Catholic World News News Feature

The Birthplace of Christianity December 27, 2001

Early in April, as bishops gathered in Rome to cover the special synod of bishops for Asia, which would open its month-long deliberations on April 19, journalists assigned to cover the event had only one question on their lips: Would the bishops from mainland China participate?

Even as Pope John Paul II presided at the Mass that opened the synod, that question was left unanswered; Vatican spokesmen said that they had heard nothing from China, and were hoping for a surprise.

The Pope had issued personal invitations for two Chinese bishops to join the 250 Asian bishops, Vatican officials, and others who would participate in the Asian Synod. Bishop Matthias Tuan In-min, the first of the Pope's choices, is the oldest bishop in China, having served the Diocese of Wanxian since 1949. He was born in the same diocese in 1908. Bishop Joseph Xu Zhixuan, is the coadjutor bishop of the same diocese. The distinguishing characteristic of both bishops is that they adhere to the underground Church, loyal to Rome, rather than the Patriotic Catholic Association sanctioned by the government.

However, the question of Chinese representation was by no means the only challenge facing the bishops who convened to discuss the future of the Church in the world's largest continent. The geographical breadth of Asia--which embraces Siberia and Iraq, Japan and the Holy Land--is overwhelming in itself. And to complicate matters still further, Asia is the stronghold of several several great religious traditions, in which Christians are a distinct minority. Although nearly 75 percent of the world's entire population lives in Asia, less than 3 percent of those people are Catholic. The largest Catholic populations can be found in Philippines (60 million), India, (16 million), Vietnam (6 million), Indonesia (5 million), and Korea (3.5 million).


China is indeed a special case. Bishop John Tong Hon, a Hong Kong auxiliary who has often visited the mainland, told the synod assembly that while there were 3 million Catholics in China in 1949, that number has soared to 10 million today; he added that there are not 2,000 priests and 4,000 women religious--most of them relatively young--in China. But the status of the Church on the mainland is complicated by the government's insistence that Chinese Catholics must be independent of Rome. Although dozens of bishops recognized by the Patriotic Church have reportedly made a secret pledge of their fealty to the Holy See, the Chinese government refuses to recognize Vatican authority.

So, when it became clear that the bishops invited by the Pope would not be allowed to participate in the Asian Synod, Beijing explained that the problem was caused by the absence of formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Communist government. Beijing even added to propaganda twist to the announcement, saying that the problem was exacerbated by Vatican recognition of Taiwan. For his part, Bishop Tuan In-man was saddened by his failure to gain permission to attend the synod, but he sent a message of support to the bishops who had assembled at the Vatican. "It pains me that, for political reasons, I am unable to take part," the 90-year-old Chinese bishop said, in a message read to the assembly by Cardinal Jan Schotte. "But while the body is absent, my heart is there."

With that message, the question of Chinese involvement in the synod was closed. But since the subject of religious persecution had been raised, it was impossible for the Asian Synod to overlook the problems that afflict the Church in other countries. As the bishops began their deliberations, and individual prelates rose to express their concerns, the topic of religious persecution was frequently aired.

In Bangladesh, the synod fathers heard, Christians and Jews had been subjected to attacks by mobs of Muslim extremists, who destroyed property in churches and synagogues. In Pakistan, Christians were subject to the death penalty for the "blasphemy" of proclaiming Christ as the Savior of the world. In India, Catholic missionaries have been murdered by Hindu militants. In Vietnam, the government has barred a Catholic pilgrimage.


Even where Catholicism has not encountered active resistance, the faith has spread slowly in Asia. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, remarked that missionaries had often received "a cold and even at times hostile" reception. Why has it been so difficult to convert the peoples of Asia, as opposed to those of Europe? The Asian Synod was asked to answer that question.

Bishop Valerian D'Souza of Poona, India, attempted to answer that question about the "gradual" spread of the Gospel by explaining that in Asia, where many religions gained popularity before the rise of Christianity, it is important to proclaim the message of Christ "without arrogance," and to avoid "intellectual categories which people do not understand." It is better, he stressed, to use "Asian categories"-- and better still to use the language of the Bible, which reflects the mentality of Asians, and which he pointed out "is how it all started."

