From Ecclesia in Asia to the Mission of Love and Service: A Comparative Analysis of Two Contrasting Approaches to Doing Christian Mission in Asia

Jonathan Tan Yun-ka

Jonathan Tan Yun-ka from Malaysia holds an LL.B from the National University of Singapore and a PhD in Religion and Culture from the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., where he previously taught. He is presently Assistant Professor of Minority Studies and Religion at Xavier University, Cincinnati, Ohio. His research interests of which he has published widely include Chinese and South East Asian religious traditions, inter-religious dialogue, comparative theology and Asian-American constructions of religious identity.

When Karol Wojtyla ascended the papacy in 1978, he was not only the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries; he has also traveled more than any other pope. A charismatic leader with a keen sense of mission to promote the growth of the Catholic Church throughout the world, his many trips to various parts of Asia have either aroused the pride of Asian Catholics and charmed many political and religious leaders, or provoked his vociferous detractors into accusing him of relentless proselytism. Whatever the case may be, the many diverse yet complex aspects of John Paul II’s papacy will be studied for a long time to come.

The string of events leading to the promulgation of John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia and the Final Statement of the Seventh FABC Plenary Assembly (FABC VII), A Mission of Love and Service began in 1995 when the Synod of Bishops’ Secretary-General, Cardinal Jan P. Schotte announced the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for Asia (the "Asian Synod") in response to the pope’s call for special synods from different parts of the world to prepare for the coming of the third Christian millennium (John Paul II 1994:401-16). Held in Rome from 19 April to 17 May 1998 with the theme of "Jesus Christ the Savior, and his mission of love and service in Asia: that they may have life and have it abundantly," the Asian Synod reflected the grave concern of John Paul II with regard to the smallness of the Asian local churches, with the exception of the churches of the Philippines, South Korea and East Timor. If it were intended to provoke a critical reflection on the question of missio ad gentes in Asia, it was successful in this regard, albeit highlighting the different approaches between Pope John Paul II and the Asian bishops of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) on this issue.

This essay seeks to compare and evaluate the approaches of Pope John Paul II and the FABC on the why and how of doing Christian mission in Asia. First, two key moments of interaction will be examined for the purposes of this essay: Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (November 1999) and the FABC’s response, two months later, in the Final Statement of the Seventh FABC Plenary Assembly (January 2000). Second, a critical comparison of the different understandings and approaches of John Paul II and the FABC to the task of doing Christian mission in Asia will be presented. Finally, this essay concludes with several observations on the salient elements and implications of the mission strategies of John Paul II and the FABC.

The Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia

In his apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in Asia (1999:357-84), John Paul II presents his vision for carrying out the task of Christian mission in Asia. According to the Maryknoll missioner in the Philippines, James Kroeger, "[g]ratitude, celebration, and optimism characterize Ecclesia in Asia"(2000:278). After introducing the fact that Jesus’ origins was in Asia, the pope stated that "just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent" (EA 1) (JP II 1999:359). Such a strong statement at the beginning of the apostolic exhortation is liable to be misinterpreted, especially by religious zealots and nationalists as an attempt at global religious domination. Michael Amaladoss notes that in Ecclesia in Asia, John Paul II made no attempt to "hide the fact that it ‘is a strong affirmation of the need for a new drive for evangelizing Asia and expresses a fervent hope that Asia will turn to Christ in the third millennium’"(Amaladoss 1999:3). In another essay, Amaladoss questions that "[i]f John Paul II prays that in the 3rd millennium ‘a great harvest of faith will be reaped’ in Asia (EA 1) one would like to know the "signs of the times" on which such a prayer is based" (2000:540). Similar sentiments are voiced by Josef Neuner:

Surely, much of Europe became Christian in the first millennium; the Church entered fully into its culture. Unfortunately, however, she identified herself with the West. So, she was able, in the second millennium, to accompany the European explorers who found new continents and the colonizers who established Western power over them. … So the expansion of the Church in the second millennium must be seen as an ambiguous history. In Asia it was blocked. The great cultures of Asia were neither destroyed nor penetrated. Now in the beginning of the third millennium the Church has to understand her mission anew, in Asia and, it seems, in the whole world. The modern world cannot be presented with conceptual dogmas. Our multi-religious and secular society does not admit monopolies; it looks for the vision of a renewed, redeemed world. Is the Church able to offer to Asia─to the world of today─the vision of a new society? (2000:540).

Whatever the unease that some Asian theologians might be grappling with, John Paul II makes it clEAr from the very beginning that he views the soteriological challenges from Asia’s great world religions as the biggest challenge to Christianity’s expansion plans in Asia. 
Quoting what he had said earlier in his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the pope states that "the issue of the encounter of Christianity with ancient local cultures and religions is a pressing one. This is a great challenge for evangelization, since religious systems such as Buddhism or Hinduism have a clearly soteriological character" (EA 2) (JP II 1999:359). John Paul II also explained that he personally "chose as the synod’s theme: Jesus Christ the Savior and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia: ‘That they may have life and have it abundantly’" (EA 2) (ibid.). He spoke confidently of the "character, spiritual fire and zeal which will assuredly make Asia the land of a bountiful harvest in the coming millennium" (EA 4) (JP II, 360). In addition, the pope also reaffirms his understanding of missio ad gentes as Church growth and expansion, reiterating the need to commit more resources to the "harvest of souls" (EA 9) (JP II, 363).

On the one hand, many positive aspects of Ecclesia in Asia are easy to overlook in the midst of its more controversial aspects. For example, Chapter 1 of Ecclesia in Asia focuses on the concrete realities of modern-day Asia: her historical, cultural, religious, socio-political and economic realities (paras 5-9) (JP II, 360-3). The rationale for doing so was explained thus: "A critical awareness of the diverse and complex realities of Asia is essential if the people of God on the continent [of Asia] are to respond to God’s will for them in the new evangelization" (EA 5) (JP II, 363). In his analysis of Ecclesia in Asia, James Kroeger highlights some of its positive aspects:

Three chapters of EA, focusing on Jesus and the Spirit, describe a type of "doctrinal" orientation to the Church’s Asian mission. Yet, the manner of presentation is decidedly "pastoral" in style and focus; it blends theologies ‘from below’ and ‘from above.’ It reads easily; the language is smooth. Some insights enjoy poetic expression: "Contemplating Jesus in his human nature, the peoples of Asia find their deepest questions answered, their hopes fulfilled, their dignity uplifted and their despair conquered" (2000:280).

Kroeger further praises the pope for forcefully making the case in support of religious freedom and the freedom of conscience (283). Clearly, the pope has taken extra care to be sensitive to the "sensibilities of the Asian peoples," suggesting that the Church should employ narrative methods akin to Asian cultural forms and follow "an evocative pedagogy, using stories, parables, and symbols so characteristic of Asian methodology in teaching" (EA 20) (JP II, 368). The pope also recognizes the "pressing need of the local Churches in Asia to present the mystery of Christ to their peoples according to their cultural patterns and ways of thinking" (EA 20) (JP II, 369).

At the same time, John Paul II also expresses his frustration that "Jesus is often perceived as foreign to Asia. It is paradoxical that most Asians tend to regard Jesus—born on Asian soil—as a Western rather than an Asian figure" (EA 20) (JP II, 368). On this point, Michael Amaladoss suggests that one cannot assume the fact that just because Jesus was an Asian, Asian peoples will accept him merely on that fact: "Is the fact that Jesus was an Asian going to make any difference to his acceptance as the only Savior by Asian peoples?" (2000:235). John Mansford Prior has adopted a more critical stance on this issue, pointing out that the "central problem is neither Christ nor his acceptance/rejection by his fellow Asians. The key missiological problem is rather the Western Church’s alien tone and idiom inherited from colonial times"(Prior 1999:362).

On the issue of missio ad gentes’ historical alliance with colonialism, John Paul II was also unhappy that many Asians continue to equate mission with colonialism (EA 9) (1999:362). John Mansford Prior responds to the pope’s observations as follows:

While the Pope sees the crux of the matter as doctrinal (Christocentrism), the bishops’ … saw their problem as not with Jesus the Christ – who is widely accepted and loved by Asians – but the presence of a foreign Church burdened by a colonial past. As many Asians have put it over the years: "Jesus of the Gospels—yes; your Western Church—no!" (1999:261).

