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Revisiting Catholic history in Singapore, Korea, Thailand, and beyond (Pt.1)

In Asia, Catholicism is often — and inaccurately— portrayed as a colonial import introduced by Western powers
The logo commemorating the 200th year of the beginning of Catholicism in Singapore

The logo commemorating the 200th year of the beginning of Catholicism in Singapore. (Photo: Archdiocese of Singapore / Facebook)

Published: April 21, 2023 03:16 AM GMT
Updated: April 27, 2023 07:52 AM GMT

Over the past few years, numerous Asian dioceses and bishops’ conferences have mobilized massive human and financial resources to celebrate events featured as foundations of the Church in Asia. This Catholic interest in history is not necessarily specific to Asia. Yet, the ways these celebrations engage with the Asian history of colonialism, national identity, and Church authority reveal a set of specificities that call for attention.

In 2021, the Church in the Philippines commemorated the 500th anniversary of the European discovery of the archipelago, an event that also brought Christianity to local populations and gradually transformed the entire political and religious dynamics of the region. Also in 2021, the Archdiocese of Singapore launched a yearlong program to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Catholicism on the island. Meanwhile, South Korea organized religious services, as well as the distribution of various souvenirs, to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of St Andrew Kim, the first Korean priest. Two years before that, in 2019, Thailand marked the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Apostolic Vicariate of Siam and the beginning of the Catholic Church in the Southeast Asian nation. And in 2009, dioceses in Taiwan organized a nationwide pilgrimage and various gatherings to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the evangelization of the island.

These are only a few examples showing how local churches are regularly organizing large events to publicly commemorate and proactively narrate the history of Catholicism in Asia. Through these celebrations, Asian churches construct a collective memory of their past. They make it publicly visible and reinforce its appropriation by all. Yet, a prominent goal of these memorial efforts is evangelization.

In the discourse promoted by Church leaders and organizers, the Church celebrates her history to make new disciples. Memory and mission are linked. These celebrations, testimonies, and souvenirs are designed to give confidence to Asian Catholics and to encourage them to share the Good News today. In a region where Catholic populations are often marginalized, large-scale and multi-dimensional anniversaries are important resources to transform the public place of Catholicism.

As coordinators of ISAC, the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics — a social scientific effort to study the lived realities of Asian Catholics — we want to reflect on the significance as well as the ambiguities, of these memorial efforts. Without providing a systematic account, we discuss how some narratives promoted by the Church in Asia take the risk to imitate colonial memories and national imaginaries as well as pre-Vatican II models of clerical authority. Therefore, to bring ecclesial memory beyond social mimesis and encourage evangelization, this article suggests that a synodal Church needs to not only celebrate her history but also engage a variety of voices in historiographic dialogue.

The Economy of Memory 

Ecclesial anniversaries are usually impressive! Large-scale celebrations commemorating events that have marked the foundation of the Church in Asia require a massive mobilization of human and financial resources. During several days — and even months — numerous people and material artifacts are brought together to generate public events designed to help churchgoers honor those who preceded them and who brought the faith to Asian people.

Throughout these commemorations, Asian Catholics are invited to demonstrate and cultivate filial piety and thankfulness. Through the guidance of the bishops, the whole Church brings together all its past and present members to give thanks to God. In this public imaginary, a chain of indebtedness is drawn from founding events and figures all the way to contemporary Catholics. Faith is seen as a gift that missionaries have brought to them.

But these commemorations also stand as an investment. The expensive and grueling production of a collective memory seeks to create the unity and confidence that the Church needs to gain visibility and attract new disciples. The Church is supposed to remember what she has received in order to better share it with those who do not know Jesus yet.

The powerful logic of these commemorations was particularly clear throughout the bicentennial anniversary of the Church in Singapore. In 2021, the archbishop of Singapore launched Catholic200SG, a program inviting local Catholics to remember and celebrate the first missionary who brought Catholicism to the island.

The core narrative of these celebrations revolved around the one-week visit that Saint Laurent Imbert made to Singapore in order to evaluate whether a mission could be established there. After finding a dozen or so Catholics established in the then-British colony, Father Imbert sent an account to his bishop in Siam to confirm the potential for a mission in Singapore.

Around this narrative, the commission in charge of Catholic200SG creatively produced numerous activities, online or small-group events, dedicated apps, as well as communication campaigns. The goal was to allow people to hear about the history of their Church and celebrate its foundation.

Nonetheless, to respect social restrictions due to Covid-19, the commission also had to reformat or even reschedule parts of the initial program. When restrictions allowed it, people could register for a guided tour of the Mission District in downtown Singapore. With a trained volunteer, they could visit historical Catholic buildings and touch material artifacts that are still testifying about the efforts and sacrifices made for the Gospel.

Numerous online conferences and talks were offered as well. Among them, the archdiocese produced a 20-minute long video, A Call to Shine - The History of Catholicism in Singaporeto summarize the history of Catholicism in Singapore. It begins with testimonies from missionaries who came to the British colony. It says: “Young missionaries left their homes, families, and comfortable lives, to make a journey to an unknown land.” Then, it insists on how missionary efforts depend on a long list of people and skills, and that this journey continues with us today.

On top of that, Catholic200SG included a large festival at the end of November 2021 to let various communities of the archdiocese present themselves to each other. In order to overcome the impossibility of holding a large event during the pandemic time, this festival included a Virtual Fair featuring 58 Catholic organizations.

