Father Bernardo Cerveller, director of the Vatican's Fides news agency, has provided a commentary on Pope John Paul II's latest apostolic exhortation 'Ecclesia in Asia', released on 6 November 1999. This document follows on from the Synod of Asia, which was held in Rome late in 1998.
Pope John Paul II points out at the outset in his latest apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia, that Christ and the Church, despite any superficial impression, are part of the Asian context. God's saving plan was "initiated in Asia", God chose an Asian tradition and it was in Asia that the Church first began to spread. The riches of Asian religions and cultures, he argues, rather than diminish, actually increase the urgency of the mission entrusted to the Church.
After Vatican II a number of theologians, Asian and non-Asian, began to question the necessity of Christian proclamation, judging all religions to be "paths of salvation." What is more, attempts to inculturate the Christian faith often led them to compare the salvation of Jesus with that of Buddha or Hindu avatars, thus watering down the distinctiveness of Christianity.
Pope John Paul II, adopting views expressed by the Synod Fathers in 1998, elaborates these magisterially in chapters 2 and 3 of Ecclesia in Asia where he shows why Jesus is the only Saviour and why he is the Saviour of all peoples. The Pope describes first of all the life of Jesus with its "Asian" traits, as well as aspects of Jesus which are totally foreign to Asian cultures, e.g., his nearness to poor people, to sinners, the unclean, children, the dead. It is, all told, the "scandal" of Christianity that grates on the cultures of Asia (and not only of Asia), dominated by caste, fear of death, harmony for peace of mind, success, public esteem.
The "scandal" is even more radical: the Pope defines the identity of Jesus as a mystery of communion with the Father. His reference to the Father is what distinguishes Jesus from many other "saviours" (who come on their own behalf) or avatars (of faceless and indefinite origin), and from any other religion which sees God distant from mankind and unreachable.
The proclamation of the Christian faith to Asia, free of complexes or fear, has a present urgency and necessity: "There can be no true evangelisation without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord." We must not be hindered by a complex about Christianity being of "Western origin." We must take on the challenge of inculturation, showing an Asian Christ for Asians, as many missionaries have done, e.g., Giovanni di Montecorvino, Matteo Ricci, Roberto de Nobili.
The Pope asks that every form of missionary activity should have as support and form, contemplation and not activism. More than once in this Exhortation, the Pope asks bishops and priests to be not simply "economic administrators" or "humanitarian volunteers," but "primarily men of God." In this way, missionary activity will not be only social commitment.
To meet the spiritual needs of Asia, the Pope "strongly encourages" monastic and contemplative communities to open mission fields in Asia and also to establish relations with the other monastic traditions of that continent. The Pope calls for greater recognition of the ancient Oriental churches, rich in traditions and experience of dialogue with the Orthodox world and with Islam.
He also asks for support for the very young churches in former Soviet Union territories, but above all he urges solidarity with the suffering and persecuted churches. He mentions the Church in mainland China, with a touching message for Chinese Catholics ("never allow hardship and sorrow to diminish your devotion to Christ and your commitment to your great nation"), that of North Korea (for reconciliation between North and South), and that of Jerusalem (for that city's "peace and integrity").
Chapter 6 of Ecclesia in Asia focuses on the Church's service for human promotion. Asia is presented with its assortment of political and religions oppression, economic misery, cultures of death and marginalisation, which create an army of millions of poor people, exploited children, women treated as slaves, refugees, migrants, aboriginal people, those without medical care. The defence of human rights and the promotion of justice are an "inescapable and unrenounceable" challenge for the Church.
The means for addressing this are to teach the Church's social doctrine; to create new solidarity between underdeveloped and affluent; commitment to education and health care offered with a "clear Christian identity;" international and inter- religious efforts for peace. The Holy Father traces a map of commitment for the Church in the globalised world, urging lay Christians to find "ethical and juridical norms" to ensure "globalisation without marginalisation;" to reduce the inter- national debt, calling also on governments of debtor countries to eliminate corruption; to defend the environment. Such commitment for justice, the Pope explains, is part of the "true worship of God."
The final chapter, "Witnesses to the Gospel", offers guidelines for Christian missionary activity in Asia. In addition to what he said before about bishops, priests, and monastic communities, the Pope encourages long-established missionary institutes "not to waver in their missionary commitment" and to focus on Christ and deep spirituality, besides the integration of mission into diocesan pastoral plans.
The most important tool for evangelisation in Asia remains "the great host of heroes of the faith" - the martyrs who are the "seed of new life for the Church in every corner of the continent." To the martyrs of the past we must add present-day persecuted Christians, "the hidden pillars of the Church," a part of this Asian Church, a minority, but "full of hope and vitality."