Prior’s response is worth citing in full:

Apart from the indigenous Churches in the Near East and Kerala, most remaining Churches are the result of colonial expansion and missionary outreach working hand-in-hand. Whatever the nuances, however great the social contribution of the mission Churches in the past, however heroic the sacrifices of cross-cultural missioners over the centuries, the fact remains in stark clarity: the Latin Churches of Asia are a foreign presence. They are alien in the official dress of its leaders; alien in its rituals (despite use of mother tongue); alien in its formation of cultic and community leaders in foreign thought patterns in seminaries whose professors are foreign-educated; alien in its large, often rich, institutions among people who are generally poor; above all alien in that Christians have had to uproot themselves from their own cultural identity in order to claim a "hybrid" Christian one. This is a major issue for most Asian bishops. However, Ecclesia in Asia mentions it in passing in a single sentence as though the problem was over: "… the Church in many places was still considered as foreign to Asia, and indeed was often associated in people’s minds with the colonial powers (EA 9)" (emphasis added) [19999:261].

On a more positive note, the Vietnamese-American theologian Peter C. Phan has commended John Paul II for recognizing "the necessity and validity of the Asiannessof the Churches of Asia" (Phan 2000:218). He points out that while John Paul II is critical of the fact that "despite her centuries-long presence and her many apostolic endeavors, the Church in many places was still considered as foreign to Asia and indeed was often associated in people’s minds with the colonial powers" (EA 9,emphasis added) (1999:362), the pope "uses the past tense and fails to recognize that the foreignness of Christianity in Asia and the perception of its association with colonialism are present realities, and this is not simply ‘in many places’ but in all parts of Asia" (Phan, 218).

John Paul II went on to say that the Church must "be open to new and surprising ways in which the face of Jesus might be presented in Asia" (EA 20) (1998:368). He also suggests a need for a spirituality of prayer and contemplation, echoing a point which the FABC addressed in their Second Plenary Assembly "Prayer—the Life of the Church in Asia" (see EA 23) (1999:370). The pope rightly recognized the necessity for images of Jesus Christ that are sensitive to the Asian context. Among his suggestions in Ecclesia in Asia include: the teacher of wisdom, the healer, the liberator, the spiritual guide, the enlightened one, the compassionate friend of the poor, the good Samaritan, the good Shepherd, the obedient one (EA 20) (1999:369). The pontiff also thought that:

Jesus could be presented as the Incarnate Wisdom of God whose grace brings to fruition the "seeds" of divine Wisdom already present in the lives, religions and peoples of Asia. In the midst of so much suffering among Asian peoples, he might best be proclaimed as the Savior "who can provide meaning to those undergoing unexplainable pain and suffering" (EA 20)

The pope also extolled the endeavors of missionaries such as Giovanni da Montecorvino, Matteo Ricci and Roberto de Nobili, urging that their examples be emulated today (EA 20).

Christocentric dimension of missio ad gentes

In Ecclesia in Asia, John Paul II reiterates the point he had previously made inRedemptoris missio, viz., missio ad gentes needs to focus on the verbal, explicit proclamation of the uniqueness and necessity of Christ for the salvation of the world. In this regard, Jacob Kavunkal observes that:

According to Ecclesia in Asia, Church’s mission is not just a proclamation of Jesus or witnessing to the Gospel…; it is proclaiming Jesus Christ "as the one and only Savior for all peoples" (n.10). In fact a careful reading of the first part of the document makes it clear that this proclamation of Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior is the chief concern of the document. Within the first 21 numbers nearly 30 times Jesus Christ is qualified as the "only Savior" or the "Redeemer" (2000:290-1).

The following excerpt from Ecclesia in Asia illustrates the point that Kavunkal is making:

Jesus is the one universal mediator. Even for those who do not explicitly profess faith in him as the Savior, salvation comes as a grace from Jesus Christ through the communication of the Holy Spirit. We believe that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is the one Savior because he alone─the Son─accomplished the Father’s universal plan of salvation. As the definitive manifestation of the mystery of the Father’s love for all, Jesus is indeedunique, and it is precisely this uniqueness of Christ which gives him an absolute and universal significance" (EA 14, emphasis added) (1999:365).

For the pontiff, this is a non-negotiable point—there can be no evangelization without the emphasis on proclaiming Christ and his role in the salvation of humanity. In his blunt words:

There can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord. The Second Vatican Council and the Magisterium since then, responding to a certain confusion about the true nature of the Church's mission, have repeatedly stressed the primacy of the proclamation of Jesus Christ in all evangelizing work (EA 19) (1999:361).

In addition, the pope is very concerned about the orthodoxy of any proclamation of Christ, emphasizing that the "complete truth of Jesus Christ" is to be proclaimed:

in all evangelizing work, however, it is the complete truth of Jesus Christ that must be proclaimed. Emphasizing certain aspects of the inexhaustible mystery of Jesus is both legitimate and necessary in gradually introducing Christ to a person, but this cannot be allowed to compromise the integrity of the faith (EA23, emphasis added) (1999:371).

While one has no quarrel with the necessity to present the "complete truth of Jesus Christ," the real issue is how this "‘complete truth of Christ’ is presented to Asians." On the one hand, John Paul II focuses on the need to proclaim Jesus Christ as the only Savior of the world, even while recognizing the validity of life witness and dialogue in certain circumstances. On the other hand, the Asian Bishops of the FABC, immersed in the diversity and plurality of a multiethnic, multireligious and pluricultural world, are more interested to explore how Christ’s salvific message relates to the deep soteriological dimensions of Asian cultures and religions.

The contrasting approaches of John Paul II and the Asian Bishops of the FABC on the issue of christology is especially visible in the many Responses of Asian Bishops to the Lineamenta for the Asian Synod. For example, the Response of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) condemned an exclusivist approach to Christology because it does not take seriously into account the multicultural and multireligious situations of India (5.1). It proposed the following understanding of Christ qua other religions:

the Indian Christological approach seeks to avoid negative and exclusivistic expressions. Christ is a Sacrament, a definitive Symbol, of God’s salvation for the entire humanity. This is what the salvific uniqueness and universality of Christ means in the Indian context. That, however, does not mean there cannot be other symbols, valid in their own ways, which the Christian sees as related to the definitive Symbol, Jesus Christ. The implication of all this is that for hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings, salvation is seen as being channeled to them not in spite of but through and in their various socio-cultural and religious traditions. We cannot, then, deny a priori a salvific role for these non-Christian religions. (5.1, emphasis added).

The Indonesian Bishops’ Conference harbored the same misgivings:

In pluri-cultural societies it is often difficult to directly and explicitly proclaim the central role of Jesus Christ in the Economy of Salvation. This proclamation must be adapted to concrete life conditions and to the disposition of the hearers. Evangelization ought to start from a "common ground," i.e., belief in the Supreme being as taught by well-respected spiritual leaders and as explicitly stated among the "Five Principles" (Pancasila) (5.1.5).

The Japanese Bishops’ Conference was by far the most radical, arguing that:

as the Fathers of the early Church did with Graeco-Roman culture, we must make a more profound study of the fundamentals of the religiosity of our peoples, and from this point of view try to discover how Jesus Christ is answering their needs. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, but in Asia, before stressing that Jesus is the TRUTH, we must search much more deeply into how he is the WAY and the LIFE. If we stress too much that "Jesus Christ is the One and Only Savior," we can have no dialogue, common living, or solidarity with other religions ((2)(1), emphasis added) (1998:89).

Many Asian theologians would concur with the Asian Bishops that John Paul II’s emphasis on the necessity of the uniqueness and the unicity of Christ in the salvation of all peoples would generate much controversy and dispute. For example, the Indian missiologist Jacob Kavunkal argues that John Paul II’s exclusivist christology has the exact opposite effect of what the pope intends, such emphasis coming across in a diverse and pluralistic world of many cultures and religions as confrontational and triumphalistic:

It is precisely this claim of uniqueness for Jesus Christ and the Church, denying the salvific value of other religions, which makes Church’s mission objectionable to the followers of other religions in Asia. This insistence on the proclamation of Jesus Christ as the unique Redeemer and the desire to make the fruits of the Paschal Mystery available to all in the Church, makes mission a laughing stock in a pluri-religious context (Kavunkal 2000:292).

