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 Global Perspective

August 10, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 16

Edmund Chia
Edmund Chia is a Malaysian theologian serving in Thailand as executive secretary of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. He plans to step down from the position in August and will move on to Chicago in the fall to serve on the faculty of the Catholic Theological Union. His e-mail address is:



The problems and ills of this world are too mammoth for the church or any single religion to solve; they must act in collaboration and partnership.

Theological vision of the Asian church -- Part II

By Edmund Chia

Part One, The coming of age of the Asian church, of this Two Part series appeared Aug. 3.

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Some 250 Asian Catholics (more than half bishops and cardinals) will gather in Daejun, South Korea, Aug. 17-22 for the eighth plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). It will be yet another occasion for the Asian bishops to explore and express their vision of what it means to be church in the context of the massive poverty, multireligiosity and multiculturality of Asia.

NCR publisher Tom Fox will be at Daejun and will be carrying daily reports from the plenary, so the present article will not say anything more about the forthcoming assembly. Instead, it will look at what is unique about the Asian church and what has inspired many from other parts of the world to prophesy that the Asian church is the future hope for the universal church.

I suppose the most significant factor is that the Asian bishops have a vision. Theirs is a unique vision that did not fall from heaven but one that emerged from their lived experience of engagement and dialogue with the contextual realities of Asia. It is a vision that takes seriously Christian heritage and tradition, but also one that is prudently sensitive to the heritage and tradition of the many religions of Asia. In other words, it is an authentically Christian as well as authentically Asian theological vision, i.e, one that is traditionally faithful as well as contemporarily relevant.

It all began with Pope Paul VI's visit to Manila, the Philippines, in 1970. It provided an occasion for the Asian bishops to gather in assembly, during which they discerned that there is something unique about the context of Asia that the church must take more seriously. They subsequently established the FABC and, in 1974, held its first plenary assembly in Taipei, Taiwan. The most obvious theme that the bishops felt needed to be explored was none other than "evangelization." What does it mean to evangelize in Asia? What should Christians be doing and what is the goal of our evangelizing mission?

A one-word response to the preceding questions would be "dialogue." Yes, the church is called to be in dialogue with Asian realities, i.e., with the poor, the religions and the cultures of Asia. Dialogue is the mode of the church's evangelizing mission in Asia, and dialogue is the reason for its existence in Asia. Dialogue is the new way of being church.

By this the Asian bishops are saying that Catholics must be concerned about the poor, be engaged with persons of other religions, and be exploring what the church can learn from the cultures of Asia. Thus, integral liberation, interreligious dialogue and inculturation are the priority concerns of the church.

Expressed concretely and in the words of the Statement of the Fifth FABC Plenary Assembly, this means that Christians must "be" with the people, be "responding" to their needs, and doing so with a "sensitiveness" to the presence of God in the cultures of religions of the peoples of Asia. That way, they are "witnessing" to God's Kingdom "through presence, solidarity, sharing and word."

The ministry of Mother Teresa and her sisters best capture this notion of evangelization. Theirs is simply to "be" with the poor, especially the neglected and dying. For them, evangelization is not about secretly baptizing these dying poor (as was the practice of many missionaries of yesteryears) in order to whisk them into heaven and, hence, add to the statistics of the church's baptismal record, but about being to the poor what Jesus would be to them for they see in the poor the face of Christ himself.

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It is this human face of Christ that ought to be emphasized when doing mission in Asia. The Christology that the Asian bishops give prominence to is not one about the logos or Jesus' consubstantiality with the Father or about his ontological uniqueness, but one revealed as the human face of Christ in Asia.

The FABC's Theological Advisory Commission spells this out as the Christ who is "born of woman (Gal 4:4)," one "who pitches his tent among us (Jn 1:14)," and one who "empties himself to be in solidarity with the little ones, those treated as non-persons -- the poor and deprived, the outcast and marginalized, the oppressed and downtrodden, the sick, those who do not count, children and women."

The commission concludes by speaking about Christ's evangelizing mission: "For as he was Good News to the poor of his time, so today he cannot but be Good News to the teeming millions of [poor] in Asia." As Indian theologian Felix Wilfred puts it: "Jesus is relevant to Asia, not because the bulk of the Asian masses are non-Christians, but because they are poor."

With such a notion of mission and evangelization, where the church's goal is the ushering in of the Kingdom of God, the Asian bishops regard other religions not as enemies or competitors but as allies and partners. This accounts for why they insist that Christians must be in dialogue with persons of other religions. The problems and ills of this world are too mammoth for the church or any single religion to solve; they must act in collaboration and partnership.

Such is the theological vision of the church in Asia. It is the fruit of years and decades of engaging with Asian realities, especially the fact of religious pluralism. Since religious pluralism is no longer a phenomenon peculiar to Asia, as the West itself is becoming post-Christian, the church universal needs to take seriously the fact and role of other religions in its theology. The experience of the Asian bishops, as articulated through the FABC, should provide useful clues.

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