Milan (AsiaNews) - In his first "missionary" trips, Pope Francis visited the Churches of South Korea, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, a significant choice that should give pause to all believers in Christ. The Pope wants to lead the universal Church towards the mission to the nations' last "frontier", the continent of Asia, home to 62 per cent of all humans and 85 per cent of all non-Christians. Out of 4.262 billion Asians, 170 million are Catholic, half of them in the Philippines, the only country with a Catholic majority (along with the former Portuguese colony of East Timor).
Adding Eastern and Protestant Churches, Asian Christians fall just short of 300 million. Two thousand years after Christ, more than half the human race has not yet received the "Good News" the angels gave the shepherds on that night in Bethlehem, the "great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a saviour has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord."
In his message for World Mission Day in 2014, Francis said, "Today vast numbers of people still do not know Jesus Christ. For this reason, the mission ad gentes continues to be most urgent. All the members of the Church are called to participate in this mission, for the Church is missionary by her very nature."
In the first millennium after Christ, the Gospel reached the peoples of Europe (Russia in 900); in the second millennium, those of the Americas, Africa and Oceania (half of Africa's billion people are Christian); in the third millennium the Church must proclaim Christ on the Asian continent.
In Italy, everyone is somewhat short-sighted vis-à-vis the rest of world. Asia draws interest for its economy, politics and tourism, but little or nothing for its religions. There is no point in complaining: press and television are the mirror of a country and a people. At the beginning of the third millennium, John Paul II said that "Christians must have a mind and a heart as big as the world."
As long as the Saviour does not reach the extreme edges of humanity, the mission to the nations will remain very much topical, for all peoples and all cultures need Christ, as well as Christ's peace and joy. Evangelii Gaudium begins with these words (n. 1), "The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church's journey in years to come."
Here Francis eggs us on to become players in his plan of proclaiming and bearing witness to Christ to everyone.
Over the years, the mission ad gentes has changed dramatically and will change even more as it comes into direct contact with the great religions and cultures of Asia, with positive effects on the entire Church.
The negative legacy of the colonial period means that in much of Asia, Christians are still considered a foreign minority. In India, it is common to hear that "the real India is only Hindu", and in Thailand, the real Thai is only Buddhist (there are almost no converts from Buddhism to Christianity).
"Although the Catholic Church in Myanmar has just celebrated 500 years of the presence of the Christian faith in Myanmar, the Christian population is only 5 per cent out of the total population of Myanmar (52.4 million). Thus, Christians are still a minority in the country," a Burmese priest wrote on AsiaNews. Likewise, "prejudices against Christians are even stronger, for, according to the 'mantra' of national identity, 'To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.' If this is the case, 'Who are we? We are aliens in our own country. We are seen as traitors'."
This is but one of the difficulties the mission to the nations encounters today in Asia. This is Christianity's great challenge, the first real challenge to our vision of the world, history, faith, Church and mission. The West's atheism and materialism are post-Christian phenomena; they are the rejection of Christ but rooted in Christianity because their roots are in the Bible and the Gospel. As philosopher Karl Jaspers put it, "The civilisation of the West would fall into nothingness, if one took away the Bible."
Asia is entering the modern world (Japan for example) taking on "evangelical values" (peace, goodness, brotherhood, justice, freedom, and democracy) but separating them completely from the person of Christ and the faith in the one true God. Christianity is reduced to a moral code, the sum of ethical and humanising values that are already partially present in Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam. This is the challenge in Asia: at present what is the point of the mission to the nations in Asia and for the future of humanity, especially since most of it will be played out in Asia?
When one says that "the mission to the nations is over, that it is up to young Churches to proclaim Christ to their peoples," or that "The missionaries, the missionary institutes no longer make sense," one is expressing a short-sighted view of the Church.
"Missionary Activity Is Only Beginning," says the Redemptoris Missio (n. 30), because of Asia four plus billion people who have not yet heard the 'Good News' that Christ, the Son of God, is humankind's only Saviour.
This problem is not limited to young Churches, but to all believers in Christ, and to all the institutions of the Catholic Church, particularly since it is seen as a Western religion. Proclaiming Christ in Asia is thus first and foremost a task that falls on the young Churches of Asia. Some missionary institutes have already been established by India's (three) Bishops' Conferences as well as by those of South Korea, Philippines, Thailand, and Myanmar.
However, the Christian West as a whole must realise that the "dialogue of life" with the East also has a religious, charitable, cultural, and educational aspect. Indeed, "The presence of missionary, printing and missionary outreach institutes within Christian communities is meant to nurture the missionary awareness, which stirs every Christian and the community itself to feel responsible for the evangelical message to all men and women," said a pastoral note titled 'Missionary institutes in the dynamism of the Italian Church, that the Italian Bishops' Conference (CEI) issued in January 1987.
In its General Assembly of 1972, PIME reaffirmed its "preferential option for Asia." From this emerged the ''Asian Studies Institute' (associated Milan's Catholic University), as well as its outreach for dialogue among Christian Christians, Hindu and Buddhist monks.
In 1985, it kick started "Silsilah" in the Philippines - which was adopted by the Bishops' Conference as means for dialogue with Islam - as well as the 'Euntes' training school for the missionary pastoral ministry in favour of diocesan priests, sisters and catechists from a dozen Asian countries.
Starting in 1995, three PIME Fathers have joined a "Huiling," a charitable organisation recognised by the Chinese government that runs a number of homes for people with disabilities. Established in 1985 by Meng Weina (a woman who became Catholic with the name Teresa), it introduced new methods, vocational training and computer literacy programmes.
Last but not least, since the AsiaNews agency was founded in 1986, going online in 2003, it has developed a global reach.
All of these too are examples of 'missio ad gentes' in Asia.