In a similar vein, Michael Amaladoss speculates on the link between the uniqueness of Christ and uniqueness of the Church:

One of the problems in talking about the ‘uniqueness of Christ’ is that it seems to lead imperceptibly to talk about the ‘uniqueness’ of the Church. It is no surprise that the document speaks about "the universal saving significance of the mystery of Jesus and his Church" (EA 20) (Amaladoss 2000:240).

Kavunkal points to the irony of John Paul II admitting the difficulties of proclaiming Jesus as the one and only Savior on the one hand, and yet insisting on a greater emphasis of classical faith formulations:

Ecclesia in Asia is aware how the proclamation of "Jesus as the only Savior is fraught with philosophical, cultural and theological difficulties, especially in the light of the beliefs of Asia’s great religions, deeply intertwined with cultural values and specific world views" (n. 20). However instead of understanding these problems, the Document presents these challenges as "an ever greater incentive in striving to transmit the "faith that the Church in Asia has inherited from the Apostles and holds with the Church of all generations and places" (n. 10). For committed followers of Asian religions it amounts to outright arrogance and blind superiority. No wonder Ecclesia in Asia was described by them as "a chauvinistic, offensive and presumptuous document" (2000:292).

Michael Amaladoss agrees with Jacob Kavunkal on this point:

But after having said: "The Synod Fathers noted that proclaiming Jesus as the only Savior can present particular difficulties in their cultures, given that many Asian religions teach divine self-manifestation as mediating salvation" (EA 10), one would expect that the document would take into account this reality and would reflect on its own faith affirmation in this new context. On the contrary, what we have is an affirmation of faith that could have been made anywhere in the world at any time, not only in what it says positively about Jesus and his significance, but also in what it says about other religions (Amaladoss 2000:235).

In addition, Amaladoss suggests that Christians ought to proclaim their lived experience of the Jesus and the wondrous deeds he has done, rather than an abstract and intellectual dogmatic conclusion couched in the Greco-Roman philosophical language which is foreign to Asians:

We Christians have every right to proclaim and share our experience of God in Jesus. We tell people who Jesus was, how he lived, healed and reconciled people, empowered the poor, made people experience a God who was not a judge, butAbba, a loving Father, washed the feet of his disciples and loved people even unto dEAth. We proclaim the story of a person. We do not proclaim a dogmatic conclusion: "Jesus is the unique Savior!" (2000:235).

His confrère, Josef Neuner concurs:

Christ should be introduced with his message of reconciliation and solidarity so overwhelmingly significant for our world. This very message, however, could be obscured from the beginning by an untimely emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ’s saving mission and mediation, as if it implied a condemnation of other religions (540).

In a later part of his essay, Neuner affirms the approaches of the Asian Bishops:

What, then, is the appropriate way of presenting Jesus and his message to the people of Asia? It has been made abundantly clear by the Asian bishops that an abrupt presentation of Jesus as the "only Savior" in the Asian context not only is an obstacle to those who search seriously for truth, but is perceived as arrogance, as disrespect of their own religious traditions. Jesus must be presented in the same way by which he presented himself in his own earthly mission. People must be introduced into his life, to his radiant personality as it comes to us in the Gospel accounts. With the growing knowledge and love of his person they may be led, step by step, to the acceptance of his mission and of the mystery of his person (542).

Role of the Holy Spirit

In Ecclesia in Asia, John Paul II reiterates the point which he made earlier inRedemptoris missio, that there are no two parallel economies of salvation. As he explained, the "universal presence of the Holy Spirit therefore cannot serve as an excuse for a failure to proclaim Jesus Christ explicitly as the one and only Savior. On the contrary, the universal presence of the Holy Spirit is inseparable from universal salvation in Jesus" (EA 16). On this point, the FABC clearly agrees with John Paul II on the fact that there is only one economy of salvation. Nonetheless, the FABC differ on the relationship of Christ and the Holy Spirit within this economy. For the FABC, Christ is subsumed within the Spirit, while for the pope, it is the other way round. Hence, John Paul II asserts that the Holy Spirit:

is not an alternative to Christ, nor does he fill a sort of void that is sometimes suggested as existing between Christ and the Logos. Whatever the Spirit brings about in human hearts and in the history of peoples, in cultures and religions serves as a preparation for the gospel and can only be understood in reference to Christ. … The presence of the Spirit in creation and history points to Jesus Christ in whom creation and history are redeemed and fulfilled. The presence and action of the Spirit both before the Incarnation and in the climactic moment of Pentecost point always to Jesus and to the salvation he brings. So too the Holy Spirit's universal presence can never be separated from his activity within the Body of Christ, the Church (EA 16, emphasis added) (JP II, 361).

Contrast the pope’s stance with the FABC, which that the great religions of Asia are:

significant and positive elements in the economy of God’s design and salvation. In them we recognize and respect profound spiritual and ethical meanings and values. Over many centuries they have been the treasury of the religious experience of our ancestors, from which our contemporaries do not cease to draw light and strength. They have been (and continue to be) the authentic expression of the noblest longings of their hearts, and the home of their contemplation and prayer. How can we not give them reverence and honor? And how can we not acknowledge that God has drawn our peoples to Himself through them? (FABC I, arts. 14-15) (Rosales and Arevalo 1992:14).

For the FABC, it is "the same spirit, who has been active in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in the Church, who was active among all peoples before the Incarnation and is active among the nations, religions and peoples of Asia today" (BIRA IV/3, art. 6) (Rosales and Arevalo, 259.

Other Religions are fulfilled in Christianity

While John Paul II spoke highly of other religions, nevertheless, he views these religions and their soteriological elements through a fulfillment matrix, viz., these religions "await their fulfillment in Jesus Christ" (EA 6). This point is reinforced elsewhere in Ecclesia in Asia. For example, John Paul II is confident that other religions are inadequate, such that Asians find the fulfillment of their existential quest in Christ. He states confidently that "[c]ontemplating Jesus in his human nature, the peoples of Asia find their deepest questions answered, their hopes fulfilled, their dignity uplifted and their despair conquered" (EA 14) (JP II, 365). Thus, for John Paul II, "the question is not whether the Church has something essential to say to the men and women of our time, but how she can say it clearly and convincingly" (EA 29) (JP II, 373).

Many Asian theologians are not convinced that the fulfillment approach to Asian religions is the right missiological approach, because it fails to recognize the integrity of the soteriological dimensions of these religions. For example, Jacob Kavunkal argues that:

it does not make sense to claim that the values in other religions or the "intense yearnings for God, experienced in Asia, are to be fulfilled in Christ. They are the result of the presence of the Mystery of Jesus Christ and it would only be presumptuous to say that it "can only be fully satisfied by Jesus Christ," or to make this yearning as the justification "to proclaim with vigor in word and deed that Jesus Christ is the Savior" (n. 9). Or else we should also be prepared to accept that the yearning for God in Christianity has to be fulfilled in the Asian Religions! (2000:295).

Kavunkal points out that the fulfillment approach to other religions as a missiological strategy can backfire and come across as triumphalistic and insensitive. In his words: "Similarly it would be better to refrain from expressions like: "the heart of the church in Asia will be restless until the whole of Asia finds its rest in the peace of Christ, the risen Lord" (n. 10). They can only be damaging to the cause of the church’s mission in Asia" (2000:295). Similarly, Michael Amaladoss responds to John Paul II’s fulfillment approach by asking rhetorically, "If this is so, one wonders why there is no big rush among the Asian peoples to become disciples of Jesus and to join the Church. This should certainly make us reflect a little more on our claims" (Amaladoss 2000:234-5).

Linear Perspective of Salvation History

Michael Amaladoss points out that John Paul II’s fulfillment approach takes a linear and evolutionary view of salvation history, where "Jesus and Christianity are seen as the fulfillment of the other religions" (2000:236). Responding thereto, he insists that this presupposition is untenable:

I think that this extrapolation of a Jewish-Christian paradigm to the other religions is improper. If it is true that "the Church’s approach to other religions is one of genuine respect" and that "this respect is twofold: respect for man in his quest for answers to the deepest questions of his life, and respect for the action of the Spirit in man" (EA 20), then what right does any one have to prejudice the extent and meaning of the activity of the Spirit in other religions? … Who can credibly show that Jesus (or the Church) actually fulfils the "authentic values" of Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism? (cf. EA 14). This is a totally a priori vision of history. … As a matter of fact every religion sees itself as a fulfillment of the others (emphasis added) (2000:236-7).

