The church in Asia: A place for all peoples
Fifty years after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the church faces new challenges. In this final installment of a three-part series,
We were at an early morning weekday Mass and counted some 200 worshipers, the majority of them gray-haired and reciting the rosary. This scenario is repeated every day except on Sundays, when the numbers are multiplied a dozen times. And this was just one of thousands of churches in China. A lot is happening as well in the “underground” church, though much of it goes unreported.
What is clear is that the number of Christians in China is growing. In fact, more people are in church on Sundays in China than the whole of Europe combined. Last Easter saw in excess of 20,000 baptisms to the Catholic Church alone.
In addition, there are also “cultural Christians”—many of them young and educated—who “believe but do not belong.” They, too, are growing and are at the forefront of spreading Christianity. The teachers and professors among them play significant roles in enlightening future generations and schooling them in the ideals, values, and philosophies of Christianity.
This is the church of China, and, even if currently still segregated, it will probably be the face of the church of the future.
It is in view of this trend and of the Asian context that we propose the guiding principle of a church for all peoples. This church is all-encompassing and inclusive. It is a church not confined to the boundaries of parochial walls or divisions of ideological differences. In a globalized world wracked by poverty, violence, tensions, and division, a church for all peoples serves as a counterforce for harmony, an institution for transformation, and a home for all.
The Second Vatican Council advocated such inclusivity with its documents on ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), interreligious relations (Nostra Aetate), and human suffering (Gaudium et Spes). Fifty years after the opening of the council, much more needs to be done in realizing its demands.
A church for all peoples stands, first of all, in solidarity with suffering humanity. This solidarity has to be lived not only in charitable services or programs and advocacy for social justice; it has to seep into many other aspects of church life.
In the Asian church, for example, this solidarity has been expressed in contextual theologies that put the spotlight on the experience and perspective of marginalized groups like the Minjung (people’s) theology of South Korea, Dalit (untouchable) theology of India, and Burakumin (outcast) theology of Japan.
Such solidarity could also be glimpsed in the church’s efforts at inculturation, such as in the work of the Prelature of Infanta in the Philippines (under Bishop Julio Labayen) to be a church of the poor in an inculturated manner. Those initiatives have included the use of the image of Mary as mother of the church of the poor, which draws upon Filipino symbols and social issues in addressing injustice in the nation. A prayer, based on this image, is recited at most services and has a unifying effect on the prelature.
A church for all peoples also embraces and engages peoples of other religions. Sri Lankan Jesuit theologian Aloysius Pieris notes that to enter into dialogue with the Asian poor, Christians need to be baptized both in the “Jordan of Asian religions” and the “Calvary of Asian poverty.”
For centuries Asia has been home to peoples of many cultures and religions. In the Asian psyche, to be religious is to also be interreligious. This is because the Asian experience of poverty, family, and community transcends cultural and religious boundaries.
The poor in Asia are not all Christians, and Christians are not the only people concerned about poverty. Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus are just as concerned. Consequently Christians consider members of other religions not as competitors but as partners and allies in their Christian mission, which is the struggle against poverty and injustice.
Thus, for Asian Christians, Asia’s innate gift of cultural and religious pluralism is central to building not just a church in Asia but, more importantly, a church of Asia. It is, ultimately, the context for a truly Asian and liberating theology.
That is why in Asia the vision of a truly Asian church is that of a church of partnership and dialogue. This has been eloquently expressed by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, which sees an Asian church as a church whose “essential mode of evangelization” is the triple dialogue with the poor (liberation), with cultures (inculturation), and with other religions (interreligious dialogue).
For a church for all peoples to become a reality, the church would need to become less inward-looking and more truly and fully a sign of reconciliation and dialogue for all. To do this, the church needs to be a sacrament of solidarity. Rich or poor, sinner or saint, migrant or citizen, people need to be able to find in the church a place and a space, especially when they seek or need it. In doing so, the church helps secure not only its own future but that of the world as well.
This article appeared as part of a series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. To read more of today's scholars on the signs of the times, click here.
Image: Tom Wright