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Fresh vision from the East
Excerpts from Pentecost in Asia

The wise person travels with maps. It makes sense to chart the course ahead. This book is about people who are traveling with maps. Moreover, these same people have drawn the maps they are using. The journey of which I write is the journey of the Catholic church into the 21st century. The people who have drawn the maps are Asian Catholics. The course they have set is faith-driven, wondrous and imaginative, and it responds to the needs of the times. In fact, they have been drawing their maps for more than three decades now, yet the wider church knows relatively little about their work -- their journeys of faith. I hope this book will help change this. It is the story of the compelling vision of the Asian Catholic leadership since the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

For several reasons the West has not adequately heard the story of the church in Asia, not least of which is that the Asians go about their work quietly. The wider church got a brief look at some of the Asian ideas regarding church during the synod in April 1998, but these were offered without context -- and then seemed to disappear from public view when the synod closed. There are other reasons we have not heard a lot out of Asia. Only slowly in recent decades has the West awakened to Asia. Only slowly in recent years have Western Catholics awakened to Asian Catholics who, after all, represent a tiny fraction of the Catholic church. It would be wrong, however, to let those small numbers conceal the creative and dynamic faith visions coming out of Asia.

I am of the opinion that Asian Catholics today have something very important to share with the wider church. If we open our minds, if we challenge the way we think about church, we could begin to see Catholicism from a whole new perspective, a non-Western perspective -- an Asian perspective. This non-Western, this Asian perspective, is already a blend of West and East, because nearly all Asian Catholics have inherited Catholicism from the West. In this sense, the Asian vision of church is an East/West vision. One might even call it global, the product of both East and West, though Asians are not necessarily trying to export their vision. They would be happy if the West (meaning Rome) simply allowed them to develop their Asian vision for their Asian churches.

My hope is that the Asians are allowed to inculturate the faith as they desire. My further hope is that the West pays attention to the insights that are coming out of the churches of Asia. It makes sense that the West listens to the East. The East has listened to the West for centuries. For one thing, we live in a new global age. East and West face common challenges.

Meanwhile, increasingly fast transportation, instant electronic communication, shared scientific insights and the planet’s eco-systems all play roles in both bringing us together and making us more interdependent. For another, Catholicism has also entered a new global era as church. The church is widespread and some of the most creative theologies are coming out of places like Asia.

Consider for a few moments some aspects of the Asian Catholic vision. Free from the weight of Western tradition, it looks into the future with fresh eyes. The Asian vision is grounded in Asian reality -- and that reality is the reality of widespread poverty and hunger. This is especially painful, given Catholicism’s belief in an incarnational God who took on a human body. From this bedrock place of faith, Asian Catholics feel secure to reach out freely to find the Christ of history in Asian cultures and religions. They seek rich spirituality, carved from a belief that the Holy Spirit graces Asia, acting through good people and religions everywhere. Asian Catholics believe there is much to be discovered from Asia’s ancient heritage. The Asian vision places high value on harmony. It is the state of life as God intended. The Asian vision has difficulties with Western dualistic thinking because it tends to separate rather than to join together. Traditional Catholic scholastic theology distinguishes and distinguishes again until all is divided neatly into “truth” and “error.” Asians generally do not feel at home with this approach to thought. They prefer “both/and” ideas to “either/or” ones. Asian Catholics resist neat categories -- and resist being defined in such categories. This Asian “fuzziness” has riled some in Rome. They like neat boxes and sharp lines. This is not the Asian approach to life.

The Asian vision attempts to integrate. It seeks to draw all existence together, including mind, body and spirit. It is holistic. It is more humble, allowing a lot more room for mystery, for the unanswerable Tao. The emerging Asian Catholic vision operates through a belief in dialogue, the idea that there is always more to be revealed. In this sense, dialogue takes place not just to “explain,” but even more fundamentally to “discover.” It is an approach characterized by respect and humility.

Asian evangelization, similarly, is not out to confront and convert, to distinguish and discard, as much as it is to discover and embrace. Why? Because the Holy Spirit is active everywhere -- and calling all to reconciliation and harmony. Asian Catholic evangelization witnesses to the gospels by attempting to live them, by building the reign Jesus came to announce -- peace, justice and solidarity with peoples. Since the Asian Catholic vision sees the Holy Spirit in other religions, it wants to learn from them. It wants to cooperate with their leaders. In the final analysis, the Asian Catholic seeks to bring about the Reign of God that Jesus announced to the world.

Why look East?