Similarly, the FABC Theological Advisory Commission’s Theses on Interreligious Dialogue explains the fulfillment perspective to salvation as "a narrowing of the plan and action of God progressively from the nations to the Jews and then to Jesus, to open out again to the world through the Church and its mission" (Theses on Interreligious Dialogue 3.2). Such a perspective points to a missiological perspective that Jesus Christ, as the Incarnate Logos is not the only agent of mission. The Father and the Spirit have both been at the forefront of mission from the beginning of time, and has never ceased to be active as such. To limit their activities to the person of the Son is to limit the mystery of their missionary endeavors unjustifiably.

Importance of Dialogue

In Ecclesia in Asia, John Paul II acknowledges of "the importance of dialogue as a characteristic mode of the Church’s life in Asia" (EA 3) (JP II, 360). He explains that dialogue "is not simply a strategy for peaceful coexistence among peoples; it is an essential part of the Church’s mission…, a veritable vocation for the Church" (EA 29) (JP II, 374), "a part of the Church’s evangelizing mission, an expression of the mission ad gentes" (EA 31) (374). John Paul II perceives interreligious dialogue as "more than a way of fostering mutual knowledge and enrichment; it is a part of the Church's evangelizing mission, an expression of the mission ad gentes" (EA 31) (374). He goes on to insist thus:

Christians bring to interreligious dialogue the firm belief that the fullness of salvation comes from Christ alone and that the Church community to which they belong is the ordinary means of salvation. … ‘Although the Church gladly acknowledges whatever is true and holy in the religious traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam as a reflection of that truth which enlightens all people, this does not lessen her duty and resolve to proclaim without failing Jesus Christ who is ‘the way and the truth and the life’... The fact that the followers of other religions can receive God's grace and be saved by Christ apart from the ordinary means which he has established does not thereby cancel the call to faith and baptism which God wills for all people (EA 31) (374).

It seems that John Paul II perceives dialogue as preparatio evangelica, in the sense that dialogue is linked with proclamation, and should lead to a proclamation of the fullness of salvation in Christ alone. John Paul II’s stance appears to suggest that Christians have knowledge of the fullness of truth, and there is nothing to learn from the other. Dialogue is not for its own sake, or to learn from the other, but leads to the conversion of the other. In fact, John Paul II confirms this when he goes on to emphasize the importance "for the church in Asia to provide suitable models of interreligious dialogue—evangelization in dialogue and dialogue for evangelization—and suitable training for those involved" (EA 31) (375).

Necessity of Proclamation

John Paul II enunciates a twofold understanding of proclamation in Ecclesia in Asia. First, the "insistence on proclamation is prompted not by sectarian impulse nor the spirit of proselytism nor any sense of superiority. The church evangelizes in obedience to Christ’s command, in the knowledge that every person has the right to hear the good news of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ" (EA 20, emphasis added) (368). Second, the pope contends that while it is true that one should have respect and esteem for the "rich array of cultures and religions in Asia," nevertheless "neither respect and esteem for these religions nor the complexity of the questions raised are an invitation to the church to withhold from these non-Christians the proclamation of Jesus Christ" (EA 20) (369). For the pope, the issue at hand is how to proclaim Jesus "in a way that enables the peoples of Asia to identify with him, while remaining faithful both to the church’s theological doctrine and to their own Asian origins" (EA 20) (368). This has led John Prior Mansford to comment that as far as John Paul II is concerned, "the key issue is the direct proclamation of Jesus Christ needs to hold firmly to a correct formulation of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. An explicit complete proclamation of Christ must be the overriding concern of the Asian Churches" (Prior 1999:259).

Edmund Chia suggests that while John Paul II always insists on the need for proclamation of Christ, one should also pay attention to the fact that he has also done more than any pope to advance the cause of interreligious dialogue and harmony. He wonders aloud whether the Pope proclaims the need for an unequivocal acceptance of Christ as one and only Savior when he meets with other religious leaders:

People are more likely to follow his practice more than his speech. In the Pope's own words, it is true that "people today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers" (EA, 42). The Church in Asia, therefore, is hearing the Pope loud and clear in this his proclamation that interreligious dialogue is essential. … However, it would be interesting to find out how the Pope actually dialogues when he encounters these peoples of other religions. It is most unlikely that he would insist to Sayyed Tantawi that the fullness of salvation comes from Christ alone and that the Church community is the ordinary means of salvation (cf. EA, 31). It is also unlikely that the Holy Father would preach to the Dalai Lama that the peoples of Asia need Jesus Christ and his Gospel and that Asia is thirsting for the living water that Jesus alone can give (cf. EA, 50). It is probably unlikely that John Paul II will announce to Madhavananda Saraswati that the Church must be seen as the privileged place of encounter between God and man (cf. EA, 24). The Church in Asia, therefore, seeks only to follow after the witness of the Holy Father. … Thus, only if John Paul II is successful in calling to faith and baptism the Dalai Lama or Tantawi or Madhavananda Saraswati will Christians in Asia take seriously his pronouncement that this calling to faith and baptism is willed by God for all people (cf. EA, 31) (Chia 2000:252).

Notwithstanding his emphasis on the explicit, verbal proclamation of Christ as the unique and necessary savior, John Paul II also acknowledges the concerns of many Asian bishops on the difficulties of proclaiming Jesus as the only Savior:

[M]any Asian Bishops referred to difficulties in proclaiming Jesus as the only Savior. During the Assembly, the situation was described in this way: "Some of the followers of the great religions of Asia have no problem in accepting Jesus as a manifestation of the Divine or the Absolute, or as an ‘enlightened one’. But it is difficult for them to see Him as the only manifestation of the Divine." In fact, the effort to share the gift of faith in Jesus as the only Savior is fraught with philosophical, cultural and theological difficulties, especially in light of the beliefs of Asia’s great religions, deeply intertwined with cultural values and specific world views (EA 20) (368).

In response, John Paul II proposes a "step by step" pedagogy in presenting Christ:

The presentation of Jesus Christ as the only Savior needs to follow a pedagogy1 which will introduce people step by step to the full appropriation of the mystery. Clearly, the initial evangelization of non-Christians and the continuing proclamation of Jesus to believers will have to be different in their approach. In initial proclamation, for example, "the presentation of Jesus Christ could come as the fulfillment of the yearnings expressed in the mythologies and folklore of the Asian peoples." In general, narrative methods akin to Asian cultural forms are to be preferred. In fact, the proclamation of Jesus Christ can most effectively be made by narrating his story, as the Gospels do. The ontological notions involved, which must always be presupposed and expressed in presenting Jesus, can be complemented by more relational, historical and even cosmic perspectives. The Church, the Synod Fathers noted, must be open to the new and surprising ways in which the face of Jesus might be presented in Asia (EA 20, emphasis added) (368).

On the one hand, John Paul II, in suggesting that proclamation "should follow an evocative pedagogy, using stories, parables and symbols so characteristic of Asian methodology in teaching," and "narrative methods akin to the Asian cultural forms are to be preferred," has taken to heart some of the suggestions that the Asian Bishops made at the Synod (Neuner, 537). On the other hand, the pope also insists on the need to present the "ontological notions" of Christ as overarching, universal categories formulated by ecumenical councils that are binding on all Christians. While the pope acknowledges that in formulating these binding doctrines, the ecumenical councils "had to use the linguistic, philosophical and cultural resources available to them," nevertheless he contends that:

these resources become a shared possession of the whole church, capable of expressing her Christological doctrine in an appropriate and universal way. They are part of the heritage of faith that must be appropriated and shared again and again in the encounter with the various cultures (EA 20) (368).

