Lessons from the church in Asia

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The editors of U.S. Catholic interview Claretian Father Samuel Canilang, the director of the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia (ICLA) in Quezon City near Manila, Philippines.

The institute was founded by the Claretian Missionaries in 1997 and educates religious and lay students from all over Asia, offering degree programs in consecrated life, missiology, spirituality, and biblical ministry.

ICLA has been particularly focused on preparing many Chinese men and women for ministry in China, and Canilang currently serves on the Vatican’s Commission for the Church in China.

He is the author of The Way of the Heart: Gregory Palamas and the Great Spiritual Traditions of Asia; The Consecration of the Religious: Foundations and Implications for Everyday Religious Life; and The Religious Community: A Guide to Community Living for Religious (all by Claretian Publications, Philippines)

You have a number of Chinese students at the Institute for Consecrated Life in Asia (ICLA). How does the continuing split between Chinese Catholics of the officially recognized Patriotic Association and those from the underground communities play out at your school?

If you belong to the official community, it is of course much easier to get the permission to study abroad. If a priest who belongs to the official community wants to study abroad, he normally gets the permission from the Patriotic Association. If he’s given that permission, he can be sure that he will be followed during his stay abroad. The Patriotic Association knows where he is, and everything he does is monitored by them.

How? Do they send people to check up on him?

It’s both through modern communication means and through informants. All the Chinese who are in the Philippines suspect and assume that there are spies among them. That’s why they are very careful, and there is a lot of mistrust among themselves. They tend to trust foreigners more than they do their own people.

Our students come from both communities. And interestingly, while in China priests from the underground and priests from the official community do not concelebrate, at ICLA they do. They come from different parts of China, and little by little they learn to accept one another, to trust one another, at least up to a point. We live in the same place, we study together, we pray together, and we celebrate Mass together. So some kind of conversion and transformation is taking place.

You have traveled and taught in China yourself. What have you seen during those visits?

For the past five years I have been going to China frequently, among other things to teach at an institute that is recognized by the Patriotic Association, but to which students come from both communities. During one of those visits I went to some of the underground communities in the south.

At that time, in 2010, some foreign priests—mostly European priests—who were working in Hong Kong had been prohibited from entering China. But I was allowed to enter, and for a while the authorities lost track of me. I first visited an official community in Xiamen. Then from there, I went to other parts of Fujian province, which has a large underground community.

I was giving a class to underground sisters, when four policemen came looking for me. I was in a very remote village, but the spy network in China is very extensive and effective. The police arrived saying that they had heard that there was a Filipino priest teaching there.

Now the sisters, who belong to the underground community, knew that if I were discovered, they would be in a lot of trouble, so they decided to deny my presence. They brought me to the attic, where I then hid for more than an hour. They told the police, “How could we have a priest here in this remote village? We have our own sisters who graduated from the Philippines, so they’re the ones facilitating this workshop."

They were adamant, but the policemen had received information that somebody was there and so they entered the classroom. Then they announced that they wanted to inspect every room in the house.

The superiors said, “No, you cannot do that! This is a house of women, and you are all men.” So the policemen said, “OK, we will call women to do that.” Then the sisters took the police to have some tea so that I could escape. Then they took me to an old couple’s house, where I stayed for about another hour, and then eventually I was brought to the next province, a four-hour trip, where I stayed for two weeks. I could not go back to Xiamen but had to go through Shanghai to go back to the Philippines.

But spending two weeks with underground Catholics was eye-opening for me. I experienced how they live and persevere in their faith despite many threats and obstacles, and how serious they are about their faith.

There are many problems for the church in China, but those problems usually involve the bishops and the Chinese government. The people, the church are very much alive.

You serve on the Vatican’s Commission for the Church in China. In recent years there have been a lot of tensions and conflicts between the Chinese government and the Vatican. How are things today?

With Pope Francis, our expectation is that the focus will shift more to pastoral aspects. In the previous papacy, the focus seemed to be on trying to establish a diplomatic relationship with the Chinese government and on who appoints bishops. The focus was, I would say, more on the institutional aspect.

In the discussions of our commission in recent years we have devoted most of our time to these issues of the appointment of bishops and the relationship with the Chinese government. But we have spent very little time on the formation of Catholics in China, the pastoral aspects, and how to bring about a reconciliation between the official and the underground communities.

Do you believe that down the road the two communities can reconcile with each other?

Yes, the goal for the two communities to is to be united. But at the moment that is very difficult.

First of all, the Chinese government does not want this unification to happen, because it’s easier for them to control the church if it’s divided. And on the part of those in the underground, they also do not want to be united with those in the official community. To many of them, being part of the official community means being a traitor for cutting your relationship with the pope.

On the ground, however, there are places where the relationship between the two communities swings from peaceful co-existence to sincere collaboration. One Chinese priest said that, with respect to the opening up of China to the West, “there is no turning back.” Indeed, many church people in China believe that this openness means gradual welcoming of such values as democracy, religious freedom, respect for human rights, and so on. 

