What Pastoral Priorities for the Church in Traditional Asia?

S.Em. il Card. Ivan Dias


Asia is the largest continent of the world and it holds almost two-thirds of the human population. It is the cradle of many ancient civilizations, religious traditions and cultures. For example: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism sprung up in the Indian sub-continent alone. The Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Islamic religions had their origins in the Middle East, while the socio-philosophical teachings of Confucius and the rites of Shintoism have held sway in China, Japan and the Far East. Many of these have a plurimillennial history. Today these religious and cultural traditions are firmly rooted in the Asian soil, have their own scriptures and sages, prayers and symbols, places of worship and ascetical practices (yoga, vypassana, zen meditation, etc.) and exert a deep influence in the thoughts and life-styles of their followers. This mosaic of religious and cultural -isms which flood the Asian scenario is now complicated by the appearance of pseudo-religious doctrines like the New Age, Reiki, Fengshui and other esoteric practices, which ignore the transcendental and tend to make God irrelevant. The inroads which secularist globalization are making in Asia are producing hybrid cultures and are threatening to sweep away traditional ethical and moral values of yesteryears. Even the Church in Asia is vulnerable in this sense.

In the face of such a challenge, we ask: “What could be the pastoral priorities for the Church in Asia?” There is a Chinese proverb which says: “instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle”. Against the dark and grim background of modem secularism, there are two candles which have been lit, especially after the Second Vatican Council. They are inculturation and inter-religious dialogue. They could well be considered pastoral priorities for the Church in Asia today.


Inculturation is the process by which the Gospel message is incarnated into the Asian cultures and local contexts. It must be meaningful to those within the Church and easily understood by those outside it. This poses a special challenge for the peoples in Asia, which is a mosaic of cultures differing from place to place. in Ecclesia in Asia Pope John Paul Il dedicates much space to this topic (nn.21- 22) and affirms its vital role in the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. “As persons and societies change, so too does the culture change with them. As a culture Is transformed, so too are persons and societies transformed by it. From this perspective, it becomes clearer why evangelization and inculturation are naturally and intimately related to each other” (n.21). Inculturation, in fact, should be the cultural expression of one’s faith and the faith expression of one’s culture. Faith and culture must blend together harmoniously to become something beautiful before God and men. Unfortunately, the Gospel and cultures are often in conflict with each other. Pope Paul VI calls this split between Gospel and culture the drama of our time, which has a profound impact upon both evangelization and culture (Evangelii Nuntiandi, n.20).

Many attempts are presently being made in the Catholic Church in Asia to inculturate art, music and dance, Liturgy and theology. These initiatives must indeed be applauded and encouraged. InEcclesia in Asia the Holy Father gives a golden rule by which to gauge the success of all attempts at inculturation: “The test of true inculturation is whether people become more committed to their Christian faith because they perceive it more clearly with the eyes of their own culture” (n.22).

Inter-Religious Dialogue

The Second Vatican Council affirms that the Holy Spirit works also outside the visible confines of the Church (Lumen Gentium, n. 16; Gaudium et Spes, n.22; Ad Gentes, n. 15), and that there exist in other religious and cultural traditions “elements which are true and good”, “precious things, both religious and human”, “elements of truth and grace”, “seeds of the Word” and “rays of the truth which illumine all mankind”. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in them. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.” (cf Nostra Aetate, n.2).

These values merit the attention and esteem of all Christians. Their spiritual patrimony is a genuine invitation to dialogue, not only in those things which they have in common with Christian culture, but also in their differences. On the occasion of his meeting with representatives of non Christian religions at Vigyan Bhawan in New Delhi on 7 November 1999, Pope John Paul Il explained how we should expose and propose our beliefs, but never impose them on anyone: “Dialogue is never an attempt to impose our own views upon others, since such dialogue would become a form of spiritual and cultural domination. This does not mean that we abandon our own convictions. What it means is that, holding firmly to what we believe, we listen respectfully to others, seeking to discern all that is good and holy, all that favours peace and co-operation”.

For a Christian then, a dialogue of cultures is the discovery of the relationship between the working of the Holy Spirit in the Christian faith and culture and His persevering action in other cultures, be they religious or otherwise. It forms a part of the mission of proclamation entrusted to the Church by Christ Himself. It is the work of the Holy Spirit which has hovered over God’s creation ever since the beginning of the universe and which is at work in every culture, viz. in every “humus” which lies enshrined deep within the nature of all human beings and which conditions their world vision and their personal and communitarian behaviour.

All inter-religious dialogue - be it dialogue of life or of action, of ideas or of experience - should bear in mind Christ Our Lord’s teaching that He did not come to abolish, but to fulfill (Mt 5:17), as also St. Paul’s advice to appreciate “whatever is pure, just, noble and honourable” in the cultural and religious traditions around us (PhiIem.4:8). In the various Asian traditions there are values which have their equivalent in Christian thought and behaviour: for instance, a search for union with the Absolute, the importance of silence and contemplation, honesty and simplicity, the spirit of asceticism and discipline, frugal living, the thirst for learning and philosophical enquiry, love of nature, as also compassion for all beings, filial piety towards parents, elders and ancestors, love for the family and solidarity within the community. All these elements can be starting points for an inter-religious dialogue and serve as a basis to explain the message of salvation enshrined in the divine person of Our Lord Jesus Christ (cf Ecclesia in Asia, n.6).


In the post-synodal document Ecclesia in Asia, Pope John Paul Il saw the third Christian millennium as the age of the evangelization of Asia. The time has now come to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all the Asian nations. The two important means to achieve this end are inculturation and inter-religious dialogue. For this we need persons who are deeply rooted in their Christian faith and who are also well conversant with Asian cultures and religions, and are able to detect the “seeds of divine Wisdom already present in the lives, religions and peoples” of Asia (Ecclesia in Asia, nn.20, 23) and to use them as pointers to the person and Good News of Jesus Christ.

Evangelization is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit, who has been at work in all cultures since the beginning of the universe. It was He who prepared the Incarnation of the Son of God and His redemptive sacrifice two thousand years ago on Asian soil. He has left pointers all along the history of world cultures which would lead honest seekers towards the fullness of the truth in Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit started the work of evangelization with direct and indirect proclamation at the very moment that Christ Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Lk 2:8-20; Mt 2:1-12). Direct proclamation: when the Angels announced the glad tiding of Jesus’ birth to shepherds who watched their flock that night. Indirect proclamation: when a star rose in the East and led some Wise Men laden with precious gifts to Jesus, the new-born King and Savior of the world. Applying this to the Asian peoples, we must acknowledge and respect the precious treasures of their cultural and religious heritage which they carry in their bosom, as also the efforts they are making to discover Truth by following their respective scriptures as guiding stars. Just as the Wise Men were restless until they found Jesus and placed their treasures before Him and adored Him, so also the peoples of Asia, with their varied cultures and religions traditions, will be restless until they find and adore Him who alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life. You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (St. Augustine).