Michael Amaladoss agrees with the pope on the use of stories and parables to tell the Good News of Jesus:

We Christians have every right to proclaim and share our experience of God in Jesus. We tell people who Jesus was, how he lived, healed and reconciled people, empowered the poor, made people experience a God who was not a judge, but Abba, a loving Father, washed the feet of his disciples and loved people even unto death. We proclaim the story of a person. We do not proclaim a dogmatic conclusion: "Jesus is the unique Savior!" (emphasis added) (2000:240).

At the same time, Amaladoss has expressed his reservations about John Paul II’s focus on "ontological notions" that are couched in Greco-Roman philosophical language:

But unfortunately, for the document, it is only a pedagogy. It seems more interested in the "ontological notions involved." Perhaps it is here that Asian Christians must challenge the document. The "ontological notions" are the conclusions of a particular community that lived at a particular time in a particular culture using a particular metaphysical system. Why should they be identified with the Good News? It is time that Asian Christians explored the meaning of Jesus Christ in the context of the Asian experience of a pluralism of religions rather than simply extrapolate conclusions arrived at in a different context (2000:240).

Similarly, Peter Phan praises John Paul II "for recommending (1) a gradual pedagogy in the proclamation that Christ is the only Savior, (2) the use of narratives to complement ontological categories in this proclamation, and (3) the legitimate variety of approaches to the proclamation of Jesus" (Phan 2000:223). Nonetheless, he also wonders "how ‘the ontological notions’ can be ‘expressed in presenting Jesus’ when Jesus is presented to billions of Asians whose world is as removed from the Hellenistic philosophical categories in which classical Christology is couched as heaven from earth" (2000:228-9, JP II, 368). Here, he questions John Paul II’s assumption that the "ontological notions" should be those of Greek metaphysics and not those of Asian philosophies. This is a legitimate critique, since John Paul II himself conceded that the ecumenical councils "had to use linguistic, philosophical and cultural resources available to them" (EA 20) (JP II, 368).

John Paul II’s essentialist approach here presupposes an unchanging deposit of Truth, and different aspects of Asian cultures, religions and philosophies are utilized, not because of their inherent soteriological value, but as a convenient platform, a "carrier," or useful pedagogical tool to present the "universal" Truth. Aloysius Pieris has argued that such understandings can be labeled as pejorative, paternalistic, and smacking of religious-cultural imperialism if they attempt to appropriate and reorientate the cultural, religious and philosophical traditions of Asia to serve the Christian Gospel and the Church without regard to their intrinsic integrity.2 In addition, many religious leaders in Asia have expressed much resentment against foreign theological experts who sit in judgment as to the suitability of local elements, picking and choosing elements to proclaim the Christian Gospel, arguing that this approach fails to respect the ontological integrity and soteriological ethos of a culture, religion or philosophy (Pieris 1985:116-24). Rightly or wrongly, the accusations by religious nationalists in India and elsewhere in Asia against John Paul II that the Church and its missionaries are engaging in religious vandalism and manipulation of cultures and religions to serve the Gospel and the Church must be seen in this perspective.

Notwithstanding his emphasis on proclamation, John Paul II does recognize the important role that life witness plays "in the Asian context, where people are more persuaded by holiness of life than by intellectual argument" (EA 42). The pope further concedes that "genuine Christian witness is needed now, because ‘people today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and action than in theories (EA 42) (JP II, 379). Yet, the pope does not expand on the life witness approach, preferring to speak of proclamation with its focus on theory, argument, teaching and confrontation. Jacob Kavunkal asserts that the life-witnessing, which has merited little more than a mention by John Paul II, is precisely what is needed in Asia:

The proclamation of Jesus Christ must take place primarily through the life-style of the Christians. It is not a frantic effort to save Jesus Christ from other saviors by trumpeting truths about Jesus Christ. The Church must stand for what Jesus Christ stood for and worked for the realization of God’s reign on earth, which was the foundational theme of Jesus’ work. A sheer proclamation of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ will turn out to be a religious competition which in the Asian context can only lead to fanaticism and religious violence, the opposite of the divine reign! (emphasis added) (Kavunkal, 297).

Michael Amaladoss also identifies a problem with John Paul II’s emphasis on proclamation and his fulfillment approach, observing that Asian peoples are fully at home with the great Asian religions:

The document keeps on insisting: "There can be no true evangelization without the explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord… The Church evangelizes in obedience to Christ’s command, in the knowledge that every person has the right to hear the Good News of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ" (EA 19, 20). Christians in Asia, without denying that God reveals and gives himself in Christ, have reason to believe, because of their experience of people of other religions and the fruits of the Spirit manifest in their lives, that God has also revealed and given Godself to other peoples through other mediations in other religions. People indeed have a ‘right’ to hear the Good News. But for over two thousand years people in Asia, especially those belonging to the ‘great’ religions of Asia, have also affirmed their ‘right’ to follow their religions, even when exposed to Christianity. They have not experienced Christianity as a ‘fulfillment’ (emphasis added) (2000:239).

Concurring with Amaladoss, John Mansford Prior goes on to point out "with absolute certainty that not a single Asian bishop would disagree with the who of mission, with the subject of proclamation," because the "The key issue that the bishops grapple with is the how of mission" (Prior, 259). To this end, it is undeniable that the FABC is more at home with life witness. This is borne out in the Final Statement of Seventh FABC Plenary Assembly, to which we must now turn.


Coming less than two months after John Paul II’s presentation of his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia in Delhi in November 1999, theologians and other church watchers paid very close attention to the Seventh FABC Plenary Assembly that was held in Samphran, Thailand from 3-12 January 2000, to see how the FABC, meeting in full plenary assembly would respond to John Paul II. The official theme of this assembly "A Renewed Church in Asia: A Mission of Love and Service" was based upon the official theme of the Asian Synod with a crucial difference—there was no reference to "Jesus Christ the Savior" (Chia 1999:892-9). The official theme that John Paul II personally chose for the Asian Synod was "Jesus Christ the Savior and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia: That They May Have Life and Have It Abundantly." In a provocatively titled essay "The ‘Absence of Jesus’ in the VIIth FABC Plenary Assembly (ibid.)," Edmund Chia speculates:

Incidentally, could it be just a mere coincidence that in the theme for FABC VII, which was consciously chosen so as to reflect the continuity from the Synod for Asia, there is conspicuous absence of a mention of the name "Jesus" or of the word "Savior"? Is it a signal from the bishop-members of the Central Committee of the FABC, who were responsible for choosing the theme, that the "filtering" process has indeed begun? (1999:899).

Although Edmund Chia had written that opinion essay before the promulgation ofEcclesia in Asia, and his prescience was remarkably accurate. In comparing Ecclesia in Asia and FABC VII, one is struck not so much by their commonalities as by the "filtering process" initiated by the FABC to nuance John Paul II’s rhetoric to the exigencies of the Asian religious, socio-cultural and political realities. For example, rather than adopting John Paul II’s preferred terminology of "New Evangelization," the FABC coined a new term—"active integral evangelization" (FABC 2000:3 no. 93). to describe an approach to mission which integrates commitment and service to life, life witness, dialogue, and building up the Kingdom of God. As FABC VII explains:

For thirty years, as we have tried to reformulate our Christian identity in Asia, we have addressed different issues, one after another: evangelization, inculturation, dialogue, the Asian-ness of the Church, justice, the option for the poor, etc. Today, after three decades, we no longer speak of such distinct issues. We are addressing present needs that are massive and increasingly complex. These issues are not separate topics to be discussed, but aspects of an integrated approach to our Mission of Love and Service. We need to feel and act "integrally." As we face the needs of the 21st century, we do so with Asian hearts, in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized, in union with all our Christian brothers and sisters, and by joining hands with all men and women of Asia of many different faiths. Inculturation, dialogue, justice and the option for the poor are aspects of whatever we do (FABC VII, emphasis added) (FABC, 8).

Here is a clear and unequivocal statement from the FABC nuancing John Paul II’s insistence on the necessity of proclaiming the unicity and uniqueness of Christ for salvation. For the FABC Seventh Plenary Assembly, the starting point is life in Asia, of solidarity with the Asian peoples with their diversity of religions and cultures, walking together with them and addressing their existential questions. Declining to adopt John Paul II’s insistence on the necessity and primacy of proclamation of Christ as one and only savior, the FABC Seventh Plenary Assembly reasserted their preference for life witness as the Asian way of proclaiming the Christian Gospel in Asia:

The most effective means of evangelization and service in the name of Christ has always been and continues to be the witness of life. The embodiment of our faith in sharing and compassion (sacrament) supports the credibility of our obedience to the Word (proclamation). This witnessing has to become the way of the Gospel for persons, institutions and the whole Church community. Asian people will recognize the Gospel that we announce when they see in our life the transparency of the message of Jesus and the inspiring and healing figure of men and women immersed in God (FABC VII, emphasis added) (FABC, 13).

