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Samphran Pastoral Centre in Bangkok
Friday, 27 September 2002


Your Eminence,
Dear Brother Bishops,

It is with great pleasure that on my own behalf and of the whole Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, I address most cordial greetings to all of you, the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of Asia, gathered for your Central Committee Meeting, here in the Samphran Pastoral Centre.

I thank you for the invitation that you addressed to me, giving me the possibility of getting to know you personally, and of participating in your joys and pastoral concerns, which encompass the immense continent of Asia. I bring to each one of you, and to the Episcopal Conferences that you represent, the greetings and special blessing of the Holy Father.

In the post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation "Ecclesia in Asia" he declared:  "Two months after the publication of Tertio millennio adveniente, speaking to the Sixth Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences in Manila, the Philippines, during the memorable Tenth World Youth Day celebrations, I reminded the Bishops: ""If the Church in Asia is to fulfil its providential destiny, evangelisation as the joyful, patient and progressive preaching of the saving Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ should be your absolute priority'" (n. 2).

Urgent priority of the first proclamation

Dear Brother Bishops, I have come among you to again propose to you the same urgent priority of "first proclamation".

You are well aware of how important is the challenge that the Continent of Asia presents to the Gospel. Everything is immense in Asia:  the number of inhabitants, the heights of the mountains, the size of the deserts, the variety of the steppes and of the animals, but also the influence of Religions in the life of individuals and of the society. More than 60% of the world's population live in your continent. But, out of around four billion inhabitants, there are only about 130 million [2.6%] Catholics, concentrated, for the most part, in the Philippines and in India. On the other hand, in many other nations, they do not even come to 0.5%.

I am here to thank God for the apostolic zeal that inspires you, and to encourage you to walk in the footsteps of the apostle St. Thomas, St. Francis Xavier, Fr. Matteo Ricci and Fr. Roberto Di Nobili. You are well aware that the history of your Communities is as ancient as that of the Church, since indeed it was in Asia that Jesus breathed the Spirit on his disciples and sent them everywhere to proclaim the Good News: "As the Father sent me, so I am sending you" (Jn. 20,21; cf. Mt 28,18-20).

Obedient to the command of Jesus Christ, the Apostles preached the Word of salvation everywhere, and founded new Churches. The same "imperative" challenges us, today, and spurs us to courageously implement what comes to us from the indefatigable word of the Lord, all those initiatives necessary to approach, dialogue with and present the saving message of Jesus Christ, the unique Redeemer of mankind.

In Redemptoris missio, the Holy Father recalls that the realisation of the missionary task is still far from completion:  "As the second Millennium after Christ's coming draws to an end, an overall view of the human race shows that we must commit ourselves wholeheartedly to its service" (n. 1). In fact, of the more than six billion people who populate the Earth, more than two-thirds do not yet know Jesus Christ, or do not recognise him as God. I am very well aware that faith is not expressed in numerical terms but, at the present time which witnesses the passage of the second to the third millennium of the Christian era, it is not possible to pass over the comparable data in a casual manner. Therefore, in proportion to the non-Christians, the exceptionally reduced number of Catholic faithful present in Asia, gives us the opportunity of making some reflections.

We are at the beginning of evangelization

We are, as the Holy Father recalls, still at the beginning of evangelisation. After 2000 years, the Church, still not feeling the weight of the past centuries, as in the early times, is called to plan missionary tasks. And this applies to Asia especially. Here evangelisation presents difficult objectives, of which you, more than anyone else are aware, mainly because they are your daily pastoral concerns. However, I would also like to consider the many positive signs that characterise your missionary reality. They are the tangible proof of a future pregnant with hope, which enkindles in our hearts the joy of the farmer who, after having sown the seed, confidently awaits for it to grow and produce fruit. Naturally, due to the diversity and uniqueness of every people and nation, it is not possible and opportune to produce an address that is the same for all.