One must appreciate the tremendous creativity and commitment of numerous employees and volunteers to make this year-long program a reality. This Singaporean year of celebration relied on local resources and digital skills to make things happen. It did connect numerous people to bring the Church together and shine. By giving time, skills, and patience, they manifested their obedience to local authorities, the vitality of their faith, and their desire to share it.

Even though Catholic200SG could not generate large crowds and communal meals like most ecclesial anniversaries do, this anniversary still illustrated the inventiveness and energy that an Asian Church can deploy to celebrate her history and bring her faith forward.

Large-scale events like this have a lasting influence. They impress and move people. Two years later, many Singaporean Catholics still applied the Catholic200SG logo to their Facebook profile and other social media accounts. They continue to share their religious identity and shine, and hopefully, it will illuminate their neighbors.

More fundamentally, ecclesial remembrance connects places, peoples, and time periods. The Christian community brings its members together to make the Church tangible. Memory remembers the past and present of the Church. The act of remembrance unites the body of Christ, it lets everyone see it and brings it to action and motion. And this whole economy of remembrance is the basis for evangelization. When the Church brings its members together as an acting body, she better manifests the real presence of the kingdom of Christ.

But these memorial efforts also bring a set of paradoxes and ambiguities which deserve equal attention.

The Shadow of Mimesis

In Asia, commemorations are an opportunity for local churches but also a challenge. The mobilization of necessary resources and the coordination of their logistics can generate a wide range of legitimate frustrations, physical exhaustion, and institutional contradictions. 

But there are deeper ambiguities that deserve specific attention. While Catholics are officially called by Church leaders to shine, they might be implicitly forbidden to be enlightened by their social and ecclesial realities. The following section highlights three types of tensions embedded in the Asian Catholic ways of framing their memorial efforts.

The Colonial Question

In Asia, Catholicism is often — and inaccurately — portrayed as a colonial import introduced by Western powers. In the larger social iimaginary, Catholicism arrived with Western merchants and soldiers between the 16th and 19th centuries. As we have explained elsewhere, little public attention and academic research focus on the bi-millennial presence of Christianity in South Asia--on the history of East Timor, or on the work of a papal envoy in Khanbaliq (Beijing) between 1294 and 1328. Most conversations revolve around European colonialism and the power relations that pushed some Asian people to embrace Catholicism.

While it is important to investigate the ambiguities of the past, one must also notice that a history centered on the colonial period reinforces the assumption that Asian Catholicism is something deeply foreign and political. This narrative asserts a dangerous distance between Asian collective identities and the papal religion. With this broader Asian perception of Catholicism in mind, one must, unfortunately, acknowledge that numerous anniversaries celebrated by Asian Churches are implicitly inscribed into this colonial framework. In their large-scale commemorations, Asian Churches do publicly focus on European missionaries who brought the faith to Asia.

For instance, in Singapore, the presence of Catholicism can be traced to centuries before the 19th century. Several Catholics — not just Westerners — have passed by the island years before 1821. For instance, Saint Francis Xavier came to Singapore in late July 1552. And, lay Catholics were already established on the island before the short visit of Saint Laurent Imbert. Therefore, selecting 1821 as the reference for the foundation of the local Church — and publicizing this narrative broadly — is an arbitrary choice that raises all sorts of ecclesiological and socio-political questions. Why is there so little interest in the lay people, who are already established on the island? Why would the Church take the risk to reinforce harmful assumptions about its colonial origin?

These questions, however, reveal how Catholic200SG echoes Singapore’s collective imagination. The Lion City of Southeast Asia celebrates itself as the successful heir of the British colony established in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles. In 2019, Singapore marked its 200 years of existence. As a crossroads of Asia, the country celebrates itself as a place of prosperity that emerged out of the jungle through the hardship of Chinese migrants and the wisdom of its colonial and post-colonial leaders. In this continuum, Singapore was and wants to remain the successful bridge between the Anglo-Saxon West and the Sino-centric East. With this agenda in mind, Singaporeans embrace a modern historiography that emphasizes the value of international exchanges, the leading role of the state, as well as the contrast between modern prosperity and pre-modern wilderness, and between centralized authoritarianism and collective anarchy.

It is in this context that the archdiocese decided to focus on 1821 and on the seminal role of Western missionaries. It was as if the Church could not imagine itself as a social reality preexisting in the Singaporean colonial state. Since anything noticeable and successful must have occurred after 1819, local Catholicism must have arrived after that. In other words, Catholic200SG did fit in this broader bicentennial celebration of Singapore's colonial past.

This is only one example of this broader ecclesial tendency, which imitates broader narratives that shape Asian post-colonial identities. In Thailand, Korea or in the Philippines, massive ecclesial anniversaries are mostly related to events that occurred a few centuries ago. They do not go beyond nor question their political ambiguities.  Through this imitation of a colonial framework, ecclesial historiographic efforts take the risk of mischaracterizing Church history.

While almost everything in Asia has been reshaped by colonialism, Catholic anniversaries reinforce the problematic impression that Asian Catholicism is more a problematic by-product of Western colonialism than contemporary Asian national identities, Asian religious ideologies, and Asian nation-states.

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. Fr. 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.  The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

Read the second part of the commentary here: Revisiting Catholic history in Singapore, Korea, Thailand, and beyond (Pt. 2)

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