Unlike John Paul II, who sees Asian cultural and philosophical traditions as pedagogical tools to proclaim the Gospel, the Seventh Plenary Assembly insists that the Asian local churches must immerse themselves in, and embrace these cultural and philosophical elements in an effort to become truly Asian, and in harmony and solidarity with Asian peoples and their life realities:

We are committed to the emergence of the Asianness of the Church in Asia. This means that the Church has to be an embodiment of the Asian vision and values of life, especially interiority, harmony, a holistic and inclusive approach to every area of life. We are also convinced that only by the "inner authority" of authentic lives founded on a deep spirituality will we become credible instruments of transformation. This is important, because our contacts with those of other religious traditions have to be at the level of depth, rather than just the level of ideas or action. We are aware that this Asianness, founded on solid values, is a special gift the world is awaiting. For the whole world is in need of a holistic paradigm for meeting the challenges of life. In this task, together with all Asians, the Church, a tiny minority in this vast continent, has a singular contribution to make, and this contribution is the task of the whole Church in Asia.3

Finally, while John Paul II spoke of Jesus as the door that leads to life and salvation in his speech at Delhi Cathedral on the promulgation of Ecclesia in Asia, the Seventh Plenary Assembly uses the same imagery but carefully changes its frame of reference, pointing out that mission is about going out through the doors into the Asian milieu:

As we celebrate the Great Jubilee of the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior, and the Holy Doors of churches are being opened, we look at the image of the door and are gladdened to rediscover our calling to enter into the community of Christ's disciples and to share in his life and mission. It is there beyond the doors that we hear his reassuring and empowering word. During these days of meeting together it was so for us: we have heard his whisper in all that we have shared. It is through the same doors that we now go out into the world of the peoples of Asia and into their struggles and joys, which are also ours(FABC VII, emphasis added) (FABC 2000:16).


(i) Methodological Approaches to Theology

Among other things, the divergences between the missiological approaches of John Paul II and the FABC can be explained by their methodological approach to theology. While nobody would contest the Anselmian axiom that theology is "faith in search of understanding" (fides quaerens intellectum), the question remains how this faith is established in the first place. One could characterize John Paul II’s approach to mission as a deductive approach "from above," while that of the FABC is a combined inductive-deductive approach which exemplifies a two-way encounter "from below" and "from above." John Paul II’s preferred approach is the deductive method of theology, viz., a theology which begins from basic, a priori abstract assertions to conclusions, from general, universal principles to particular situations. Concretely, he begins with certain doctrinal or creedal positions in the New Testament, writings of the Church Fathers, papal teachings, etc. which he judges to be clear and unambiguous in their meanings, as well as authoritative and binding for their dogmatic content. Then he uses these principles as starting point and criteria for determining, authorizing and validating acts of missio ad gentes in new contexts.

Thus, John Paul II speaks in terms of a grand, overarching approach centered upon the proclamation of the unicity and uniqueness of Christ’s role in the salvation of the world, in opposition to other religions and religious figures. It is a monolithic and central scheme with an accent on the proclamation of creeds and dogmas, against what he defines to be relativism, syncretism and indifferentism. Thus, his missionary paradigm sees missio ad gentes as bringing the Gospel from the center (Europe, Rome) to the periphery (Asia). The aim is to unite the periphery with the center. He is convinced of the essentially Christian character of European culture and in its providential role in the spread of the Gospel. He also speaks of the Gospel and the Church as though they can be reduced to their essence and separated from one cultural reality to be transformed and transplanted into another cultural reality. For him, salvation is defined primarily in individual and personal terms. He appears to equate conversion principally with "change of religion" as evidenced by a non-Christian’s decision to seek baptism in the Church.

By comparison, the FABC’s preferred approach can be described as a combined inductive-deductive approach. It takes as its starting point the life experiences of the Asian peoples within the diverse and pluralistic socio-cultural, religious and political realities, and works its way back to the Church’s dogmatic and creedal traditions. In doing so, it brings the two together, facilitating the encounter between the living diverse and pluralistic realities of the Asian peoples with the Church’s deposit of faith. The FABC sees mission as coming "from below," originating in the local churches deeply immersed in the pluralistic Asian realities, in solidarity with the Asian peoples, working with them, paying attention to the experiences arising from their Sitzen-im-Leben, responding to their existential questions by drawing upon the rich treasury of the life experiences of Jesus Christ. Following the lead set by Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, the FABC seeks to read the "signs of the times," to address the concerns, aspirations and hopes of the Asian peoples.

In contrast to John Paul II’s emphasis on proclamation, the accent of the FABC’s approach is on dialogue, to be specific, a threefold dialogue with the life-realities of myriad cultures, religions and economic-political realities. Relationships and experiences, as well as values such as solidarity, harmony, healing and renewal from below, viz., among the grassroots, are emphasized. Theologically, this dialogue can be said to reflect the Triune God’s ongoing dialogue of love with humanity, as manifested in the divine missions of the father, son and spirit. Concretely, salvation is seen in communal terms, not so much as the changing of religion of individuals, but rather, as the changing of hearts (Greek: metanoia) of everyone within the community and society. The mission objective is not the classicist plantatio ecclesiae, but participation in the divine mission of building the Kingdom of God beyond the visible limits of the institutional Church.

(ii) Quantitative or Qualitative Approach to Mission?

Generally speaking, John Paul II takes great pride in the growth of the Church in certain parts of Asia. He expresses his preference for a quantitative yardstick which measures success in terms of empirical results, e.g., numbers and size, the former measured by the number of baptisms, the latter by the number of new parishes and dioceses erected. While one may bemoan the "numbers" game and the rivalry that it can engender, it cannot be denied that a quantitative yardstick has the advantage of facilitating objective comparisons and assessments.

By contrast, the FABC has expressed its preference for a qualitative approach to the task of Christian mission. In eschewing all quantitative criteria, the FABC maintains that the fruits of mission belong to the Spirit, who moves and inspire human hearts and entire communities. By adopting a qualitative approach, the FABC appears to conclude that the future of missio ad gentes in Asia is unlikely to be marked by a great increase in numbers, but rather by the quality of the few converts. Rather than focusing on individuals as the objects of mission and risk being labeled as proselytizing in the tensely charged atmosphere of many Asian countries, the FABC has chosen to focus on the subject of missio ad gentes, viz., the local church and its members.

(iii) "Christ the King" or "Christ the Humble Footwasher"?

In his book Mission in Today’s World, the Irish missionary Donal Dorr recounts the classicist "crusader model" or the "commando model" of mission (Door 2000:186). Dorr explains that this model was dominant from 1850 to the eve of Vatican II, pointing out that:

The vision behind it was that of the church militant. Unbelievers were to be converted, to be ‘conquered for Christ’ through spiritual weapons. The church was to be ‘planted’ in the ‘pagan lands.’ And the people there were also to be helped by being introduced to the real or imagined ‘benefits’ of Westernization. The frontiers at that time were seen in geographical terms, and the missionaries were seen as heroic people who left their homelands to work in alien lands (door, 187).

Similarly, William Burrows made the same point in an earlier essay:

In a section of his monumental Transforming Mission (Orbis Books, 1990, 222-226), David Bosch notes that the "missionary war" analogy is an element in the medieval Roman Catholic paradigm of mission that carries over into general Christian pre-understandings of mission. According to Bosch—and I think he is right—the image of mission mediated by history is of a kind of spiritual warfare. It has penetrated Christianity to the point that, whether consciously or unconsciously, mission is viewed as an enterprise where Christ conquers, much as an army on the battlefield. The result of mission purveyed even in very sophisticated Christian circles is to get pagans to embrace "Christian civilization" (Burrows 1993:243-4).

