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Asian conversion focus of papal visit

NCR Staff

Resisting the protests of Hindu fundamentalists and the pleas of some Asian bishops, while testing the limits of his increasingly frail body, Pope John Paul II called for the conversion of Asia during a 62-hour visit to New Delhi last week.

The pope spoke on the soil of a continent where only 3 percent of the people are followers of Christ and proclaimed Jesus Christ as humanity’s “only savior.”

India provided the backdrop for John Paul to reveal his long-awaited response to the April 1998 Synod of Bishops for Asia. The 30,000-word document, Ecclesia in Asia (“Church in Asia”), was released to 100 bishops Nov. 6.

It echoed words the pontiff first used in 1995 at a gathering of Asian bishops in Manila: “Just 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.”

John Paul added it is “paradoxical that most Asians tend to regard Jesus -- born on Asian soil -- as a Western rather than an Asian figure.”

Confronting Hindu fundamentalists who had objected to the papal visit, the pope stressed the need for Christian conversion. Radical Hindus had demanded an end to missionary activity, the withdrawal of foreign missionaries and an apology for the alleged massacre of Hindus 400 years ago.

The World Hindu Congress, a group composed of Hindu conservatives, announced Nov. 11 that it would work to resist the pope’s call for new conversions to Christianity in Asia.

John Paul had hoped to release his statement in China. Chinese authorities have fended off Vatican requests for a papal visit, citing the fact that the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, considered by China to be a part of itself rather than an independent nation.

The pope lamented the fact that no mainland Chinese bishop was allowed to attend the Synod for Asia. He expressed his hope that “our Chinese Catholic brothers and sisters would one day be able to exercise their religion in freedom and visibly profess their full communion with the See of Peter.”

Ecclesia in Asia attacked injustices on the continent, such as the exploitation of women and children, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and U.N. sanctions against Iraq. However, most of the document focused on the synod’s most controversial issue: How to evangelize in Asia, where Christians represent a tiny minority.

“There can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord,” the pope said. Asia’s “yearning for God can only be fully satisfied by Jesus Christ, the Good News of God for all the nations.”

The pope said that the salvation of all believers in all religions comes through Jesus Christ. “From the first moment of time to its end, Jesus is the one universal mediator,” he said. “Even for those who do not explicitly profess faith in him as the savior, salvation comes as a grace from Jesus Christ through the communication of the Holy Spirit.”

John Paul said he recognized that many Asians might not be ready to accept Jesus as savior, so it might be necessary to develop a “step by step” pedagogy in which Jesus might be viewed at the start as teacher, healer, liberator or enlightened one. Such views would be acceptable -- provided they eventually lead to the “full appropriation of the mystery,” Jesus as savior of all.

Most Asian bishops at the 1998 synod called for an approach to evangelization sensitive to local culture. Some expressed a view that Christianity is frequently seen in Asia as a Western implant, the product of a tortured colonial past. They called for putting an “Asian face on Jesus.”

During the synod, the Asian bishops pushed for evangelization within the context of a “triple dialogue” with local cultures, the great religions of Asia and impoverished masses on the continent.

Typifying this approach were the remarks at the outset of the synod by its recording secretary, appointed by the pope, Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi, who said, “The Catholic faith will not be intelligible or attractive to the peoples of Asia if it continues to be a carbon copy of the Catholic church in the West.”

Much of the synod focused on the merits of these two seemingly competing evangelization paths, summarized as proclamation versus dialogue. Bishops who are members of the Roman curia favored the former while most Asian bishops favored the latter.

In Ecclesia in Asia, the pope clearly sides with the view that evangelization is essentially about the proclamation of the truth that Jesus Christ is savior of all. He said that to proclaim one’s faith is to live as a witness of Christ.

The pope appeared to acknowledge the hesitancy of some Asian bishops to follow his lead. He admitted “that proclaiming Jesus as the only Savior can present particular difficulties … given that many Asian religions teach divine self-manifestations as mediating salvation.” Yet, he said, this should not discourage the Asian bishops, but should give them “even greater incentive in striving to transmit the faith.”

At the outset of last year’s synod, many Asian bishops were vocal in stressing the perceived shortcomings of the proclamation approach. Some bishops explained that Asians try to avoid direct conflict and that the church would do better attempting to work in cooperation with other religions.

As the synod progressed, however, these voices were drowned out and eventually replaced by others more sympathetic to those of curial members who were running the three-week gathering. This happened as arguments contained in some initial Asian documents and interventions were “synthesized” in mid-synod reports. The synod’s transformation in direction and tone continued through to the final synod propositions that were to be handed over to the pope for his consideration.

In the end, the pope explains, the method of evangelization that places proclamation at the center of Christian faith has nothing to do with choice. “This insistence on proclamation is prompted,” he said, “not by sectarian impulse nor the spirit of proselytism nor any sense of superiority. … The church evangelizes in obedience to Christ’s command.”

The fathers of the Vatican Council stated that the Holy Spirit operates in the world. They wrote, “The people of God believes that it is led by the Spirit of the Lord who fills the whole world.” Asian bishops, citing the work of the Spirit, spoke of the need for interreligious dialogue.

In his response to the Asian bishops, the pope warns against making “a false separation between the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit,” saying it “would jeopardize the truth of Jesus as the one Savior of all.” He calls the Incarnation of the Son of God “the supreme work of the Holy Spirit,” and then states:

“I repeat here what I wrote in Redemptoris Missio: ‘[The Spirit] is ... not an alternative to Christ, nor does he fill a sort of void which is sometimes suggested as existing between Christ and the Logos.’ ” He concludes that the “universal presence of the Holy Spirit therefore cannot serve as an excuse for a failure to proclaim Jesus Christ explicitly as the one and only Savior.”

As for interreligious dialogue, Pope John Paul said that Christians bring to it “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.” He said only Christians mature in an understanding of their faith have the right to be involved in such dialogue.

Pope John Paul called upon Catholics to deepen their prayer lives and to reach out to meet the needs of the continent’s many outcasts, the poor, the suffering, refugees and the homeless. He denounced the exploitation of women and children. The pope also warned of an increasing “cultural globalization” that has brought Western-style consumerism to Asia, eroding family and traditional values. He called on churches in Western countries to work to ensure that the church’s social teachings are reflected in the norms governing free-market expansion. He also condemned abortion and some birth control programs.

One of the more contentious issues to surface at the Synod for Asia had to do with liturgy and liturgical texts. The Asian bishops sought the authority to adapt Catholicism to local cultures. Many bishops specifically complained that Vatican officials with little or no understanding of Asian cultures and languages -- and even sometimes Asian seminarians sent by their bishops to study in Rome -- were making decisions on the validity of liturgical texts and translations.

In his response, Pope John Paul seems to have said no. Instead, he stressed the need for the Asian bishops to work more closely with the Roman curia in liturgical matters. “National and regional bishops’ conferences,” he said, “need to work more closely with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. … Such cooperation is essential because the Sacred Liturgy expresses and celebrates the one faith professed by all and, being the heritage of the whole church, cannot be determined by local churches in isolation from the universal church.”

Ecclesia in Asia is available on-line at www.vatican.va

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1999