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Proclamation vs. dialogue

NCR Staff

Reactions to Pope John Paul II’s call for the conversion of Asia in the third millennium were mixed as scholars, bishops and pastoral workers deciphered the pope’s words. Some spoke about the problems they would face living out the new directives.

The pope made a 62-hour stop in New Delhi where on Nov. 6 he unveiled his long-awaited response to the April 1998 Synod for Asia. He boldly proclaimed Jesus Christ as humanity’s “only savior” and called upon the church to bring Christianity to Asia during the third millennium. “There can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord,” the pope emphasized.

John Paul II’s call for missionaries to spread Catholicism in Asia sparked sharp criticisms in Indian newspapers and a sense of crisis among Hindu religious leaders who gathered last week in Lumbini, Nepal, for the fourth International Conference of Great Religions in Asia.

“We accept the challenge of their spreading Christianity in Asia. They will not be able to do it in India,’’ said Acharya Giriraj Kishore, general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, at a news conference. Said Acharya Dharmendra, a policymaker for the council, “We have to unite to face the assault’’ of Christianity. India’s Christian population is little more than two percent of the country’s population of close to a billion, and Hindu attacks on Christians have increased in the past year.

Meanwhile, the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, facing increased criticism from Hindus in the wake of the pope’s remarks, downplayed the call for conversion. Archbishop Alan de Lastic of New Delhi told journalists the pope had spoken only of “inner conversion,” not changing religions. Conversion, he said, does not necessarily mean a change of religion.

He said the church in India denounces “forced conversions” and that the pope in no way intimated the “Christianizing of India.”

Sr. Filo Hirota, of the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz and an Asian Synod participant, said she had the same difficulty reading Ecclesia in Asia that she had during the synod itself. “I saw in the new document the phrase which some of us at the synod tried hard to have taken away: ‘The heart of Asia will be restless until the whole of Asia finds its rest in the peace of Christ, the Risen Lord.’ ”

Precious Blood Fr. Bob Schreiter, professor of theology at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, called the 30,000-word document “comprehensive” but “disappointing.” The past president of the American Society of Missiology and Catholic Theological Society of America, he said that while the document, Ecclesia in Asia (“The Church in Asia”) calls for “sensitivity to the special needs and contexts of the diverse populations of Asia,” it reduces evangelization “almost entirely to proclamation” of the Word.

According to Schreiter, since the Second Vatican Council and Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (“On Evangelization of the Modern World”), the church has built up “a complex and subtle understanding of the meaning of evangelization.” In this light evangelization has been seen as a process with the witness of life and deeds as the prelude to proclamation, he said.

Ecclesia in Asia, he said, “bypasses this important first step and consigns this kind of witness to a later stage in process. While calling for sensitivity, it shows little sensitivity itself to the history of missionary activity that has made many Asians allergic to hearing the gospel.”

A lingering and unresolved question since the Vatican Council deals with how the Holy Spirit operates in other religions. During the Asian Synod the many bishops, citing the work of the Spirit, spoke of the need to engage in dialogue and to learn from other religions.

In his response to the Asian bishops last month, the pope warned against making “a false separation between the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit,” saying this “would jeopardize the truth of Jesus as the one Savior of all.” He said 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.”

Pope John Paul’s “overriding concern is that the Holy Spirit not be separated from Christ, which is truly legitimate. But it runs the risk of collapsing the Holy Spirit into Christ, which is also not Trinitarian,” Schreiter said.

He concluded that Ecclesia in Asia lacks an “understanding [of] the challenges which evangelization faces in Asia.”

Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Clooney, professor of comparative theology at Boston College, said he did not find much new in the document, but it seemed to solidify the pope’s thinking on evangelization. He said he was encouraged that it left room “for both proclamation and dialogue,” while not resolving their different approaches.

Clooney said the pope is calling for “a much deeper intellectual engagement” with the religions of Asia. “I don’t see how this pope could have toned it down. He is Pope John Paul II and he digs in and sees proclamation as a command to preach the gospel.

“The pope is not saying Hindus are wallowing in darkness or depraved light. It is not that Christians are superior. It is that we are following the command of Jesus to proclaim the gospel. This is actually an improvement,” Clooney said.

Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, retired archbishop of Seoul, South Korea, and synod delegate, said that the fruits of the Synod for Asia have been “well-harvested.”

“In the exhortation, the pope added his personal stress that Jesus Christ is the only Savior, though dialogue is needed,” Kim explained. He said he disagreed with the concern that the “Asian face” of Jesus in the document may be inconsistent with the unique essence of Christianity.

Bishop Vincent Ri Byong-ho of Chonju, another Korean synod delegate, agreed that the priorities and the general atmosphere of the synod were appropriately reflected in the apostolic exhortation. The bishop said the document stressed that Jesus was an Asian, and added that it is necessary to proclaim Christianity appropriately to Asians.

Sr. Hirota of the Mercedarian Missionaries said, “I have a difficulty in understanding a phrase like ‘There can be no full evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord.’ I am thinking about many women and men committed to the Good News of Jesus sharing their lives with the majority of Asian people in villages and cities, so that there would be life in abundance.”

Virginia Saldanha of Mumbai, India, a lay member of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, an umbrella organization of the Asian bishops, said the papal document is being received in India with “a lot of unease.” She said the problem is that it “has been made by men who are far removed from our reality in the streets of India.” She said that Catholics “will receive the brunt of the reactions not only from militant fundamentalists but from level-thinking people.”

She added that a Muslim had asked her how she would feel if a command had gone out to all the Muslims of the world to go out and convert the whole world. “Would you not feel threatened?” she quoted him as asking.

Jesuit Fr. Michael Amaladoss, an Indian, called Ecclesia in Asia “a document for Asia but not from Asia.” He said its tone and style “are very un-Asian.” The method, he said, “is a priori and from above.” The former Jesuit assistant general, who now teaches at the Jesuit-run Vidyajyoti College of Theology in New Delhi, said that the document is broad enough, however, that “one can pick up encouraging quotes to support any activity in which the church is engaged.”

UCA News also contributed to this article.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999