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Revisiting Catholic history in Singapore, Korea, Thailand, and beyond (Pt. 2)

A synodal Church that narrates her past cannot cultivate anti-intellectualism and unquestioned mimetic behaviors
Cardinal William Goh of Singapore (center) at the inauguration of Catholic200SG event commemorating 200 years of Catholicism in the country

Cardinal William Goh of Singapore (center) at the inauguration of Catholic200SG event commemorating 200 years of Catholicism in the country. (Photo: YouTube)

Published: April 27, 2023 09:55 AM GMT

Read the first part of the commentary here : Revisiting Catholic history in Singapore, Korea, Thailand, and beyond (Pt.1)

The Transcendent Nation

Another imitation that may distort ecclesial remembrance is the tendency to narrate ecclesial history through a national framework. Almost all large-scale anniversaries promoted by Asian Church leaders are formulated on a national scale.

When Filipinos celebrated the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the faith in the Philippines, celebrations were not fundamentally about a specific location. They were about Catholicism in the Philippines as if one island of that time spoke to the whole national territory of today.

When Taiwan Catholics celebrated 150 years of evangelization, they did it as if the island of that time was operating under a unified and distinct political unit that is comparable to the one of today. In fact, it was not.

Like the Philippine archipelago, Taiwan was divided into several entities. Furthermore, Taiwanese bishops deliberately ignored missionaries who came before that time, maybe because those missionaries were on their way to go somewhere else. For a Church which has long been obsessed with the re-conquest of mainland China, the 150th anniversary was a way to finally adjust its nationalism and proclaim its local commitment.

In Thailand, the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Vicariate of Siam was celebrated as if contemporary Thailand was the strict continuum of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya. However, in terms of territorial borders, ethnic identity, and politico-religious ideologies, the two entities are different realities.

For Asian churches that seek to inculturate the faith and demonstrate their patriotism, ecclesial anniversaries are obviously not the place to question the historical continuity, territorial legitimacy, and transcendent claims of their nation-states. Instead, they become an opportunity to fit into these national narratives.

In places where the Church faces intense marginalization and state control, this is a matter of survival. Yet, one must notice that through the way ecclesial anniversaries are framed, the national reality is not only considered but also reinforced. This, of course, speaks to the necessary collective dimension of the faith. But this also runs the risk of celebrating the nation-state than facing the challenges of the kingdom of God.

Nevertheless, local churches find ways to reach out to ethnic minorities who are often left out of the national narrative. Through small schools, dispensaries and missionary posts, Catholicism emerges in the marginalized territories to serve social groups that do not fit well into the national discourse. These daily actions may not be celebrated through costly and highly visible celebrations but they effectively counterbalance the nationalization of Asian Catholicism.

In places like India, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, and even Japan and Taiwan where religious traditions are deeply intertwined with national identities and political systems, local churches have to walk a very fine line to demonstrate their national belonging. If the Church wants to carry its mission, it has to behave a bit like a chameleon and imitate some local features, even nationalist forms of worship.

The Role of the Clergy 

A final imitation that we must discuss relates to the role of the clergy. In numerous anniversaries that we mentioned, Asian churches display a theology of ministry that imitates valuable but ambiguous pre-Vatican II patterns of ministry.

In Singapore, the local Church decided to focus on a French priest who spent only a week on the island rather than on the dozen or so lay people who were living there. Despite the tremendous wealth of the archdiocese, there was no effort to conduct historiographic research about them as if the only valuable introduction to the faith could be the one done through a French priest.

In Thailand, the 350th anniversary was related to the papal decision to establish the vicariate of Siam shortly after the synod of Ayutthaya. Different commentaries explained that 2019 was also the 450th anniversary of the arrival of the first group of foreign missionaries on Thai soil. But, in both cases, the celebration was about clerical action as the initiation of the local Church. And de facto, the narrative was never centered on the tens of thousands of Catholics who have left the Japanese archipelago and brought their faith to the Gulf of Siam. Their presence was massive and their commitment to the Gospel was resilient. Yet, their lives are still to be celebrated as the foundation of the Church in the region.

In Korea, Catholics are often proud that local Catholicism was introduced to the Kingdom of Joseon in the 1780s through lay ministry. This is presented as something unique in Church history. Yet, Korean ecclesial discourses never fail to also emphasize the heroic virtues of Saint Andrew Kim Taegon who, on top of helping the French armies, was a Catholic priest. In other words, it seems that if faith can eventually be introduced by laypeople, it has to be an insufficient exception. A saint priest must save the situation.

One must also notice that Korean exceptionalism is only true if we look at Asia on a national scale. But when we zoom in and observe the dynamic of evangelization at a more local scale, thousands of testimonies reveal that it was laypeople who first introduced the faith into Asian localities. In many Asian villages and valleys, it was lay migrants, refugees, and merchants who planted Catholicism. This is true in Indonesia, China, Vietnam, North India, etc. Ordained missionaries would have never survived without the caring support of laypeople. Faith would have never grown without the preliminary introduction and daily sacrifices made by laypeople.