Were one to shrink the earth’s population of just over 6 billion people into a village of 100 people, then 58 would be Asians, 33 would be Christians and 17 would be Catholic. At the beginning of the 20th century, 80 percent of all Catholics lived in the northern and western hemispheres -- in Europe, North and South America; the other 20 percent lived elsewhere. By the year 2020, 80 percent of all Catholics will live in the Eastern and Southern hemispheres with Europe and North America containing the 20 percent minority. In a period of only 120 years, the demographics of the Catholic church are being turned upside down. The locus of Catholicism has already shifted dramatically in our lifetimes to such nations as India, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea. Already some 70 percent of the world’s Catholics live outside Europe and North America. In the year 2000, the number of Jesuits in India exceeded for the first time the number of Jesuits in the United States. These changes provide enormous new opportunities for the church to walk with and speak out on behalf of the marginalized. Church leaders will increasingly be called to voice the deepest aspirations of their peoples, as apostles do. How the church encounters the ever increasing numbers of poor, how it lives out its mission, how its leaders provide vision and hope are the most pressing of questions it must answer at the start of a new century and millennium.

Meanwhile, some 3.7 billion of the planet’s 6.1 billion people live in Asia. According to the World Bank, 840 million are not eating enough today to sustain even modest health, 2 billion are living malnourished lives. Some 1.3 billion are living in what is called “absolute poverty,” existing on less than one dollar a day. Seventy percent of these hungry people live in Asia. Most Asian Catholics live in material poverty. Like most Asians, most Asian Catholics feel they live in spiritual abundance.

The Catholics of Asia make up only a small fraction of the total Asian population, approximately 2.7 percent of its people, or 106 million in all, two-thirds of these in the Philippines. Curiously, it is the small numbers that make the Asian story all the more compelling. Asian Catholics live at the edge -- and it has always been by going to the “edge” that the church rediscovers itself. By most measures, Asian Catholics hardly count in the total Catholic population of over 1 billion worldwide. However, living as distinct minorities their communities have reflected those of the early Christians. And just as the early Christians, the Asian Catholics have struggled with issues of self-identity, defensiveness and mission. Just as the early Christian disciples did centuries ago, today’s Asian Catholic apostles have transformed their mission and, indeed, their very identity. In the process, they have moved out of defensive postures, once set up by Western mentors, and are now looking for ways to encounter their own “Asianness,” their own cultures and religions. They are compelled to do this by spirit and faith.


Many Catholics, asked what has most changed Catholicism in our lifetimes, might answer that it was the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps true, but increasingly simple demographic changes are having revolutionary effects as well. Once a church comprised of the white and the well positioned of the world, it is increasingly a church of color and of the marginalized. We can run from this change -- or willingly embrace it as a gift of God. Either way, it is happening. Shortly after the Vatican council, Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, acknowledged by many as one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, had an insight. He realized he had caught an early glimpse of the dawn of a new and truly universal, global Catholicism. Reflecting on the council, he called it “the first major official event in which the church began in fact to actualize itself precisely as a world church.” He defined that church as one that “begins to act through the reciprocal influence exercised by all its components.” His was a prescient observation. Curiously, Rahner’s image and definition mirror the image and definitions of church that the Asian Catholic leadership has brought to light and life in the years since Rahner spoke. The church the Asian bishops have in mind is not the one they inherited from the West. Generated by the desire to embrace the poor and walk with the countless millions of poor on their continent, the Asian bishops envision a life-sustaining, networked church, one that integrates and celebrates local cultural and religious gifts, and shares these gifts with the wider church. This church is the voice of those without voices. This church is a voice of hope. This church acts courageously because it is inspired and bolstered by the collective strength and wisdom of all the local churches. This church speaks out of faith as followers of Christ, in concert with other religious leaders and people of good will who are also guided by the Spirit. This church works for what the Asian bishops call “integral liberation.”

One family

Entering a new century, the human family has critical choices to make and little time is left in which to make them. The world’s religious leaders are among those who will shape this young century for better or for worse. The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the months that followed offered ever more ample evidence that choices matter and that human beings write history one day at a time. How this century eventually unfolds -- whether the human family can meet the formidable challenges ahead -- will depend in no small measure on whether good people, inspired by the ageless religiously motivated ideals of generosity, justice and mercy, can build a better world.

How the Catholic leadership first envisions and then lives out the church’s mission will make an enormous difference. If the Catholic church can help bridge the intellectual, spiritual and material gaps between East and West and rich and poor, this century can be the most fruitful and glorious in history. This opportunity exists as never before, and the Catholic church is one of the very few global institutions with the structural ability and moral authority to serve in this global capacity.

