Chiang Mai (AsiaNews) The Asian Mission Congress (AMC) began today with a solemn liturgy presided by card Ivan Dias, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Missions. In the great hall decorated with flowers, thrones, standards and the flags of the Vatican and Thailand, two giant screens on the sides showed the ceremony and the lyrics of the songs to more than a thousand delegates. The AMC website [www.catholic.or.th] broadcast the event in a live feed and will be available throughout the event.
At the beginning of the mass, nuncio Salvatore Pennacchio read a letter from the Pope. In it the Holy Father singled out his legate, Card Crescenzio Sepe, archbishop of Naples (Italy), for his "important missionary experience". Cardinal Sepe himself then made a few introductory remarks.
Although the first day of the congress was devoted to introductory speeches, it also looked at the prospects for mission in Asia.
Mgr Orlando Quevedo (Philippines), secretary general of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), highlighted some of the continent's records. Not only is Asia the most populous continent, but it is also the youngest (50 per cent under the age of 25) and the poorest (two thirds of the world's poor live in Asia). He added though that Asia is a treasure's trove in spiritual terms and that the Church is reaching maturity so much so that it is relying on Asian missionaries in the oldest Churches of Europe and the Americas.
The Church Yearbook shows that between 1978 and 2004 the number of Asian priests almost doubled from 27,700 to 48,222). The number of seminarians went up by more than 150 per cent from 11,536 to 29,220. Thousands more joined traditional religious institutions.
Given the drop in vocations in the older Churches, it is apparent that the mission of the Church in the world will be entrusted to Asian Catholics.
The responsibilities vested in this so-called "minority" Church underscores the fact that an "Asian way" to mission must be found. Not in a geographic sense pinning Western and Oriental Churches, but rather insofar as Asian Catholics must be decisive in finding their missionary vocation.
"Too often my Catholics think that missionaries are priests and nuns," said Mgr Joseph Sangval Surasaring, bishop of Chiang Mai. "This congress should help them understand that the gift they received must be discretely but clearly offered to everyone they meet."
Indeed, as part of the AMC activities, groups of eight-ten people meet in the afternoon to share proposals, relate facts, and agree on how to foster conscience raising. Two whole floors of the hotel have been turned into a huge camp where people wearing Indian saris, Arab or Turkmen headgears, Chinese coats or long Thai skirts sit around tables talking and discussing.
Mgr Quevedo said the first order of business to discuss is to develop "pride in our Christian faith", pride to which we must bear witness in charity, dialogue and joy. In fact, words like "joy" and "witness" were centre stage in what people had to say.
To remove any doubts, Mgr Saturnino Dias, AMC coordinator, said that to be a missionary one does not need to be intellectually gifted. "There is no need to 'demonstrate', but to 'proclaim' with life that Jesus is the only saviour". All this is done "by telling one's own story" of meeting Jesus.
For this reason, this afternoon before groups met separately, some speakers, among them Mgr John Tong, auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, highlighted how the faith is spreading in Hong Kong and China, especially the role played by family ties and education.
The young bishop of Imus (Philippines), Mgr Luis Antonio Tagle, specifically tackled the issue of relating personal stories. Using lively examples, well received by his audience, the bishop said that "story telling" is a truly "Asian" way. It implies that the story teller must be involved in what he or she is saying and must bear the signs that it's a story of their life. The focus is on "verifiable facts, not "concepts".
In a sense this "Asian Way" is actually that of Jesus, of His "come and see". As Mgr Tagle put it, in order to be missionaries Catholics must "listen to the story of God's love for us, which is Jesus Christ".
After assimilating this through prayer and in silence, we must in turn tell the story of our life with "words, writing, photos, videos, gestures, silence, working for the poor like Mother Teresa, etc."
In his speech he also mentioned persecution, so widespread in Asia, saying that there are those "who are trying to suppress the stories about and the story of Jesus."
"His humiliating end should have been the end of His story," but the Father "has never stopped talking" to us through Him and His Church.
The bishop concluded urging those present to "go and keep telling my [Jesus'] story to one and all.