More precisely, the classicist model of missio ad gentes is predicated upon a triumphalistic christology of "Christ the King" leading an army of missionaries to conquer pagan lands and souls for Christ. Burrows also explains that "[t]he image of an assertive Christianity in mission aiming at conquest is exactly what many non-Christians—and former Christians in the West—dislike most about Christianity" (Burrows, 244).

From the preceding discussion, it is fair to sum up the missiological approach of John Paul II as one that mainly emphasizes the verbal proclamation of a "normative" and a "universal" theology of Christ as the one and only savior of the world. While this proclamation can be translated or presented using appropriate "pedagogical methods" (see EA 20-22), the crux of the matter remains the normativity and universality of a christology that emphasizes Christ as King of the world, what perhaps could be called a "Christ the King" approach. While the Gospel may be translated or adapted using local linguistic and pedagogical methods, its message is loud and clear—it is the Christ who saves, everyone is called to accept Christ as savior and king of the world. Such an approach has elicited less than positive approach in many parts of Asia, especially among fervent religionists and in those regions which have witnessed a strong revival of Asian religions. Rightly or wrongly, many religious zealots and ardent nationalists equate the Church with former colonial overlords, perceiving the Church as a new colonial overlord that seeks to bring all peoples with their cultures, philosophies and religions under its umbrella.

In comparison, the FABC is engaged in a quest for an alternative model of missiology of dialogue that seeks to dispel any suggestion of conquest, colonialism and triumphalism. The FABC bishops are seeking to reinterpret traditional missiology with the help of various Asian philosophical, religious and cultural traditions, to find new ways of constructing their Christian identity and relating as a Christian community to non-Christians, and to articulate new ways of reaching out to the Asian peoples, especially the poor and marginalized. Taking a cue from the Sixth FABC Plenary Assembly’s imagery of Jesus’ foot-washing to underlie its call for commitment and service to life: "We join Jesus in serving life by washing the feet of our neighbors" (FABC VI, art. 14.3) (Eilers 1997:9), we could perhaps say that the FABC’s preferred image of Christ is that of "Christ the Humble Footwasher."

(iv) Proclamation or Dialogue?

The FABC has consistently clung on to their basic vision of mission as a threefold dialogue, and of Asian realities of religious and cultural diversity and immense poor as partners, and not competitors or adversaries. In its threefold dialogue, the FABC is engaged in an intercultural, interreligious and inter-relational quest to encounter Christ in the Asian milieu rather than to appropriate the Asian milieu for Christ, to dialogue with the rich mosaic of Asian cultures, religions and the peoples with their hopes, desires and struggles, rather than to absorb them into a universal entity, to transform and effect a "change of heart" in the local socio-cultural milieu like a yeast in dough rather than to transplant imported structures that are presumed to be superior to existing local structures. The central thread running through the FABC’s approach to mission is that mission is best exemplified through authentic witness by believers who are rooted in local cultures, in dialogue with Asian religions and in solidarity with the Asian peoples and their existential concerns.

More significantly, the FABC does not separate proclamation and dialogue, but sees dialogue as the only viable means of mission. What must be made clear is the fact that the FABC does not reject proclamation. Thus, the FABC would agree with John Paul II that proclamation has its place in the task of Christian mission, but it is not the only way, nor even the primary way to carry out mission. For the FABC, life witness, in solidarity with Asian peoples is important, especially in regions fraught with religious tensions. For the FABC, peoples often embrace Christ’s vision mainly because they are touched by the Spirit of Christ as manifested in the life witness of his followers and the solidarity they share with people around them.

The FABC’s stance of mission as dialogue is supported by the insights of many theologians. Two examples are adduced below, one from a renowned English missionary working in Africa, and the other from an Indian missiologist. First, the English missiologist Aylward Shorter insists that:

True dialogue excludes ‘deduction’, the desire to deduce truth exclusively from one’s own tradition. It also excludes ‘reduction,’ the desire to reduce the plurality of religions to a meaningless common denominator. It has, instead, to be ‘induction,’ a process by which our own tradition grows by being authentically reinterpreted as a result of the exchange with other traditions. This is another way of saying that dialogue leads to conversion (1994:41).

For Shorter, "dialogue expresses the relational aspect of evangelization, and is indeed its primary mode," because "evangelization is not a mechanistic activity by which a message is transmitted by one set of people to another in an exclusively, or predominantly, verbal manner" (42). Shorter goes on to point out that:

Dialogue is primarily experiential. It involves the sharing the life, and to some extent the worship, of people in other religious traditions. It also indicates a habit of mind, an openness or flexibility, which is able to interiorize experience and to grow through relationships, rather than to struggle to conform to a static and preconceived model (42).

Shorter’s conclusions on dialogue are important, as they are very much similar to those undergirding the FABC’s understanding of mission as dialogue:

Dialogue may be demanded by the religious and cultural pluralism which confronts us in the contemporary world, but it is far more than a strategy for more effective evangelization. The love, freedom and mutual respect which are intrinsic to dialogue belong to the whole Christian or Gospel way of life, and this, in turn, is the perfection of what it means to be human. Dialogue is, therefore, not an optional luxury for the church (42).

Second, the Indian missiologist Jacob Kavunkal has written at length about the paramount importance of dialogue in the Asian context:

Dialogue is a listening to and a responding to truth. This leads to a mutual transformation. Dialogue, as a mutual challenge to growth towards fullness, involves such a call to conversion. Thus, dialogue between believers of various faiths will always imply some sort of conversion – a spiritual process of change, a more generous submission to the divine, and brings about a kind of mutual incorporation with one another in an experience of growing into closer communion. However, it must be emphasized that this change, or conversion, is not aimed at a change of religion. One enters into interreligious dialogue primarily to learn and change. This does not mean one puts aside one’s religious tradition. On the contrary, one has to stand in one’s religious tradition with integrity and conviction. In other words, there has to be rootedness and openness at the same time. This openness leads to change which includes unlearning misinformation about the other and eventually being informed about the true values of the other (emphasis added) (1989:123).

Kavunkal has also provided a helpful framework for understanding the workings of dialogue:

This openness enables one in dialogue to go over to the inside view of another way of life, another religion, and to return with new insights to one’s own religion or way of life. Dialogue enables one to pass over by a sympathetic understanding from one’s own religion to another religion and to come back with new understanding. This passing over and returning is a characteristic type of change and growth in dialogue. In dialogue, one listens and observes, corrects and is corrected, which leads to mutual understanding. One, so to speak, submits one’s understanding of the world, of God and of faith to the test of dialogue. One has to guarantee that one’s understanding of faith will emerge unaltered from that dialogue. Since one expects an exchange of trust with the partner in dialogue, one has to remain open to the person to whom one is in dialogue. The conversion story of Cornelius is also the story of Peter’s conversion. Peter’s understanding of faith is changed (emphasis added) (1989:123-4).

Thus, conversion is not just predicated upon the non-Christian partner of any dialogical encounter, but also the Christian partner, who, like Peter, is called to a conversion to a deeper understanding of faith.

(v) Linear or Holistic View of Salvation?

John Paul II sees the movement of salvation history as linear, viz., God’s special interventions in history narrowing down to Jesus Christ, and then opening out again through the Church in mission to embrace the whole world. This linear view of the history of salvation results in John Paul II’s adoption of an a priori Christology which presumes Christ as the fulfillment of the aspirations and hopes of all other religions. Once the Christian dispensation has been established, there is no longer any room for other religions and their soteriologies.

Aloysius Pieris has made a scathing critique of such a linear, fulfillment approach, arguing instead that Asian local churches need to be baptized in the waters of Asian religiosity:

The "fulfillment theory" of the church fathers now revived by Vatican II—which I have repeatedly criticized in the past—relegates other religions to a "pre-Christian" category of spirituality to be "fulfilled" through the church’s missionary endeavor. It is on the basis of this theory that some (Western) missiologists speak of the need to "baptize" pre-Christian religions and cultures rather than of the prophetic imperative to immerse oneself in the baptismal waters of Asian religions that predate Christianity. The local churchin Asia needs yet to be "initiated" into the pre-Christian traditions under the tutelage of our ancient gurus, or it will continue to be an ecclesiastical complex full of "power" but lacking in "authority" (1988:47).