For this to happen, today’s apostles and their inspired messages must be heard. In this regard, I believe the Asian Catholic leadership, riveted by the suffering and hopes of the poor, by an abiding respect for the richness and diversity of cultures, and by an East/West global vision, needs to be heard. This is about vision. This is about leadership. This is about having the wisdom to know when and how to listen.


The foundational tripod of the Asian pastoral vision has involved the local church, contextual reflection and consensus building. Meanwhile, the vision emerged largely out of sight and mind of Rome’s cautious radar screens. The 1970s and 1980s were critical decades for the foundational development in Asian theology. It was a period in which the Vatican was focusing on Latin America and its theologians.

This Asian pastoral vision is spawned by theologians who place great emphasis on the bonds of trust between God and humanity. They trust God’s providential hand in Asian history. They trust a Spirit present in the world and active in its many Asian cultures, religions and traditions. They trust that being a follower of Jesus, serving as he called others to serve, evangelizing with their lives is what Jesus requires of them today. In the final analysis, they trust the work of Catholic evangelization to God.

Some in the Vatican have found this approach wanting. These critics of the Asian leadership insist that evangelization requires the explicit proclamation of Jesus as unique Savior to the world. The Asian leadership responds with a “yes, but …” Being an evangelizer in Asia, the Asians say, both does and does not mean “proclaiming” Jesus as Savior, at least in the verbal sense. Asians have little difficulty holding to these seemingly different positions. The Asians say “OK. We will proclaim, but we will do it by witnessing to the gospels, to the teachings of Jesus.” In some instances, proclaiming Jesus as savior, they note, would be an act of suicide. In others, it would be simply counterproductive. What is important is that Christians live hopefully with a commitment to building the Reign of God.

The Asian pastoral vision is gospel-based. It focuses on the teachings of Jesus. It sets its sight on living out the gospels in the world. It is not in this sense, “institutionally oriented.” Its primary goal is not building church structures. These will follow the more essential mission, the outward mission of “integral liberation,” liberation at every level of existence, from the personal to the communal to the national and global. It calls for liberation from distractions such as lust and greed as well as from unjust social and economic structures that impede harmonious relationships. The Asian vision is essentially nonviolent. It places high value in harmony. Where it is missing, it seeks to restore harmony through dialogue. The Asian vision of church is a humble vision. It makes no effort to impose. God, after all, is already everywhere. The Asian vision rather seeks to find, understand and experience community and God. It is an open vision. It seeks harmony, or as other Asian traditions put it, enlightenment.

This sense of oneness applies as well to the way local churches throughout the world should relate to each other. The Asian vision of church does not deny the primacy of the bishop of Rome, but emphasizes the need for all local churches to learn from each other and share with each other their special gifts. The Asians envision a networked church of local churches, void of any single dominating culture or template. In this sense the Asian vision is a remarkably universal vision of church.

In an age that pays increasing attention to ethnic and cultural diversity, in an age that sings of new technologies that network the planet, the Asian decentralized vision of church seems fresh and fitting. It is Eastern yin to the Western yang. In the school of yin-yang the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate. This principle is divided into two opposite principles, or two principles that oppose one another in their actions, yin and yang. Under yang are the principles of maleness, the sun, creation, heat, light, Heaven, dominance and so on; and under yin are the principles of femaleness, the moon, completion, cold, darkness, material forms, submission, and so on. Each of these opposites produces the other: Heaven creates the ideas of things under yang, the earth produces their material forms under yin; creation occurs under the principle of yang, the completion of the created thing occurs under yin. This production of yin from yang and yang from yin occurs cyclically and constantly, so that no one principle continually dominates the other or determines the other. Could it, however, be that human history, shaped by new global transportation and communication, has only recently gotten to a new point of the meeting of yin and yang? Could it be that our church, molded over centuries in the West, is now encountering its complementary half? Could it be that these two halves now must find ways to integrate together? Could it be that they need each other to prosper, even to survive? Is this the meaning of being Catholic, belonging to a universal church in the third millennium after Christ? The answers to these questions will take years to sort out. But we already have clues. Eastern religious practices are already finding homes in the West. Western Christians who have lived in the East -- the “bridge-builders” -- have come home to say that much can be learned from the East. Tens of thousands of Asians, meanwhile, many of them refugees, many of them still marginalized in their new homes, are saying the same thing.

National Catholic Reporter, September 20, 2002