Mission in Asia

I am pleased to present this “Perspectives” volume, focusing on China and Japan. It can serve as an aid to understanding the meaning of the Church’s presence in these Asian lands. It certainly gives insights into the great love and profound esteem of the Catholic Church for the cultures she meets in Asia.

This project draws on the work of La Civiltà Cattolica, which intends to be a journal of serious and attentive reflection. This is in line with our vocation to be a promoter of culture, bringing serious issues to a wider public than that of academic journals. Indeed, the essays collected in this volume are just a selection of the many in-depth studies that have appeared in the magazine in recent years.

China is the land of a very ancient and complex civilization. This volume is intended only as an introduction to this complexity, considering in particular its relationship with Christianity. For this reason our volume – consider it a mosaic! – is thorough and articulate, the fruit of various hands, with each article being autonomous and readable independently. However, those who are blessed with patience can follow a path that starts from the roots of Chinese culture and spirituality, and discover its history, meeting some significant figures along the way, advancing up until the present, when it faces some contemporary issues.

There are six contributions on China. The first starts from the fact that Christian Churches throughout the world have become aware that the 21st century is truly the Asian Century. At the same time, the vitality and inventiveness shown by Asian Christian communities is increasingly recognized.

Asian theologians have tried to summarize the nature of the experiences lived by their people in a “theology of harmony,” which has developed its principles and characteristics over the past three or four decades. Our reflection seeks to describe the context, style and specific topics of this theology, taking into account its internal differentiations and illustrating the influence it may have progressively on ecclesial, theological and spiritual developments within and beyond Asia.

Nicolas Standaert’s essay answers the question of who were the great figures in the development of Christianity in China, and what influence they had, and not just the famous missionaries, such as Matteo Ricci. The author’s focus is not on missionaries, but on Chinese Christians; not only on individuals, but on communities; not on the elites, but on ordinary Christians; not only on men, but also on women; and finally, not only on thought or doctrine, but on rituals. By illuminating these “other” aspects of the Church in China, he shows the creation of the first Catholic communities from which the present communities draw their identity.

His reflection continues by examining the Jesuit method of inculturation in China and, in particular, how it spread European science and technology. However, the development of an apostolate through books and, consequently, the development of a local theology in China is one of the least known aspects. Nothing similar can be found in other missions of the same period. This development undoubtedly originated from the European formation of missionaries, but more significantly depended on the cultural, social and political context of China. It allowed the birth among Chinese Christians of a local theology, which can be considered as the foundation of theological reflection in the Chinese Church.

Thierry Meynard introduces us to Fan Shouyi (1682-1753), a Chinese Catholic who came to Europe at the beginning of the 18th century and decided to become a Jesuit. In fact, much has been written about Western missionaries in China, while much less is known about the role of Chinese Catholics in the encounter between these two worlds. Fan Shouyi, on his return to China, played a significant role, not easy but entirely constructive, in the relations between Pope Clement XI and Emperor Kangxi. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery of Zhalanalong with Johann Adam Schall Von Bell, Matteo Ricci and other Jesuits from the Ming and Qing eras. The symbols on his tombstone portray his double identity: a dragon, which recalls loyalty to his country, and a cross, which reflects his Christian faith.

The next essay looks at the enormous social, economic and political transformations that have taken place in China in recent decades. From these we will understand how the development of the Chinese Catholic Church is subject to challenges that force it to rethink its structure and to elaborate new responses. It is therefore good to evaluate the prevailing approaches to the presence of the Catholic Church in China, considering the implementation of the Church’s “becoming-up-to-date,” as requested by Vatican II and, finally, the broader picture of Christianity in China linked to the main currents of Protestantism in the country.

Finally, we deal with the future of inter-religious dialogue in Asia. Looking back, our reflection shows how questions of religious terminology have been disruptive. On the other hand, sharing narratives can help heal communities affected by past conflicts. The challenges facing us today are: never to renounce the ideal of living and praying side by side as a privileged form of dialogue; to appreciate and interpret better the great variety of religious classics read and meditated on throughout the continent; to link the principle of religious freedom with a reflection on the mission and duties of the State.

Concerning Japan we present first of all a broad reflection on the word “mission,” which is often used today for any kind of pioneering project or new activities that see humanity enter a new phase of history, such as sending men to the moon or to other destinations in the cosmos. In this sense, in modern Japanese “mission” is written in katakana – the Japanese phonetic syllabic script – as mission, that is, with the same English word.

In order to translate “mission” in the Christian sense, three possibilities are offered in modern Japanese: dendō (“teach the way”), fukyō (“spread the truth”) andsenkyō (“proclaim the truth”). Deepening the meanings of these terms, one can examine the process of secularization of social life in Japan and try to reflect on Christianity and its proclamation in that land today.

A solid mission strategy must be developed on the basis of the Second Vatican Council. Now, even though the “mission” achieved great results in 16th century Japan, it is no longer possible to achieve such success in today’s times, which are characterized by rapid progress in material culture and a high standard of living. The new strategy of proclaiming the Gospel must become an expression of the people of today’s need for religion in a secularized Japan.

On the other hand, because of Shinto polytheism, it seems that there is no other country in which freedom of conscience and freedom of expression are so widely taken into account. The Japanese today are now free to access any sanctuary, any temple and any church. Of course, this freedom also includes the freedom to live one’s daily life without any religious practice.

The Japanese, besides, are shocked by the episodes of terrorism that can be traced back to religious roots. In particular, some intellectuals, albeit in a vague and almost unconscious way, are beginning to wonder whether monotheistic religions, in the final analysis, can be truly tolerant toward members of other religions.

The life of Justus Takayama Ukon is a window into the history of Christianity in Japan. It is 400 years since he died. He is remembered and venerated in Japan not only as a martyr, but also as a great witness to the Christian faith, practiced in contact with the missions of the Society of Jesus. He was the greatest Japanese missionary of the 16th century precisely because he lived the Christian faith with those characteristics of tenacity, rigor and fidelity typical of the Japanese people, encouraging the inculturation of Christianity through the witness of his life, which finally saw him die in exile.

Ukon showed that the Christian faith as love is not opposed to any culture; on the contrary, it is able to deepen and bring every culture to its fulfillment. His witness of faith has been and is convincing and, just as his life has led many to the Gospel, so too the blood of his martyrdom can continue to be the “seed of Christians.”

The volume closes with my interview of director Martin Scorsese about his film,Silence, which was inspired by the story of the Japanese martyrs of the 17th century. I carried on this extensive interview with the director by meeting him at his home in New York and again in Rome, and developing a dialogue over a period of eight months. Scorsese reveals himself by disclosing the long process of gestation of the film, but also a unique way of living its story, which he recognizes as part of his complex and contradictory life in search of grace. The passion with which the director presents the events and the figures of the protagonists offers a fundamental key to understanding the film, viewed also in the light of his previous productions and the echoes of the great literature that inspired him. But it is also a way of entering into the open-ended, contrasting relationship that exists between Christianity and Japanese culture: a challenge that is fascinating and painful at the same time, which has accompanied the history of the Church, and in particular that of the Society of Jesus, since the arrival of the first Jesuit missionaries in the Far East.

Antonio Spadaro, SJ
Director of La Civiltà Cattolica

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