Bishop D'Souza explained that the need to avoid "arrogance" reflects the reality that most Asians are reluctant to accept Jesus as the sole savior of the world; the indigenous religions of the continent, which recognize many deities, inculcate a very different outlook. For that reason, he said, Catholics must avoid judgments and condemnations of other faiths, and emphasize inter-religious dialogue. He also pointed to the difficult position of "Christians of desire" in some Asian countries--people who want to accept the faith, but fear that they might be disowned by their families (in Hindu societies) or even prosecuted for blasphemy (in Muslim regimes) if they are baptized.

To keep matters in the proper perspective, other bishops pointed out that while the people of Asia owe a debt of gratitude to the missionaries who brought them the faith, the people of the continent have shouldered their own responsibility for the spread of the Gospel. Today, according to the Vatican news agency Fides, there are 5,508 missionaries from other parts of the world ministering to the flock in Asia, but--largely because of the boom in priestly vocations in the Philippines--there are 8,147 Asia missionaries active elsewhere in the world.


Since the cultural conflicts in Asia pose the largest single obstacle to the advance of the faith, it was inevitable that the theme of "inculturation" would come to dominate the bishops' discussions. The Maronite Bishop B├ęchara Rai, OMM, of Jbeil, Lebanon, did his best to explain the concept. Just as the Incarnation of Christ made it possible for the Holy Spirit to live in every Christian person, he said, so too the Spirit lives "in each culture and, therefore, inculturalization is the continuation of the Incarnation."

Bishop Domingos Lam Ka Tseung Domingos of Macao, in his own statement to the synod, insisted that inculturation is a sine qua non for the work of evangelization. If Catholics do not respect the norms of the Asian cultures, he warned, they will be "labeled by Asian people as followers of a foreign religion forever."

But what exactly does "inculturation" entail? Few Catholics would deny the need to proclaim Christian truths in terms that other cultures can comprehend. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, made it clear that the Church could embrace any culture. "The only element necessary for the Church," he said, "is the one given by the Lord: the sacramental structure of the People of God, centered on the Eucharist."

Father Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, the Jesuit superior general, pressed the point much further, insisting that evangelization must be a process of "inter-religious dialogue and inculturalization, free from all calculations." Only by exchanging views freely with the followers of other religions, he said, could missionary workers overcome the Asian cultural antipathy to the Christian message. Throughout the Asian Synod, the theme of inculturation revealed tensions between Asian bishops seeking greater autonomy and Vatican officials calling for unity. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State, represented the latter when he said: "It would be curious today--at the moment when we move toward a larger globalization of society--if the Church does not continually strive toward the rock of unity which is St. Peter and his successors."

On the other hand, Bishop Francis Hadisumarta, OCarm, a former president of the Indonesian bishops' conference, argued that the Catholic Church is not a "monolithic pyramid," and bishops are not "branch secretaries waiting for instructions from headquarters." He envisioned a "radical decentralization of the Latin rite," with several new patriarchates in Asia.


The patriarch of the Latin rite, of course, is the bishop of Rome--the Pope. But the Asian Synod could not avoid dealing with the other Catholic patriarchs: the heads of the Maronite, Melkite, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches. Some bishops of the Eastern rites stressed their separate liturgical and even theological traditions, and the importance of preserving their autonomy as a means of encouraging dialogue with the Orthodox churches. Other bishops lamented the habit of imposing European cultural traditions on their native lands.

So for example Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios Malancharuvil of Trivandrum, India, a metropolitan of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India, argued that the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches should be "equipped with more autonomy and structures of self-government, canonically established and confirmed", so that they could fulfill the task of evangelization in India. And Archbishop Cyrille Salim Bustros of Baalbek, Lebanon, stressed the role of the Eastern churches (such as his own Melkite Church) in the dialogue with the Orthodox. Eastern Catholics, he said, can furnish "a model for the future of relations between the Orthodox and Rome, when unity is re-established." He cited in particular the autonomy of the Eastern-rite churches, the independent processes by which they name bishops, the possibility of married priests, and the establishment of eparchies to serve Eastern-rite immigrants in Western countries.

Bishops from the Middle East, and especially those from the Eastern churches, strenuously resisted the temptation to equate "Asia" with the Far East, or to think of the entire continent as new missionary territory. It was in Asia that Jesus lived and died, they pointed out, and it was from Asia that missionaries fanned out across the world to spread the Gospel.

