Commentary by Hector Welgampola
India’s bishops have invited Pope Francis to visit their country. Other Asian invites too have been reported from South Korea, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. More may follow.
Will such journeys offer the innovative pope opportunities to downplay the diplomatic aspect of papal visits and focus on pastoral outreach? If political fanfare are axed, the visits will give the Holy Father more access to people for two-way sharing — a model for bishops’ pastoral visits, as well. In hindsight, past papal visits may shed some light on what began as a papal pilgrimage to Asia.
Amid the first flush of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed John XXIII agreed to hold the 1964 International Eucharistic Congress in Bombay (now Mumbai). He knew, though, he was not fit to travel there, much less for an elephant-ride planned by Cardinal Valerian Gracias of Bombay. After the good pope’s death, his successor, Pope Paul VI, chose to be the first papal pilgrim to Asia.
It was not mere grandeur of traditional Indian hospitality that made the event memorable. As the then editor of “Bombay Examiner” told me, from the initial Namaste on, Pope Paul’s Mahatma-like simplicity won hearts. Catholics’ fervor of Eucharistic worship impressed the Hindu nation. So did the conference on “Christian Revelation and non-Christian Religions.”
A pre-congress seminar on “Food and Health” focused on the problem of poverty. Pope Paul had invited the FAO head to speak there on “Freedom from Hunger: the Challenge of the Century.” America magazine said the congress: “created in Asia a hitherto unappreciated image of the Church: that of a compassionate Vicar of Christ – a Christ born poor – more at home in the slums of Bombay than in the magnificence of the papal court.”
The papal court too had begun to change by the time of the next noteworthy papal visit to Asia. It took place in 1970, a week after Pope Paul set the 80-year retirement age for cardinals. Leaving behind the restive old guard, the pope took his longest trip in time and distance.
In Manila, his main stopover, the pope joined 180 Asian bishops to set up plans for the FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences). After the historic event, came a symbolic gesture: Speaking as “a humble apostle of Christ,” he broadcast from Hong Kong a message of love for the Chinese people.
But thereafter, cares of office including negotiations to end the Vietnam War as well as efforts to contain the backlash of Humanae Vitae limited Pope Paul to routine travel.
Blessed John Paul II was the widest travelled pope. Some 15 of his 219 travels included Asian destinations. Prayer at the Mahatma Gandhi Samadhi, on the 1986 visit to India, inspired him to set the annual interreligious prayer day in Assisi.
The 1998 Asian Synod in Rome and release of the synod document Ecclesia in Asia in India engaged many Asian bishops. The synodal boost to local cultures was in sync with what his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope had said: “It was necessary to set about the work of inculturation, as Father Matteo Ricci, the apostle of China, proposed….”
However, even as of then, a move was afoot on the very outskirts of China to retire the Ricci concept of inculturation. It all began with a theological conference in Hong Kong under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Invitees from doctrinal commissions of Asian bishops’ conferences were introduced to “interculturality” in place of the popularly accepted teaching on inculturation. Our religion has a culture as much as other religions have their own cultures, bishops were told. Inculturation was called a misnomer diluting Christian culture with extraneous elements. These directives stifled future efforts toward dialogue and adaptation. The rest is history.
Will these memories encourage Asian papal visit organizers to set such stalled pastoral issues on the agenda for Pope Francis? Meeting laypeople also will help the Holy Father understand their genuine needs. In addition to support on issues of justice and poverty, Asian Catholics need a faith boost through meaningful worship. Will the pope’s Latin American experience lead him to restore the trend of worshipping God in words, symbols and music that resonate the joys, sorrows and yearnings of Asian peoples?
As much as feasts of medieval saints are less meaningful to Asian Catholics, liturgy desacralised to suit post-christian societies has lost the sense of mystery cherished by Asians. And, Pope Francis’ recent remarks on the need for liturgical reform hold out hope.
In earlier conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, the future pope had said that: “Each nation picks up the vision of God and translates it in accordance with the culture and elaborates, purifies and gives it a system.” No doubt, such a mindset will help the pilgrim pope see the need for freedom to adapt and develop worship styles to suit the genius of Asian peoples.
May upcoming papal visits encourage the FABC to update the Holy Father about the stalling of inculturation and the push to homogenize liturgy. If genuine inculturation is to resume, worshippers’ faith-based living traditions should take priority over post-christian viruses cultured in alien theology labs. And may Asians be freed up from curial shackles that inhibit their yearning to de-Helenize Jesus’ message and restore its original authenticity.
Fifty years after the first papal pilgrimage to Asia, we pray that upcoming Asian visits will help Pope Francis see the elephant in the room and not be led on white-elephant rides.