However common elements, in relation to an evangelising strategy, are not lacking. A year and a half ago the Holy Father called me to direct and coordinate the work of the Evangelisation of Peoples. And during this first period I have had the joy of visiting a part of your extraordinary continent:  India, Sri Lanka, Korea and Mongolia. With the exception of the last-named country, I have been able to ascertain and also to be amazed at how the faith has taken root in the people of God. I have met zealous Bishops, committed to a far from easy evangelising task; priests, men and women religious who give witness to their brothers and sisters by a joyful and self-sacrificing way of life; lay people, especially catechists, who proclaim the Gospel in areas where no religious can be present, in real and typical missionary frontier situations. They constitute a new way of evangelisation for so many persons who desire to know the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In Mongolia, on the other hand, I assisted at the work of sowing the seed in soil that the heroic labour of so many missionaries, male and female, has made fruitful and rich with future promise. But there are also countries of your continent where the Gospel of Christ has almost grown like an adult tree, and whose fruits are also extending outwards from your own country and the continent of Asia.

Asia must evangelize Asia

A similar situation permits me to affirm that Asia must evangelise Asia. Today as yesterday, no one can be self-sufficient. Moreover, the inter-ecclesial dialogue of the local Catholic communities will bring about an exchange of gifts. Still, in the present planetary context it is very important that "communion" is achieved, first of all among the Churches belonging to the same continent.

Communion:  share with those who have less

A similar need of communion necessitates that the Church in Asia, rich in personnel and means, be open to Catholicity, helping others in a state of need. In this context, priority should not be given to Churches of those continents which offer greater economic possibilities. If the Lord blesses some of your Churches with many and holy vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, it is not for granting them riches and material prosperity, but, so that they can send missionaries to nations who have need of the work of evangelisation. And it is evident that missionaries coming from the same continent offer better conditions for a fruitful mission.

It is obvious that the great cultural, social, political and religious differences that exist among the Asian peoples cannot be hidden. The problem is present in all corners of the World. Therefore, it is clear that it is easier for one Asian to evangelise another Asian.

Inculturation, interreligious dialogue, Christology

This method of approach highlights a third dimension of evangelisation in Asia:  the need that the missionary task takes dialogue with the great Religions of Asia and the problem of inculturation into serious consideration. I know that these points have been dealt with extensively on the occasions of numerous Assemblies which you have undertaken, at the continental and national levels.

The Magisterium of the Church has also returned to the themes of inter-religious dialogue and inculturation in order to make the pastoral action of the Bishops increasingly clear. Today, I am anxious to emphasise the necessity that these values and concerns should not be seen merely as ends, and thus become the criterion of judgement and, much less, the ultimate criterion of truth with regard to God's Revelation (cf. Fides et Ratio, n. 71).

In the document Faith and Inculturation [1988], the International Theological Commission, dealt with the question of cultural pluralism in the framework of a missionary perspective, related to the evangelisation of peoples. And it declared that, from time to time, the events and words revealed by God must be rethought, reformulated and lived differently within each culture (C.T.I., Faith and Inculturation, 1988). Since, this address needs to be consistent, in these multifarious contexts of yours, it should be said that, the "principle of truth" cannot be regulated by the mere "cultural means" of comprehension (Declaration of the Indian Theological Association on the significance of Jesus Christ in the Context of India, Bangalore 1998).

It so happens, in fact, that occasionally, the impression that the fundamental significance of Jesus Christ is determined more by the social and cultural context of the Nations to whom He is being proclaimed, than by revealed truth. In reality, the significance of Jesus Christ is determined primarily and in the beginning by "who he is", and only to some extent by those people by whom he is received. Otherwise, it could risk falling into that hermeneutical tendency by which christology becomes a variable of cultural anthropology, with the consequent relativisation of the Person of Jesus Christ, of his one and universal salvific mediation, of the Church herself, which is the universal sacrament of salvation, as well as of the Missio ad Gentes.

From these premises, it follows that the Christian faith, precisely because in a universal manner, it must be "true" without avoiding the exigencies of her pluri-inculturation, it cannot be identified with any one single culture, nor with the culture in which the original revelation of the christological truth is incarnated, where, as everybody knows, it brought many and penetrating innovations and suggestions, such that it is impossible to identify the Christian faith with its Jewish or Hellenistic inculturation.