Moreover, the Eastern bishops continued, their experience in living side-by-side with other religions--notably Islam--had equipped them to meet the challenges of evangelization in a sometimes hostile world. The Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Pierre Sfeir pointed out that Lebanese society had been a model of inter-religious harmony, with Christians and Muslims living together peacefully, until outside forces (he did not name Israel, although he seemed clearly to be referring to the Israeli invasion of 1982) caused a political crisis. Since that time, he said, the imposition of a new Islamic regime has made cooperate more difficult. In his own address to the synod, Pope John Paul observed that the sufferings of Christ can be seen today in the suffering of the Christians of the Middle East, as well as those who live under the more blatant persecution of East Asian regimes. He cited the remark of Blaise Pascal, "Christ is in agony until the end of the world." Picking up on that theme, the Latin-rite Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, pointed out that the 300,000 Christians in his diocese are now a small minority among the 12 million Muslims in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. He observed that Jerusalem, "the mother of the churches," today constitutes only a small church--or rather, a series of small churches, with 3 patriarchs and 10 bishops, archbishops, and patriarchal vicars of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant denominations. Still, he insisted, the cause of peace in Jerusalem is crucial to the peace of the world. He lamented the "strange silence" of other churches regarding the stalled peace process. "The word of the churches is crucial," he said.


If the bishops could not reach any clear agreement on the terms of "inculturation," the synod did produce a consensus that Asian Catholics should help the Church to assimilate the strengths of their own cultures. Theresa Ee-Chooi, the Malaysian representative of an international Catholic journalists' union, was the first layman among the "auditors" who were given an opportunity to make a 5-minute presentation to the bishops. She emphasized the need to recover the contemplative and mystical traditions of the Church, so that young Catholics learn to seek God in silence. That tradition, she observed, is one which Asian peoples--already acquainted with religious traditions that emphasize solitary meditation--can readily understand. At the same time, some Asia bishops sought to emphasize the need to resist the influence of Western secular culture. Bishop Nicholas Cheong Jin-Suk, the president of the Korean bishops' conference, said that traditional family life in being endangered as the "culture of death" gains a foothold in his country.

Bishop Cheong observed that in Asia, cultural traditions dictate that a family embraces three generations, with close ties between parents and children and a profound respect for the elderly. Women--especially pregnant women--and children have also been treated with particular respect in Korean culture. However, the rise of divorce--which now ends one of every five marriages--has taken its toll, the bishop said, reporting that divorce has left many women and their children living in poverty. Abortion has also become commonplace, and Bishop Cheong observed with particular horror that many parents abort female children because males are more highly prized. The Korean bishop concluded that a pastoral strategy aimed at reviving family life and promoting "the culture of life" must be a top priority in his country and elsewhere in Asia.


The process of a synod is designed to produce consensus. During the first phase, the synod hears individual presentations from each of the participating bishops, as well as from the invited "auditors." Then the bishops are divided up into smaller working groups, so that they can discuss and refine the themes that have been introduced. Finally the full assembly convenes once again, hears reports from the various discussion groups, and proceeds to set forth a series of recommendations.

That process virtually eliminates the possibility of surprises, and there were certainly no surprises in the final statement produced by the Asian Synod. The bishops stressed the theme of inculturation, but did not specify what that process might entail; they emphasized the need for inter-religious dialogue, but did not set any limits for that effort. On political issues, however, the voice of the synod was unmistakably clear. The bishops called for religious freedom in China, international protections for the status of Jerusalem, an end to the embargo on Iraq, protection for the environment, defense of the family, and an effort to ease international debt.

If there were surprises in store for the synod, they came from outside Rome. During the final week of their deliberations, the bishops assembled at the Vatican were twice shocked by news stories from Asia. The first jolt came on May 8, when a grim Archbishop Armando Trinidade of Lahore, the president of the Pakistani bishops' conference, interrupted the proceedings to announce that he had just learned of the death of Bishop John Joseph of Faisalabad. Because he did not have a detailed report, Archbishop Trinidade declined to speculate about the rumors that Bishop Joseph had committed suicide. But as the facts emerged, and it became clear that those rumors were true, the atmosphere of the synod grew markedly more somber.

The second jolt came after the bishops had concluded their deliberations, but before the Eucharistic liturgy that marked the formal close of the session. This time the news came from India, whose government had taken the world by surprise with a series of tests of advanced nuclear weapons. With China already owning a nuclear capability, and Pakistan quickly promising to match the Indian effort, the Asian bishops were suddenly faced with the prospect of a nuclear-arms race on their own continent--a prospect which they had not anticipated during their discussions.

