where Christianity seems to be on a such a collision course with the cultures as to provoke persecution and, furthermore, a continent where it is precisely the cultures and dialogue that will be the channels of the faith. According to the 2014 Annuario Pontificio, there is in Asia a rapid increase – perhaps more rapid than anywhere else – in the number of priests, seminarians and religious women, comparable to what is taking place in Africa. The number of baptisms, relative to the size of the Christian communities, is growing.
In many parts of Asia, Christianity is seen as “the avant-garde religion”. As a result, many young and not-so-young Asians seek baptism out of a desire to keep pace with the world of technical progress and economic development, with the intention of distancing themselves from their ancestral traditions which they consider to be far removed from reality and corrupted by many superstitions. In Asia, the catholic educational establishments and hospitals are among the most admired and it is not unusual in India, for instance, for non-catholic hospitals to adopt the name of a Christian saint, as though this would be a guarantee of high standards and trustworthiness also for non-Christians. The Catholic Church and its faith are becoming unexpectedly attractive in many parts of Asia, even if this does not always translate into sacramental life.
We are also seeing a much- admired but also, at the same time, persecuted church. Today, persecutions against the Catholic Church are more frequent in Asia than elsewhere: China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and Laos are just a few examples of this. In many cases, this is due to the social doctrine of the Church which, in line with the Gospel, speaks of democracy, freedom and gender equality, while the religious traditions of Asia such as Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism transmit conservative social models that are often patriarchal and help to maintain social inequality. If the Hindu fundamentalists of India oppose those following the catholic faith with such violence, it is because the Christian faith questions the caste system and destabilises a system that is unable to question itself. For the same reason, the subversive potential of the Christian faith creates fear in the communist regimes of China, Vietnam and Laos and opposes Islamic regimes such as that of Pakistan where extremist groups attack Christian communities that further attitudes of universal openness and seek religious fredom and tolerance. In a number of states, Christians are not permitted to profess their faith.
Pope Francis makes no secret of his admiration for the Jesuit missionaries of the XVII century, those pioneers of an Asian method of evangelisation formulated by Fr. Alessandro Valignano (+1606), and continued by Matteo Ricci (+1610), mathematician and astronomer, and by his followers, among whom were Fr. Martino Martini (+1661), historian and geographer, Giuseppe Castiglioni (+1166), architect and painter, and Fr. Roberto de Nobili (+ 1656) in India. These missionaries understood that Asia could not be evangelised using the traditional methods adopted in America and Africa. Entry had to be gained by other means that respected cultural traditions, by charity, by scientific ability and friendship. It was these characteristics that brought about the encounter between European culture and Asian civilisation and gave rise to numerous Christian communities. Unfortunately, this method was rejected by the intransigence of the Franciscans and Dominicans who, unlike the Jesuits, did not take account of the complexity of Chinese culture and appealed to Rome to condemn as heretical the method of Ricci and his colleagues. This resulted in serious harm to the mission. Today, the insight of the Jesuits of that time has again been revived and the bishops of Asia are now calling for the misionary method of those times to be revived in dialogue and for evangelisation to respect local Asian traditions. The important thing is that the Church should sincerely respect Asian cultural values and avoid imposing foms and formulas that are incomprehensible to Asians, that it should endeavour to evangelise starting from Asian values and culture. “To date, Christianity has engaged in profound dialogue only with Hebrew and Greco-Roman culture. There is no reason why the great mataphysical and religious systems of Asia cannot transmit the Christian mystery”, wrote that great Hispanic-Indian thinker, Raymond Panikkar.
Dialogue with culture, non-Christian religions and with the poor will be the focal points of the mission in Asia. It is now esential that evangelisation should update its language and models in line with Asia. During the Synod for Asia (1998), the Asian bishops suggested to avoid the use of scholastic images of Jesus and instead to use those understandable to Asian cultures such as Jesus the Teacher of Wisdom, Healer, Liberator, Spiritual Guide, Illuminated One or Compassionate Friend.
This work of inculturating the Christian faith in Asia has just begun. In spite of the many difficulties, it must continue. the response to the challenge of evangelisation will determine the future of Christianity in the continent. Just as the apostle Paul and the early Fathers of the Church inculturated Christ in the logos and Greek philosophy, Indian theologians are seeking to inculturate him in the spirit of the advaita (The principle of “non-duality”), the major doctrine in Indian philosophy which unites the reality of God with that of the world. The new approach to mission which Pope Francis presents by his way of doing things and which he explains in the apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, based upon attraction and witness, respect for cultures and emphasis on mercy rather than on morals, has impressed many Asians and non-Christians. This is a new language which strikes a chord in the hearts of Asians; perhaps the time has come for a truly new evaneglisation of Asia. (G.F.)