It is even more necessary to remember that the need of re-interpretation, implemented by an inculturated theology with reference to evangelisation, is not to be understood as a "reinvention" of the figure of Jesus Christ. The encyclical Redemptoris Missio stresses that Christ is the only Saviour of all (cf. n. 4):  "Only in him is there salvation ... "for of all the names in the world, this is the only name by which we can be saved" (Acts 4,11.12); he is "the one mediator between God and humanity" (cf. 1 Tm 2,5). In this sense should be read the reminder of John Paul II to a group of Indian Bishops, when he endorsed the "definitive and absolute nature of Christian Revelation and the permanent value of the Christology of the New Testament, the unity of the mystery of Christ, the uniqueness and universality of his mediation and also the salvific role of the Church, which is the sacrament and instrument of salvation" (cf. Osservatore Romano, 25.10.1996; ORE 30 October 1996, p. 2).

Without these principles, the Christian mission would be useless and harmful, drained of its essential contents, reduced simply to dialogue and to the task of social liberation. Christological and religious relativism becoming, therefore, new dogmas; dialogue becoming the example of the new relativistic creed which is opposed to all conversion and mission [cf. J. Ratzinger, Fede e Teologia ai nostri giorni, in Osservatore Romano, 27.10.1996; ORE 6 November 1996, p. 4). "The relativisation of Jesus Christ leads to the loss of his "distinctiveness' and his "uniqueness', in the end degenerating to the level of a "peculiarity' of a purely human-historical order, or a purely "mythological' nature. In such a hypothesis the christological event is reduced to a religious myth and the Christian religion to a subordinate form in its expressions of inculturation" (J. Chettimattan, The Challenges of Evangelisation in India, in Juvadhara 26 [1996], pp. 333-334).

Dialogue and mission

On the more specific question concerning "dialogue and mission", you will remember the validity of what the Council proclaimed, with the Declaration Nostra Aetate:  "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men" (n. 2); but also in the recent Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio ineunte:  "We should not fear that it will be considered an offence to the identity of others what is rather the joyful proclamation of a gift meant for all, and to be offered to all with the greatest respect for the freedom of each one" (n. 56). In this long journey made by the Catholic Church, in which the Supreme Pontiff and the Bishops are especially engaged by word and action, difficulties and prejudices still remain to be overcome. We are engaged in a true dialogue, and not in a negotiation, with our brother believers. In any case it still remains true that the task of inter-religious dialogue must be that of opening up the way for a proclamation which is centred on Christ, "the Way, the Truth and the Life"(Jn 14,6). For this reason, it [dialogue] cannot simply take the place of proclamation, but is oriented to proclamation (cf. The Instruction of the Pont. Coun. for Interreligious Dialogue and the Missionary Dicastery: Dialogue and Proclamation. May 1996). It is necessary to know the way in which to listen to others, without establishing a priori and in an ahistorical manner the questions to which to respond, and still less, to offer a preconfessional response.

With regard to all these issues, your pastoral action as Bishops of the countries where dialogue and inculturation are a definite lived experience, acquires a fundamental importance, which transcends the boundaries of your nations. Therefore, it is necessary to be vigilant so that, as pastors and guides of your people, there may be no theology which is at variance with the true doctrine revealed to us by the Holy Spirit and preached by the Church. I know that there are many activities, in quite a number of Asian countries, grassroots groups who propose a biblical-pastoral-spiritual renewal. You are close to them with your care and you guide them in order to strengthen faith through an authentic renewal of the Christian life. It is the best witness that we can offer for an authentic evangelisation of our people.

Plan for Missionary Congress of Asia

For this purpose, I wish to express my gratitude and that of the Congregation over which I preside for the project of the Missionary Congress of Asia which will be organised, on the model of that of the American continent. Not only do I agree with this proposal, but from now on I pledge the total collaboration and the full support of our missionary Dicastery for this missionary venture. We will be happy to place ourselves at your disposal so that this project may also be organised as soon as possible and obtain the best fruits for the new evangelisation of the Asian continent.

However, by my presence among you I also wish to confirm the complete disponibility of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples placing it at your service for all the pastoral tasks which with generosity and, often, with heroic sacrifice, you give to your missionary activities. May the Lord bless these efforts of yours and grant you the joy of being able to reap abundant fruit, in the certainty that a true and incomparable reward will be given to you by that Lord of the Harvest who has chosen you as pastors of his flock.


Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe