Chiang Mai (AsiaNews) The closing moments of the Asian Mission Congress (AMC) saw a Pakistani delegate hug an Indian delegate, a Tamil greet a Sinhalese, another Indian delegate from the Brahmin caste rejoicing for standing close to cardinal from the untouchable caste. Taken together these gestures send a message to the world that is more moving and powerful than any word could ever be. In a continent marred by war, violence, divisions and exclusions it all seems to disappear. And it is not mere sentimentalism, but much, much more.
Indeed, for the past two years, Asia Christians prepared themselves in English (the AMC's lingua franca) to chant, reflect upon their lives and get ready for mission. The kind of brotherhood and enthusiasm experienced here was not a dream but a prophecy in which "a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue" praised "the Lamb" (cf. Apoc, 7: 9-10)".
Indeed, the AMC's final communiqué highlights this aspect by focusing on how evangelisation, not multicultural relativism, is the path to building coexistence in Asia, a continent marked by "ethnic conflict and religious tensions". The days delegates spent together show that the peoples of Asia can weave together a unique thread called the "Story of Jesus".
The AMC, the first of its kind, was organised for the purpose of reawakening the sense of mission among Asia's Catholics. Too often the violence, persecution and marginalisation that many Catholic communities experience prevent their members from expressing themselves, relegating them to a life in silence in their own ghetto. But from what delegates said, Asian Catholics are well aware of what mission means and of the need to bring the Gospel and love to mankind.
Because of the passion for evangelisation, ties are being created between ancient Churches like that of Lebanon and India, with millions of faithful, and the newest ones, like that of Mongolia born in 1991 with only 350 worshippers. Mutual interest is pushing Churches to help each other develop. There are Vietnamese Catholics helping Montagnardsvictims of government repression and neglectrun their schools, daycare centres and farming cooperatives. There are Thai Catholics working with mountain tribes to overcome illiteracy and go beyond subsistence life. There are Churches that do not forget their persecuted brethren: in addition to Hong Kong and Taiwan, people in the Philippines, Korea, and Thailand support in more or less secretive ways the Church and evangelisation in mainland China.
In Italy, many bishops, concerned about a shrinking clergy, may be preventing their own priests to go on mission, but in Asia bishops are encouraging their priests to take care of faraway Churches.
A Thai bishop said that he sent one of his priests on mission a few years ago. The following year the diocesan seminary welcomed three new candidates with a vocation. Hence, he said: "Mission may seem a loss but in reality it is sowing seeds that are bearing fruit".
What is striking among Asian Christians is their youth and their notion of age. Whilst it is true that one delegate was 101, Peter Chan Lasom from a village near Chiang Maim, the average age of lay delegates was around 30. And among these young people many are converting especially from minority groups, tribal peoples, untouchables, which reflects what Catholics are doing for them. Lest we forget, the Church is also committed to the youth of well-off families, in particular members of the dominant Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim cultures. Millions of those attending Catholics schools and universities are neither Catholic nor Christian.
If there is any shyness towards bringing them the word, it is not coming from the laity but from clerical and school officialdom. The fear of being accused of proselytising is working as good as any gag order.
In fact, whilst the congress emphasised the "triple dialogue" with the continent's peoples, religions and cultures, it fell short in focusing on proclaiming the Gospel in its reflections and message.
In his homely, Card Ivan Dias, prefect of the Propaganda Fide, said that in addition to "indirect proclaiming" the Good Word by stressing the spiritual elements and the search for God in all religions, there is also a need for "directly proclaiming" it that is even more essential today in an Asian continent that is fast moving on the path of secularisation.
Similarly, the congress failed to say much about religious freedom, persecution and martyrdom. Organisers put this silence down on the need to avoid causing controversy or conflict in countries where Christians might experience even greater suffering. However, in doing so they are letting down all those, not only Christians, who seek freedom and respect for their rights. Did John Paul II not teach and does Benedict XVI say that religious freedom is the basis of every human right?
But this shortcoming is largely a problem at the level of reflection and official communication, far from the experience of each Church. Ii is almost as if the theologians of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences lived detached from the daily life of the faithful.
Catholics from Churches whose martyrs were canonised by John Paul II, i.e. Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese, felt the need to talk about these issues the most. For them religious freedom is not a life and death issue that involved the Church alone, but it is one that affects their entire nation.
The Churches who suffered martyrdom are also the ones that are more open to the universal appeal of mission. They realise that demands heard at the AMC for "mission in Asia by Asians" run the risk of falling on the slippery slope of narrow nationalism that ingratitude towards "foreign" missionaries who brought the faith to Asia. These Churches are in fact the ones that still welcome foreign missionaries knowing that the Gospel must be brought to Asia and the world.