Challenges to Religious in 21st century Asia

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 Hector Welgampola.

As home of the world’s main religions, Asia has been the font and source of mysticism. The ancient continent’s celestial heights, expansive deserts and sprawling wilderness whetted early Asians’ yearning for the sublime. This search inspired varied forms of ascetic life in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Judaic, Essene, Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian traditions.

As reminded by the current Lenten season, the habitat-related search for the divine is nothing new to our own faith tradition. Moses’ Sinai trek, the Baptist’s desert sojourn, and Jesus’ withdrawal both to the wilderness and to Tabor are links in that chain of mystic spirituality.

The Catholic Catechism’s claim that “Religious life was born in the East during the first centuries of Christianity,” affirms the continuity of that search by early mystics such as Saints Anthony and Melania of Egypt. The Desert Fathers’ and Mothers’ lifestyle of contemplative and self-purifying spirituality paved the way for a Christian monastic tradition. Religious communities grew when holy solitaires fraternized for more effective search and service in and through wider society.

Contemplatives’ ascetic role in the Christian community, however, was in no way diminished by the birth of proactive Religious Orders in Europe or even gradual dominance of ordained ministries. Rather, the contrary seemed to be true at least in Asia where, despite canonical definition of some Religious as lay groups, laypeople always had higher esteem for unordained Religious than for diocesan clergy. Such reverence for consecrated persons is rooted in Asian cultures, where people value holiness of life over the liturgical ministry of sacramental service.

Such esteem was the secret behind the success of revered missioners such as Matteo Ricci, Richard de Nobili, John de Britto, John Beschi, Mother Teresa and Joseph Vaz. Except for Vaz, the others were Europeans. Nonetheless, they assimilated the essentials of Asian spiritualty and won people’s hearts by holiness of life and witness.

The world still looks back with nostalgia to their ascetic life, which radiated the spirit of Asian sages, swamis and gurus. Had local Religious too grown in such spirituality, they could have furthered the Asian awakening pioneered by revivalists like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen.

At the turn of the century, the Asian Synod acknowledged that “In the numerous religious traditions of Asia, men and women dedicated to the contemplative and ascetic life enjoy great respect and their witness has an especial persuasive power.”

But amid a whirlpool of canonical and ritual implications impacting Religious life in the post-modern West, precious little was done to let the synod-affirmed power of witness flourish in the service of Asia. And it is still not too late for Asian Religious to explore the stalled vision of above-named pioneers in a renewed search for new modalities of holiness and holy activism to meet today’s needs.

Take for example, the current pastoral setup in many Asian countries where vagaries of the public square and diocesan prescripts inhibit even well-meaning pastors from any prophetic role. In such a scenario, community-supported Religious will be at greater liberty to engage in prophetic roles of furthering the good-news ministry by denouncing and challenging market-enslaved consumerist cultures.

The revival of grassroots groups such as the Federation of Free Farmers in the Philippines or the Catholic Farmers’ Association in South Korea or networking people-welfare groups in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia or Sri Lanka on an ecumenical level can be timely challenges for today’s Religious.

The lead taken by some individual Religious to volunteer as English teachers in China has much potential as a base for youth apostolate. The fast growing milieu of social media should challenge today’s Religious to discern creative outreach through the blogosphere and the virtual world that coral an eclectic phono sapiens generation.

Religious should find providential role models in the earlier named pioneer missioners who on their own initiative ventured out of the beaten track even at the risk of being considered freaks by their own institutes. Fired by deep faith, they dared to discern contextual charisms for service, not for self-glory.

Today’s Church woefully needs more such men and women with pastoral wisdom and prophetic courage to venture beyond confines of juridical carapace.

Additionally, would AMOR and its local arms look beyond the juridical ebb and tide, and encourage Religious to venture out in Gospel witness even in traditional mission fields? For example, missioners from Islamic countries like Indonesia and Pakistan may better suit the needs of Central Asian cultures than missioners from elsewhere. Such missions may also help renew the apostolic energies of those Religious crucified by administrative overkill. On a lighter note, such re-missioning may even help resolve the ennui-syndrome driving Green-Card-seeking “missioner” outflows beyond the Atlantic.

This attempt to discuss some challenges to Religious would be incomplete if it fails to voice their muted challenge to Mother Church. After all, as sons and daughters of today’s Church, Religious too are part of fallible humanity. Like all laity, clergy and bishops, they too are part of a sinful world striving for perfection. Having dared to pursue that search through service to society, they challenge the Christian community with a plea for prayer and understanding. A timely Lenten mission!

(Hector Welgampola could be contacted at welgampo@gmail.com.)

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