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Are we entering the age of Asian saints?

Recent Indian canonizations are a matter of pride for the 'Third Church'

Are we entering the age of Asian saints?

An Indian priest prays prior to a canonization mass for Indian priest Kuriakose Elias Chavara, represented at left, and Indian Carmelite nun Euphrasia Eluvathingal, represented at right, at St Peter's square on Sunday at the Vatican (AFP Photo/Gabriel Bouys)

Fr Dominic Emmanuel, Delhi
India

November 24, 2014

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It is widely believed and accepted — although there is a lack of incontrovertible evidence — that Christianity was brought to India by two of Jesus’s apostles, Thomas and Bartholomew.

Thus, Christianity can be said to have existed in India from almost the time the religion was born.

Despite this, the names of Indian Christians — particularly their holy credentials — have somehow not found a prominent place in Church annals.

However, with the canonization of Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia on Sunday, Sister Alphonsa a few years ago, and with up to 25 more Indians up for possible sainthood, that situation seems to be changing fast.

The question that naturally springs to mind is, why have things changed so quickly?

Is it because the rules for canonization have been changed or relaxed? Is it because Catholics in India have become more holy in recent times? Is it because people here are being noticed because of their new social and economic status? Or has the Vatican become more sympathetic towards the faithful in this region?

In his 1974 book: The Coming of the Third Church, Swiss Capuchin Walbert Buhlmann predicted the rise of Christianity outside of Western Europe, which he coined the “Second Church”. The “First Church” being Christianity in its formative years in the Middle East.

Buhlmann, observing changes in the world, especially after the Second Vatican Council (1963-65), said: “The Church at home in the Western world for almost 2,000 years will, in a short time, have shifted its centre of gravity into the Third World, where its adherents will be much more numerous.”

Similarly, Adrian Hastings, speaking about this shift in 1991, in Modern Catholicism: Vatican II and After, wrote: “The geography of the Catholic Church in 1990 has become remarkably different from that of 1960. Where for instance, there was then a mere handful of African bishops, there are now many hundred.”

The recent spurt of canonizations in Asia and moves to put other Asians on the road to sainthood provide sufficient evidence of the accuracy of Buhlmann’s predictions made exactly forty years ago as well as the observations made by Hastings.

With the exception of St Gonsalo Garcia — a Franciscan friar from Maharashtra, who was martyred in Japan along with 25 other missionaries and canonized in 1862 — the naming of new Indian saints and the prospect of more from the predominantly Hindu nation, is certainly a matter of pride for the Third Church.

The line up of several Venerables (on the way to sainthood), Blessed and Saints from India and hopefully in future from other Asian and African countries is certainly a sign of the shifting sands of time and tide.

“Ecclesia in Asia,” a bishops’ synod document released in 1999 in Delhi by late Pope John Paul II (now a saint himself), envisaged the third millennium as the time for "a great harvest of faith" in Asia.

The document said: "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."

The 20th century saw more canonizations in Asia than any other time, and the trend is continuing.

In 1984, Pope John Paul II canonized 103 Korean Catholic martyrs. In February this year, Pope Francis declared Paul Yun Ji-chung and 123 companions Venerable and in August he beatified Paul during his visit to Korea, elevating them closer to sainthood. Plans are also afoot to beatify other 20th century Korean Catholics who were killed by communists during the Korean War.

Pope John Paul II was instrumental in declaring saints in Asia. In 1988, he canonized 117 Vietnamese Catholic martyrs. In 2002, he canonized 120 people in China — 87 Chinese Catholics and 33 European missioners — martyred in the past three centuries.

The Philippine's second saint, Pedro Calungsod was canonized in 2012, some 25 year after the country’s first saint — Lorenzo Ruiz — was canonized in 1987.

Sri Lanka will get its first saint when Blessed Joseph Vaz, an Indian missionary, is canonized during Pope Francis's visit there in January.

Looking at this phenomenon from the perspective of faith we must look at the words of Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi who said the beatification and canonization of saints has to take its own time according to God's plan and not human reckoning.

"The declaration of someone as a "saint" by the Church cannot be forced. It is the result of a long-drawn process that follows strict procedures that cannot be bypassed or compromised with,” he said.

“The cult of a Saint emerges from the common people themselves who are the first judges of the exceptional holiness of a life of someone who is dead and gone but who has left behind a brilliant example of authentic Christian life and so is an intercessor on our behalf before the throne of God," he added.

In a country like India, where people have deep spiritual roots, regardless of which religion they may belong to, many more people have certainly led a godly life and are worthy to be considered as saints. Our task would be not just to carry on but intensify that legacy.

Fr Dominic Emmanuel is a media consultant and commentator based in Delhi. He is a priest belonging to the Society of the Divine Word.  

 

 

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