Similarly, Michael Amaladoss criticizes a linear, fulfillment understanding of salvation history for overlooking the horizons of the salvific movements of the Spirit in the diversity and plurality of Asian religions, arguing against its tendency to absolutize Jesus as the norm for all followers of other religions.

The Word and the Spirit are present and active in other religions, but the relationship of the other believers to the mystery of salvation is not mediated by the historical Jesus and his continuation in history, namely the Church. To affirm that the other believers are related somehow to the historical Jesus and to the Church, without being able to explain ‘how’, simply because an a priori argument demands this, does not help our understanding in any way (1999a:335).

In comparison, the FABC has expressed its preference for a holistic view of salvation that recognizes that the Triune God, through the divine missions of the Father, Son and Spirit, has acted through a diversity of mediations, through Asian religious traditions. In this regard, the Asian bishops have never adopted the interpretation that Asian religions are pre-Judaic or pre-biblical, waiting to be fulfilled in Christ in a linear, evolutionary fashion. Certainly, the pre-existent Logos was incarnated in the person of Jesus. While this Incarnation has a special position in salvation history, it does not limit the Spirit to be present in Asian religions in a mysterious way. The many statements of the FABC, beginning with the First FABC Plenary Assembly are testimony to the FABC’s stance that the Triune God has always been present in the Asian world right from the beginning, animating the Asian peoples in their diversity of faiths and cultures. As a matter of fact, this position was adopted by the FABC from the very beginning, at the First FABC Plenary Assembly (Bangkok, 1974):

we accept them [=the great religions of Asia] as significant and positive elements in the economy of God’s design and salvation. In them we recognize and respect profound spiritual and ethical meanings and values. Over many centuries they have been the treasury of the religious experience of our ancestors, from which our contemporaries do not cease to draw light and strength. They have been (and continue to be) the authentic expression of the noblest longings of their hearts, and the home of their contemplation and prayer. How can we not give them reverence and honor? And how can we not acknowledge that God has drawn our peoples to Himself through them? (FABC I, arts. 14-15, emphasis added) (Rosales and Arevalo, 14).

Accordingly, the FABC has affirmed that "it is an inescapable truth that God’s Spirit is at work in all religious traditions" (BIRA IV/12, art. 7),4 because the religious traditions of Asia "are expressions of the presence of God’s Word and of the universal action of his Spirit in them" (Theological Consultation, art. 43). In particular, the "great religions of Asia with their respective creeds, cults and codes reveal to us diverse ways of responding to God whose Spirit is active in all peoples and cultures" (BIRA IV/7, art. 12). For the FABC, it is "the same spirit, who has been active in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and in the Church, who was active among all peoples before the Incarnation and is active among the nations, religions and peoples of Asia today" (BIRA IV/3, art. 6).


In comparing John Paul II with the FABC, one gets the impression that there are two different voices speaking to two different worlds, and responding to two different sets of challenges. On the one hand, John Paul II’s insistence on the need for the proclamation of uniqueness and unicity of Christ for human salvation makes sense in the European milieu, when Christ once claimed the allegiance of the people, but now he competes with agnosticism, secularism, atheism, postmodernism, and even Asian religions making inroads in Europe and the Americas. John Paul II unequivocally identifies pluralism with relativism and indifferentism which have struck at the pre-eminent position of the Christian Gospel in the European Sitzen-im-Leben. For him, it makes sense to emphasize Christ as the one and only Savior against the seductive challenges of agnosticism, secularism, atheism and indifferentism. Indeed, this is the cornerstone of his clarion call for a "New Evangelization" in Europe and the Americas.

The pope approaches the question of missio ad gentes from a classicist European perspective. This entails the explicit, verbal proclamation of the unicity and uniqueness of Christ for human salvation to non-Christians as the primary task of mission. For the pope, although life-witness and dialogue are important dimensions of the task of mission, these cannot take precedence over verbal, explicit proclamation as the primary task of mission. Although John Paul II is cognizant of the rich diversity and plurality of religions, cultures and peoples in Asia, he does not view this diversity as part of God’s creative genius because of his deductive approach to theologizing, which understands salvation history in linear, fulfillment terms, as an evolution from pre-biblical to biblical faith, and culminating in Christ as the one and only savior.

On the other hand, past missiological strategies in Europe, where Christianity and the Church overcame pagan religions and occupied a preeminent place in the Christendom of old, do not seem to work in Asia, a world of diversity and pluralism, abound with a rich variety of philosophical and religious traditions that are alive and filled with vitality, where the Gospel comes face-to-face with religions with strong soteriological consciousness. It appears that John Paul II is faced with the challenge of crafting an adequate response to the thriving fecundity of religious diversity and plurality of the Asian milieu. Unfortunately, his insistence on explicit and verbal proclamation has stirred up many passionate Asian religionists and nationalists who dredge up long memories of the alliance between Christian missionaries and European colonialists, and who do not fail to remind everyone of the less than honest techniques to gain Christian converts. To many non-Christian Asians, especially in the Indian subcontinent, John Paul II’s missiological call is interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as triumphalism. By making proclamation the overarching concern of missio ad gentes, John Paul II appears to focus on growth and expansion, thereby putting many non-Christian Asians on the defensive against the "encroachment" of Christianity in their spheres of influence.

By contrast, the Asian bishops of the FABC struggle with their flock to live in a world of immense diversity and plurality, seeking to shape the message of the Gospel to respond to the existential concerns and questions of the Asian peoples. For the FABC, the Asian peoples do not come to know Christ in abstract terms, but that Christ is able to transform their lives, answer their deepest worries, and give them hope. The FABC rejects not only the presumption that Asia was a tabula rasaas far as salvation history was concerned, but also all attempts to relegate Asian religious traditions to the theological dustbin on account of their presumed inability to act as vehicles of God’s self-revelation. For the FABC, salvation history did not begin with the coming of Christianity to Asia. Rather, it recognizes the Father’s and Spirit’s presence and saving activity in and through Asian religious traditions which not only preceded the coming of Christianity to Asia, but also continue to be operative as an integral part of ongoing Asian salvation history.

In the final analysis, while the sapiential "Asian" vision of the FABC does not neglect proclamation, it also values friendship and trust, relationality and relationship-building, dialogue and consensus, as well as solidarity and harmony as constitutive elements of the task of Christian mission in Asia. Here, the FABC expresses its unequivocal commitment to a threefold dialogue with Asian peoples in the fullness of their myriad cultures, religions and poverty. The FABC also emphasizes that dialogue should be integrated with other endeavors which seek to transform oppressive and sinful structures. This points to a mission strategy that, in addition to being geared to the "immersion" of the Gospel and local churches in the Asian realities, is also marked by its commitment and service to life in solidarity with the Asian peoples. The ultimate goal is to build an Asian Church which is truly rooted in, in solidarity with, as well as committed to the Asian peoples and the realities of their life experiences and struggles. To cite the Asian Colloquium on Ministries in the Church: "if Asian Churches do not discover their own identity, they will have no future" (Asian Colloquium on Ministries in the Church, art. 14(ii) (Rosales and Arevalo, 70).


  1. Josef Neuner observes that, "In daily use ‘pedagogy’ stands for appropriate techniques to communicate knowledge, or also ways of behavior, to learners. Applied to the proclamation of the Gospel to some it might suggest methods of manipulation unworthy of God’s plan of salvation and of human dignity." Neuner, "Proclaiming Jesus Christ: Reflections on Ecclesia in Asia," 540.
  2. For an in-depth discussion of this point, see Pieris 1985 :116-24 ; and 1988 :35-50.
  3. FABC, 9. In making this statement, it cites with approval, EA 6: "(We believe in) the innate spiritual insight and moral wisdom in the Asian soul; and it is the core around which a growing sense of "being Asian" is built. This "being Asian" is best discovered and affirmed not in confrontation and opposition, but in the spirit of complementarity and harmony. In this framework of complementarity and harmony, the Church can communicate the Gospel in a way which is faithful both to her own Tradition and to the Asian Soul" (ibid.).
  4. Rosales and Arevalo 1992:326. In the same vein, BIRA IV/2 states that "the Holy Spirit is operative in other religions as well" (BIRA IV/2, art. 8.5, in Rosales and Arevalo, 253).


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