At the final press conference of the synod, Bishop D'Souza conceded that the bishops had not discussed the threat of nuclear proliferation, but nevertheless told reporters that the bishops were "fully united in the general wish that arms be reduced or eliminated, particularly nuclear weapons." Bishop D'Souza argued that his own country's entry into the nuclear club would have especially deleterious results for the poor people of the country. both because the fallout from the tests would endanger their lives and because the arms race would eat up resources that could better be devoted to the fight against poverty.


Although the synod adjourned on May 14, the final business of the Asian Synod will not be closed until the Pope issues an apostolic exhortation, summing up the lessons of the assembly. The synod appointed a committee of bishops to collaborate with the Holy Father in the process of editing that document--a process which usually takes several months.

After calling for special synods of bishops from each of the world's geographic regions (Europe, Africa, the Americas, and now Asia--with Oceana still to come) as part of the preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II has made it his practice to travel to the region for the formal promulgation of the apostolic exhortation that ends the work of the synod. Thus for example when the synod of bishops for the Americas met in Rome last year, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera of Mexico City suggested--and both the Pope and the assembled bishops wholeheartedly agreed--that the best site for the formal release of the apostolic exhortation would be the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas.

For the Asian Synod, there is no such obvious site for a papal visit. As the synod closed, the bishops learned--to no one's surprise--that Pope John Paul had decided to travel to Asia for the release of his apostolic exhortation. But the same announcement called upon the synod's bishops to propose "the places which could be taken into consideration in order to organize the papal visit."

That assignment will not be an easy one. The geographical breadth of Asia makes it difficult to select any one place that could adequately represent the entire continent. China, the world's most populous country, would not allow a papal visit. Taiwan would be delighted by that prospect, but a visit there could aggravate the already tense relations between the Vatican and Beijing. The only predominantly Catholic country in Asia, the Philippines, is far from the geographical center of the continent, and the spectacular success of a recent papal visit there--for World Youth Day in 1995--might make another trip seem anticlimactic.

Pope John Paul has often proclaimed his desire to visit the Holy Land, but Vatican diplomats have made it clear that no such visit could take place until the Israel-Palestine conflict remains unresolved. And while the Pope has also expressed his ambition to visit Iraq--"the land of Abraham"--political considerations would seem to make that trip impossible as well.

So where should the Pope go, to sum up the challenges that face the Church in Asia. Should he visit a country where Christians are a beleaguered minority, or a country where the Church has receded in the face of advancing Islam? Should he travel to a small country where he will be welcomed, or larger country where his presence would spark political protests? Or should he--as the Vatican has hinted he might--visit several different sites in Asia, to emphasize the diversity of the world's largest continent? In a sense, these questions in themselves summarize the challenge that confronted the Asian Synod.



The presence of delegates from countries such as Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as from Central Asia, Mongolia and Siberia was a special reason for us to thank God. Previously, persons from these places had difficulties participating in such assemblies. We were sad that the two bishops, who were expected to bring us the voice of the Church in mainland China, could not be with us, but we prayed for them and benefited by their prayers.

We are all aware that the liturgy has a key role in evangelization.... The liturgy must be participatory. The gestures should convey that something solemn and holy is happening.... We note with joy that practically everywhere in Asia the liturgy is held in the language of the people.

We have highlighted the importance of inculturation.... In the Asian context of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural situation, inter-religious dialogue has clearly become a necessity.... The Church in Asia is called upon to enter into a triple dialogue: a dialogue with the cultures of Asia, a dialogue with the religions of Asia, and a dialogue with the peoples of Asia--especially the poor.

The family is the most endangered institution in Asia. Population control tends to discriminate against the girl child in some countries and targets the poor of the Third World. Traditional family values are being overturned and replaced by egotism, hedonism, materialism, and greed. Direct assaults on life are made by contraception, sterilization, and abortion. We must save the family which, because it welcomes and protects human beings, is the basic cell of society and the Church.

There is also the problem of Jerusalem, the heart of Christendom, a holy city for the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We appeal to all concerned to do everything within their power to preserve the unique and sacred character of this Holy City.

When considering the suffering of the people of Iraq, especially women and children, we strongly urge that steps be taken to lift the embargo against that country.

We strongly recommend that during the Jubilee Year 2000, the Third World debt be renegotiated and its crushing burden alleviated.