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Listen to the other half of the Catholic story

My ties to Asia go back almost 40 years. It was in June 1963, as an idealistic 19-year-old, I first stepped onto Asian soil. I had just completed my first year at Stanford University. The dean of freshmen invited two dozen freshmen to join him to work as volunteers for the summer in Asia. That summer I ended up teaching English to young Chinese refugees, the sons and daughters of parents who had fled China, crossing into the British-controlled New Territories during years leading up to China’s brutal Mao-inspired Cultural Revolution.

When I graduated from Stanford University in 1966 the Vietnam War was raging. I was deeply troubled by the U.S. involvement and felt the best way to come to terms with Vietnam was to volunteer as a civilian to work with war refugees. So I joined a Mennonite, Brethren and Quaker-inspired nonprofit organization, contracted to the Agency for International Development, called International Voluntary Services. After a month of intensive language training, I was assigned to assist refugees outside a small coastal town, a provincial capital in Central Vietnam, Tuy Hoa. I lived there and worked for two years, witnessing the war close up. I saw the iron fist under the velvet glove of U.S. foreign policy.

Since my first trip to Asia I have returned more than a dozen times. In all I lived in Vietnam for nearly five years. My Vietnam War experience led me into journalism and on to Asian studies. Eventually, having returned again to Vietnam, I met a Vietnamese social worker, a Catholic convert who had grown up in the Mekong Delta town of Can Tho. Her name was To Kim Hoa. One year later we married.

The seeds of this book can be traced to a National Catholic Reporter project in which I worked with veteran journalist Gary MacEoin, to whom the book is dedicated. In early 1998, we jointly wrote several articles in preparation for a spring synod on Asia. I attended that month-long gathering and reencountered up close the depth of the emerging Asian Catholic vision of church.

It took months of research before I began to see the enormous importance of the Asian pastoral vision not only for Asia, but also for the entire church and the wider world family in the 21st century. It can be said that the Asian pastoral vision is the first post-Western model of Catholicism to emerge in our times. I mean “post-Western” in the sense that this model grows out of East and West, taking the insights of both, and is applicable universally.

In the ’60s and ’70s, Western women began telling me, “You don’t get it.” What they were saying to us was that until men saw the story -- the history -- through women’s eyes, only half the story was being told, and we were all disabled as a result. Similarly, the Asians are politely saying to the West, “You don’t get it.” That is, what we think of as the Catholic church story is only half the story. It is not a catholic story. It is a Western story. They are saying that until the Catholic church listens to and integrates the spiritual visions of the non-Western Catholic communities, the church will not be universal in the fullest sense of the word. You either “get it” or you don’t. If we don’t, we will not fully celebrate the gifts being offered to us by the Spirit.

Furthermore, the Asian pastoral vision, being pluralistic in the sense that it truly celebrates diversity, becomes more fitting to the postmodern mind, which instinctively recognizes the strengths and challenges of pluralism.

The Asian pastoral vision is essentially nonviolent. It finally lays down the armor of days of old, the armor found in the Crusades and in the conquering colonialists. It changes the priority and vocabulary of conversion. It does not stress numbers; instead, we hear talk of witness, which becomes the means of evangelization. We hear talk of dialogue with other faiths -- not for the purpose of conversion, but to work on service and justice projects and to learn how the mystical hand of God is operating in other religions. The rest is left to the Spirit.

And why is this important? Sadly, religious warfare continues to be rampant around the globe. Yet religions have the ability to inspire and lift souls beyond the banalities and selfishness we so commonly see. The type of religious leadership -- and the quality of inter-religious cooperation -- that emerges in the years ahead matters greatly. It could very well determine whether this century will see humanity turn toward peaceful resolution of conflict and whether life on the planet will continue as we know it.

The Asian pastoral vision is a hopeful vision at a time when we all need hope. It is a positive vision built on the insight that theology is local and grows out of the reflections and experiences of particular people in particular times. This insight, in turn, rests on another, that the Spirit is alive in the world and is discernible in our lives and our communities. The Spirit guides and graces all, and if we listen, discern, stay open, stay prayerful, stay committed, we will find our ways.

What follows are excerpts from Pentecost in Asia, A New Way of Being Church (Orbis Books). I hope it moves readers to open their hearts to some graceful and grace-filled peoples who have much to share with us if we are willing to listen.

-- Thomas C. Fox

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002