Father F is an American priest. His parents were Italians and he was raised in an all-Catholic ghetto in New York. He became a missionary to Asia where he has spent the last 30 years of his life building the church in Asia, especially in the field of communications. He smells like an Italian, talks like an American, and eats like a Chinese. He speaks fluent Cantonese, among other languages, and lives in Hong Kong where he is now based. And frequently, while training young people in Asia to tell stories about the church in Asia, he says, “You don’t have to be Roman to be Catholic.”
There is a temptation to think that just because we are Roman Catholics, we have to feel like Romans, think like Romans, speak like Romans, and act like Romans. That might work in Rome, but we’re not in Rome. I’ll give you an example.
What does evangelization mean to you? Someone from Rome might say that evangelization means to proclaim the Gospel to the world, shouting from the rooftops. He might see evangelization as engaging in debate people of other faiths, defending the Catholic faith against the untruths that people speak about it, putting forward arguments and proofs for the existence of Jesus Christ and for other Catholic doctrines.
Pastorally experienced people in Asia will tell you that this doesn’t work here. By and large, Asian people are not used to fierce debates. Asians value ‘face”, reputation and honour. We don’t like to get all heated up, splitting hairs over semantics and arguments. We are not convinced by arguments, even if we cannot, logically or otherwise, prove others wrong. In fact, we are more than likely to resent people who are right all the time.
In Asia, the servant of the Lord is not one who walk through the streets proclaiming the Gospel as the apostles did. He is one who will not shout or raise his voice or make his speeches in the street (Isaiah 42:2); he will whisper the Gospel to the Soul of Asia, says Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, India.
How do we whisper the Gospel to people? We first recognize that there are people in Asia who are genuinely searching for a message that offers us more than mere entertainment. We are longing for a time-tested truth that stands through human history, something that we can live and die by. We want a civilization that does not ignore man’s daily concerns, that does not make us get lost in immediate issues that make us lose sight of the ultimate, our connection with the divine.
We want a truth that can shine forth in every situation. Areas like human dignity, preferential option for the poor, healthcare, education, peacemaking, globalization, environment, culture of life, family, laity, women, youth, migrants, global warming, economic recession, etc. – these are all areas where Christians can show forth the truth of Christ.
The Christian message must be relevant to the people of Asia, in order for it to be accepted and appreciated here. It must come with a human touch, not rhetoric, promises of utopias, ideologies and philosophies.
To be a Catholic in Asia, we need to be Asian. We cannot deny our Asian culture if we are to bring the Gospel to Asia. We cannot opt for a pure and unadulterated Christianity, because there’s no such thing. It’s not Christianity if it is not rooted in culture.
Culture is a way of life. It is the way people act, the way people move, what people value. Culture is not an end in itself; it moves us towards the end, which is God. If we are to truly proclaim the Gospel, we need to do it in the way that Jesus did. Jesus immersed himself in the Jewish people. He adopted the Jewish culture and told stories about daily life that connected with the people. He ate and drank with people, in the same way that they did. He lived as they live, prayed as they prayed, and in every situation that he was in, he found a way to proclaim the Gospel.
That is how we will whisper the Gospel to the Soul of Asia.