Your institute focuses on promoting consecrated life in Asia. It seems that, compared to the United States or Europe, more people in Asia are still interested in religious life. What about religious life is attractive to them?

There is currently a big geographical shift going on with respect to religious life and the priestly vocations. While in Europe and North America provinces or religious orders are shrinking and merging, in Asia we are multiplying.

The reasons why religious life is still attractive in Asia, are varied. By nature Asians are religious. It is something normal for us to join the religious life. It is one of the possibilities, one of the normal options that we can take.

But there also is something of a link between the economic and the religious realities. In poor countries you have more vocations. In Vietnam we still have vocations today, but people are saying that since Vietnam is developing economically, vocations are going to go down there. This has already happened in China. Before, there were plenty of vocations, but now that China is rapidly developing economically, vocations have gone down.

Is one of the attractions that religious life is a way out of poverty and a way to achieve a position of respect in the community?

Yes, and economic development also gives you more options.

You have done some pastoral work on the southern Philippine island of Basilan, which in recent decades has been the scene of a violent Islamist insurgency. What did you learn from that experience?

The first time I worked in Basilan was in 1989 during my pastoral year preparing for my perpetual profession as a Claretian. During that year, there was relative peace and order on Basilan, so we could still work peacefully. We had many pastoral and social activities, including with Muslims. I spent many days and nights in Muslim communities.

Claretian Father Angel Calvo had started a Christian-Muslim farmers’ organization called KRISLAM. The program involved community organizing as well as training in agricultural skills. The Muslim farmers lived in remote mountain areas and didn’t know much about agriculture. One of the focuses of the program was providing training to them. And then we were also involved in initiating dialogue between the Christian and Muslim communities in Basilan. We mostly focused on establishing rapport, good relationships, peaceful coexistence.

Then in 1993, after Claretian Father Bernardo Blanco had been kidnapped by the Muslim rebel group Abu Sayyaf, I returned to Basilan for two years. I was sent there to take his place in the village of Matarling, where he had been kidnapped. He was held for 50 days and then managed to escape.

I stayed there almost two years, serving as the parish priest. During that period the peace and order situation in Basilan was at its lowest level. Two other notorious kidnappings took place while I was there.

One of them involved school teachers who traveled every day from the city of Isabela to teach at the school. One morning the jeepney they were in was ambushed, and they were kidnapped and some of them were raped. It was really a terrible moment that left a big impression on me. I was still very young then and had only been ordained a priest the year before.

Did the escalation of that kind of violence have repercussions for the way the Christian and Muslim communities interacted?

Yes, there had always been this mistrust on both sides, and those events and the subsequent atrocities certainly worsened the situation and the relationship.

A few years later, also on Basilan Island, another Claretian priest, Father Rhoel Gallardo was killed, along with a school principal and three other teachers, after they and 48 others had been kidnapped and abducted. We had studied together in the same theology school—I was two years his senior, but we attended some classes together.

It was a very difficult experience, but it also helped me understand more my life and work as a missionary. It did not make me think badly of Muslims in general, but it has certainly impressed on me how important interreligious dialogue with Muslims is. Today at ICLA, we continue to emphasize interreligious dialogue, which has been a key focus for the Catholic Church in Asia.

We often talk about the need for a “triple dialogue,” the dialogue with cultures, with religions, and with the poor. As a graduate school, ICLA offers four main degree programs—in missiology, spirituality, consecrated life, and biblical ministry. The triple dialogue informs all of those programs, and interreligious dialogue is one of the main areas being studied, reflected on, and discussed.

What does that look like?

First of all, academically, interreligious dialogue is a major subject taken by all the students. Even in spirituality, for example, this orientation is there because the students are introduced to the different spiritual traditions.

But there are some major differences in how our students from their backgrounds in different Asian countries approach this. For Filipinos and Indians, interreligious dialogue is something very normal, but for some of our students from China, Myanmar, or Vietnam, it is a more complicated, new thing. The churches there have been very closed and very traditional. And so they are more reluctant to engage with these other religious traditions.

Is that because they have had to focus more on their own survival?

That’s one of the reasons. In addition, for the churches in Vietnam, China, and Myanmar, contact with the outside world for many decades was very limited. To a large degree, their theological and missiological orientation is pre‑Vatican II. For many of them, a lack of trust with respect to the other religious traditions is still prevalent.

So when we introduce them to spiritual practices from other religions, some of them are shocked and ask, “Why do we have to learn to pray or to meditate like Buddhists? We don’t do that in China; it is prohibited.”

What’s your answer? Why should they do it?

First, we ask them to be open and to enter the process so they can discover for themselves what they can learn from these centuries-old spiritual traditions.

When they become more open, they realize their importance, not only for themselves, but also because the mission of the church in Asia is really to enter into dialogue with the different cultures and religions.

And this cannot remain on the level of academic, intellectual, or theological dialogue, but it has to become a dialogue of life. The spiritual life is certainly part of this dialogue of life. The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences speaks of a “dialogue in depth,” dialogue in terms of our God experiences. It is here where we find the common ground, actually. Our students come to realize that.

