Telling the Story of Jesus in Asia
Franz-Josef Eilers, svd
Telling the Story of Jesus in Asia does start with his birth. Jesus is born in Asia and the beginning of his incarnation is the first step in the Jesus Story for Asia. At the continental synod on Asia 1989 in the preparation for the Holy Year in Rome a proposal was made to not start the document of this assembly with Ecclesia in... (Church in...) but rather with "Natus in Asia" (Born in Asia) which no other continent of the world could say. This proposal is still somehow reflected in the final document of the synod, where it says that his birth took place in a definite historical and geographical context and that the Church in Asia also today lives and fulfills her mission in the actual circumstances of time and place. "Because Jesus was born lived, died and rose from the dead in the Holy Land" the document says, “that small portion of western Asia became a land of promise and hope for all mankind. Jesus knew and loved this land. He made his own the history, the sufferings and hopes of its people...”
The story of the growth of Christian faith as reflected in the Acts of the Apostoles and especially the journeys and activities of the apostle Paul points to "Asia Minor" as the special field of proclamation. The Indian Christians are convinced that already the apostle Thomas was the one who brought Christianity to the continent in the year 52 which is much earlier than any other development of Christianity in Central Europe and beyond the Mediteranean. Just recently (March 17, 2006), the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India declared the San Thome Cathedral in Chennai (Madras) which was built over the tomb of St Thomas a "national shrine." "It is one of the three basilicas in the world,” Archbishop Chinnapa of the archdiocese said, “which is built over the to1mbs of Christ's disciples." From Asia Minor and India, the story of Jesus is told all over Asia as we know it now from early years.
The missionaries from Syria were 635 the ones who told the story of Jesus in China long before the reign of Charlemagne in Europe 800 AD. They were followed later in a second wave by the Franciscan Missionaries soon after the time of St Francis of Assisi in the beginning of the 14th century with Johannes de Montecorvino (1246-1328) as one of their outstanding pioneers becoming the first Archbishop of Beijing with a community of several thousand Christians. This happened at a time when no modern means of communication were available to bridge long distances from the birthplace of Christianity to the outmost bounds of the earth.
A further wave of missionaries telling and living the story of Jesus in China followed in the 16th century with pioneers like Jesuits Mateo Ricci (1552-1610), Miguel Ruggieri (1543-1607) and later Johann Adam Schall (1591-1666) who not only reached but also influenced the Emperor of China. St Francis Xavier, the outstanding example of "teller of Jesus' story" whose 500th year birth was celebrated April 7 this year (2006), died on his way to China (2 Dec 1552) to join the story telling and sharing of Jesus' life and redemption.
It was from the royal court of China that the Christian faith found its way to Korea. Some Korean lay people in Beijing learned about the Christian faith, were baptized and thus became the first Korean Christians. They returned to their homeland to bring the Bible, the books of the stories of Jesus and our redemption into Korea where they founded the first Christian communities even without a priest for quite some time. The power of the Word and the story of Jesus itself was sufficient to convince Koreans to be baptized and become part of the Jesus' story in Asia.
The very first local Korean priest, Andrew Kim, ordained in China in 1845 was beheaded in his native Korea only one year after ordination for witnessing to his faith. From the 93 canonized Korean martyrs only three were foreign missionaries, and all the rest are local people who concluded their story of Jesus by giving up their lives.
In Vietnam, Jesuit Alexander de Rhodes (1593-1660) became the “Apostle of Vietnam” after his dream to go to Japan did not push through. He not only used the spoken word in the local language but also wrote his famous “Catechismus” where he included local proverbs and sayings to inculturate the story of Jesus into the lives of people. It became the first book printed in the new Romanized script of the country.
In many other parts of Asia, it was missionaries from outside who first told Jesus' story but in a growing way also the local people followed and became part. It is not without meaning that the big groups of other Asian martyrs are mostly local people themselves who gave their lives for Christ. The big number of Japanese (158), Vietnamese (96) and Chinese (105) martyrs are witnesses of the convincing power of Jesus' story in Asia. Up to our own days, Jesus' life and redemption inspires people in different countries of Asia. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is only one example which might be considered like the “tip of an iceberg” of Christian witness. The Church in the Philippines started with the telling of the Story of Jesus by missionaries from Mexico and Spain but being taken up by local people in a growing way there came a marriage between the existing traditions of story telling and drama and theater and song and Christian faith up till today.
People like Bishop William Finnemann svd, a naturalized Filipino citizen, former auxiliary bishop of Manila and first Apostolic Prefect of Calapan, Mindoro, are modern examples of living the story of Jesus in their lives: As bishop of Calapan, Finnemann refused to let girls and women be abused by Japanese soldiers. He also refused converting Catholic schools and convents into brothels for the soldiers. Thus, he was imprisoned and finally thrown alive into the sea between Calapan and Batangas on October 26, 1942: “Along the way in the waters between Verde Island and Batangas the soldiers bound his hands and feet, tied his body on a huge rock and dropped him overboard into the depths of the sea.” He was 60 years old. Until today, the people of Mindoro honor Bishop Finneman’s living the story of Jesus and ultimately, giving up his life. Every year on October 26, they would sail out into the sea between Calapan and Batangas to offer prayers and flowers to their pastor who laid down his life upholding their dignity.
Thus, the story of Jesus Christ continues in Asia, the Philippines and beyond.
(Published in “World Mission Magazine,” Manila July 2006)
"Tell the World of God's Love" by James H. Kroeger, mm
"Youth of Asia: A Story to Tell, A Power to Harness" by Jessica Joy Candelario
"First Asian Mission Congress" by Fr. Saturnino Dias
"In Love With Asia (The Role of the Popes)" by Franz-Josef