Of course, this is not to say that the clergy is optional. The whole of Catholicism does need the ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops. In the long term, there is no Catholic Church without ordained ministers. At the same time, this crucial importance of the clergy does not mean that a single priest can synthesize the wholeness of the ordained ministries. This goes against what Vatican II teaches about the role of bishops.

Paradoxically, in most ecclesial anniversaries celebrated across Asia, missionary priests are presented as the sufficient condition to truly establish the Church. The narrative goes as if their ministry was not ultimately depending on the mission given by ordained bishops and on the logistics provided by local believers and non-believers of goodwill.

In Asia, when the Church remembers and celebrates her history, she often imitates a theology of ministry infused by pre-Vatican II spiritualities. The spotlight is easily turned on one particular member of the ecclesial community — the single priest as if he were the ultimate condition to generate the Church. Insufficient attention is paid to the numerous forms of collaboration and mutual support that make the Church present.

Our point is not to advocate for the importance of the laity alone. Instead, it is to underline the collaborative and participatory nature of the Church, from its very beginning until today, a communion of ministries that reflects the nature of the triune God. If memorial efforts are co-opted by mimetic behaviors — either colonial, national or clerical — the narrative we celebrate and enforce upon others is almost false. 

Synodal Mission

When Asian churches celebrate the journey through which faith took root in their homeland, they seek to encourage all members of the ecclesial community to witness and share the presence of Christ in today’s world. Remembrance is about evangelization and the integral salvation of our world. Their memorial efforts might be stained by colonial, national and clerical biases but the goal remains--the growth of the kingdom.

To renew our commitment to the Gospel, the Second Vatican Council invites us to become a synodal Church, a community that truly listens to its multiple voices in order to discern the whisper of the Spirit. This tradition of collective obedience and discernment is at the heart of Church history.

If our contemporary societies are not fundamentally different from what the Church has encountered in the past, two voices of 21st-century Asia are gaining renewed strength and need to be acknowledged. They are both essential to make our remembrance more holistic and our commitment to evangelization more synodal. 

First, Asia may have been permanently transformed by Western and non-Western colonial enterprises, but Asian societies have also erected tools to cultivate critical distance from the ideologies that dominate Western thought. The continent hosts numerous research institutions, scholarly networks, and scientific debates questioning the religious and socio-political history of the region.

Among this new generation of social scientists, some study Catholicism in Asia, and their research provide critical insights into the lived realities of Asian Catholics. The Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics has been specifically established to assist these scholars, strengthen their research initiatives, and promote their work.

Within the Church, their scientific voices are certainly not meant to replace other voices. Synodality values every single voice. But the methodological approach of academics who specialize in the study of contemporary Asian Catholics makes their professional voices particularly distinct, valuable and irreplaceable. Asian memorial efforts cannot occur as if academia does not exist. 

Second, while the colonization of Asia has been marked by massive extraction of resources, the ongoing ecological crisis affects large regions of the continent and makes the cry of the earth stronger. Who can remain deaf to the destruction of the environment and the extermination of numerous Asian species?

This is not only an ecological emergency. The monopolization of resources by some threatens the possibility of peaceful coexistence. The coming of the kingdom depends on an integral development in which humankind and creation receive each other as gifts of the creator. No one can live on an island as if nobody else exists around. No Christian community can pretend to be green and virtuous while letting its garbage kill its neighbors.

The mission of the Church is also to renew this ecological dialogue of life which transcends material, geographic, and social boundaries. Ecclesial remembrance cannot fully occur without inclusive care for creation — a material world to protect and share beyond social classes and national boundaries.

Therefore, scholarly debates and the cry of the earth are two types of voices that could accurately renew the ways in which Asian churches remember their history and share the Gospel with all creatures. This is a matter of coherence and accountability for churches across Asia.

A synodal Church that narrates her history cannot cultivate anti-intellectualism and unquestioned mimetic behaviors. Memorial efforts are necessarily linked to intellectual work. Academic contributors cannot be the whole process but they cannot be deliberately left out. How is it possible that ecclesial anniversaries are sometimes designed without consulting any professional historian?

Similarly, a synodal Church that manifests the plenitude of her past and present cannot endorse lavish events and wasteful lifestyles that turn material gifts from God into the garbage. Remembrance must be within a circular and respectful economy. A Church who remembers all these things, and ponders them in her heart, cannot forget that the gifts of the earth are too precious to be selfishly treated as disposable commodities.

In the 21st century, a synodal Church needs to invite different voices into the production of narratives and performances which truly give dignity to all social and ecclesial groups, scholarly knowledge, and the creation as a whole. This is the necessary condition to overcome mimetic temptations and generate empowering remembrance that evangelizes all facets of Asian realities.

Michel Chambon is a French theologian and cultural anthropologist who studies Christianity in the Chinese world. At the National University of Singapore, he coordinates ISAC, the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics. Father Dr. James Ponniah is a coordinator of ISAC, the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Christian Studies, University of Madras, India.

Read the first part of the commentary here: Revisiting Catholic history in Singapore, Korea, Thailand, and beyond (Pt.1)

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