What are some of the spiritual practices that you’re adopting or adapting from other religious traditions?

Two years ago we invited an Indian Jesuit, Father Sebastian Painadath, who founded the Sameeksha Center for Indian Spirituality in the state of Kerala. He tries to integrate Christian prayer and meditation practices with Hindu practices, especially yoga. We invited him to direct the annual retreat of our students, and he introduced our students to some yoga ways of meditation, postures, and all that.

Then last July we had Ruben Habito, a Filipino-American Zen expert from the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, give a Zen weekend and retreat at our school.

How has your own spiritual life been enriched and changed through these practices?

When I was a Claretian novice, we were introduced to some of these Asian practices like Zen or yoga meditations. I have been practicing them ever since.

Then in my doctoral dissertation I also explored interspiritual dialogue. I did some research on Greek Orthodox spirituality and studied the ancient ascetic spiritual tradition of hesychasm. During that research I discovered the Jesus Prayer, and to me it resonated with forms of prayer and meditation in Asia, particularly the mantra.

A mantra is repetitive, and so is the Jesus prayer, as is the Muslim form of prayer called “Remembrance of Allah” or Dhikru’llah . When I am practicing the Jesus Prayer, I try to blend these commonalities.

When you pray a mantra, you get a phrase and you repeat it again and again. For example, there are the Hindu mantras “Aum” or “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare.” Or the Sufi mantra “al-Hayyu, al-Qayyum” (The living, the eternal) and “La ilaha illa’llah” (There is no god but Allah). The Jesus Prayer works the same way. It has several formulas, but the most famous one is “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” You repeat it again and again.

But before you even get to that, you should have some kind of preparation, like breathing exercises, to relax yourself, to calm yourself. So, I often use yoga postures and breathing exercises in connection with my Jesus Prayer.

The Jesus Prayer posture, as practiced by the Orthodox monks on Mount Athos in Greece, is very difficult because you have to concentrate on your navel. But if you combine the prayer with a Zen or yoga meditation posture, it is simpler.

Pope Francis has appointed Manila’s Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle to six different influential Vatican offices, and earlier this year he appointed two new Asian cardinals. The pope is also visiting South Korea in August. Is the Asian church gaining more prominence in Rome these days?

Asia is the largest continent—about two-thirds of the world’s population are Asians—but Christians are a very small minority in the Asian countries, except in the Philippines and East Timor. Hence. Asia is obviously a privileged place for the church’s missionary focus. Moreover, the churches in Asia, even those in growing economies like China, are very poor. And Pope Francis has declared that the poor are the church’s first priority.              

You have said that especially the pope’s recent appointment of Filipino Cardinal Orlando Quevedo was a confirmation of the Asian church’s pastoral and missionary focus. What does Quevedo’s pastoral approach stand for?

As bishop of Cotabato, Cardinal Quevedo, understands his principal responsibility as guiding the archdiocese to its own pastoral vision of renewal by way of base ecclesial communities (BECs). Indeed, his widely known areas of concentration and expertise have been building up the local churches, formation of BECs, inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and social justice. He was elected as secretary general of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) for two consecutive terms precisely for this focus.

Besides, the cardinal is considered a very important theologian. He knows Asia very well: its basic problems and urgent issues, as well as its richness and potentials. He was the one who prepared the working paper for the last FABC plenary assembly, held in Xuan Loc, Vietnam in December 2012. In the paper he enumerated 12 megatrends that shape the evangelizing mission of the church in Asia: globalization, culture, poverty, migrants and refugees, indigenous peoples, population, religious freedom, threats to life, social communication, ecology, laity, women, youth, Pentecostalism, and vocations.

What are the most important things American and other non-Asian Catholics could learn from Asian Catholics?

Generally, Asian Catholics are materially poor and, because of this, they have deep and genuine faith in the “trustworthiness” of God. God will provide their basic needs, protect them, free them from all death-dealing realities, and lead them to life in all its fullness.

Asian Catholics are by nature hospitable. Despite their poverty, they welcome visitors, sharing whatever they have, giving the best they can squeeze from their meager means; and doing all this pleasantly, even with a sense of humor. Asian Catholics are used to natural and human-made calamities. Without resorting to fatalism, they face these hardships and dangers in faith, patiently, with reticence, and even with a smile.

Asian Catholics are basically religious and spiritual. One of the fruits of the dialogues with cultures and religions is that many Asian Catholics have learned to welcome and benefit from ancient spiritual traditions such as Zen, Yoga, Sufism, etc. They have started to appreciate and practice silence, meditation, earth-friendly ascetic practices, compassionate actions to neighbors and the society at large, and so on.

And generally Asian Catholics are at ease with women exercising key roles and occupying places of authority in the BECs, parishes or dioceses. It is common to see women taking leadership roles in various areas of life: religious, economic, political.

This is a web-only interview conducted by the editors of U.S. Catholic.

Image: Flickr photo cc by John Ragai