Challenges to Religious in the 21st Century Asia – Commentary

By: Hector Welgampola 

Nun during a break at the XVIth Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious (AMOR) in Tagaytay City, Philippines. – NJ Viehland Photos

As home of the world’s main religions, Asia has been the font and source of mysticism. The ancient continent’s celestial heights, expansive deserts and sprawling wilderness whetted early Asians’ yearning for the sublime. This search inspired varied forms of ascetic life in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Judaic, Essene, Christian, Islamic, Zoroastrian traditions.

As reminded by the current Lenten season, the habitat-related search for the divine is nothing new to our own faith tradition. Moses’ Sinai trek, the Baptist’s desert sojourn, and Jesus’ withdrawal both to the wilderness and to Tabor are links in that chain of mystic spirituality.

The Catholic Catechism’s claim that “Religious life was born in the East during the first centuries of Christianity,” affirms the continuity of that search by early mystics such as Saints Anthony and Melania of Egypt. The Desert Fathers’ and Mothers’ lifestyle of contemplative and self-purifying spirituality paved the way for a Christian monastic tradition. Religious communities grew when holy solitaires fraternized for more effective search and service in and through wider society.

Contemplatives’ ascetic role in the Christian community, however, was in no way diminished by the birth of proactive Religious Orders in Europe or even gradual dominance of ordained ministries. Rather, the contrary seemed to be true at least in Asia where, despite canonical definition of some Religious as lay groups, laypeople always had higher esteem for unordained Religious than for diocesan clergy. Such reverence for consecrated persons is rooted in Asian cultures, where people value holiness of life over the liturgical ministry of sacramental service.

MC, NJ Viehland

Missionaries of Charity at Prayers of Lament for Yolanda victims, Manila, NJ Viehland Photo

Such esteem was the secret behind the success of revered missioners such as Matteo Ricci, Roberto de Nobili, John de Britto, Costanzo Beschi, Mother Teresa and Joseph Vaz. Except for Vaz, the others were Europeans. Nonetheless, they assimilated the essentials of Asian spirituality and won people’s hearts by holiness of life and witness. The world still looks back with nostalgia to their ascetic life, which radiated the spirit of Asian sages, swamis and gurus. Had local Religious too grown in such spirituality, they could have furthered the Asian awakening pioneered by revivalists like Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen.

At the turn of the century, the Asian Synod acknowledged that, “In the numerous religious traditions of Asia, men and women dedicated to the contemplative and ascetic life enjoy great respect and their witness has an especially persuasive power.” But amid a whirlpool of canonical and ritual implications impacting Religious life in the post-modern West, precious little was done to let the synod-affirmed power of witness flourish in the service of Asia. And it is still not too late for Asian Religious to explore the stalled vision of above-named pioneers in a renewed search for new modalities of holiness and holy activism to meet today’s needs.

La Salette Sr., NJ Viehland Photos

Catholic nuns and clergy led the ecumenical prayer to end corruption in the Philippines, NJ Viehland Photos

Take for example, the current pastoral setup in many Asian countries where vagaries of the public square and diocesan prescripts inhibit even well-meaning pastors from any prophetic role. In such a scenario, community-supported Religious will be at greater liberty to engage in prophetic roles of furthering the good-news ministry by denouncing and challenging market-enslaved consumerist cultures.

Opus Dei, NJ Viehland Photos

Fair Trade coffee farmers in Laguna, NJ Viehland Photos

The revival of grassroots groups such as the Federation of Free Farmers in the Philippines or the Catholic Farmers’ Association in South Korea or networking people-welfare groups in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia or Sri Lanka on an ecumenical level can be timely challenges for today’s Religious. The lead taken by some individual Religious to volunteer as English teachers in China has much potential as a base for youth apostolate. The fast growing milieu of social media should challenge today’s Religious to discern creative outreach through the blogosphere and the virtual world that coral an eclectic phono sapiens generation.

Nuns tweet at Catholic Social Media Summit v2, Dagupan, 2014 - NJ Viehland Photos

Nuns tweet at Catholic Social Media Summit v2, Dagupan, 2014 – NJ Viehland Photos

Religious should find providential role models in the earlier named pioneer missioners who on their own initiative ventured out of the beaten track even at the risk of being considered freaks by their own institutes. Fired by deep faith, they dared to discern contextual charisms for service, not for self-glory. Today’s Church woefully needs more of such men and women with pastoral wisdom and prophetic courage to venture beyond confines of juridical carapace.

Additionally, would AMOR and its local arms look beyond the juridical ebb and tide, and encourage Religious to venture out in Gospel witness even in traditional mission fields? For example, missioners from Islamic countries like Indonesia and Pakistan may better suit the needs of Central Asian cultures than missioners from elsewhere. Such missions may also help renew the apostolic energies of those Religious crucified by administrative overkill. On a lighter note, such re-missioning may even help resolve the ennui-syndrome driving Green-Card-seeking “missioner” outflows beyond the Atlantic.

This attempt to discuss some challenges to Religious would be incomplete if it fails to voice their muted challenge to Mother Church. After all, as sons and daughters of today’s Church, Religious too are part of fallible humanity. Like all laity, clergy and bishops, they too are part of a sinful world striving for perfection. Having dared to pursue that search through service to society, they challenge the Christian community with a plea for prayer and understanding. A timely Lenten mission!

Hector Welgampola

Hector Welgampola, welgampo@gmail.com Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.

 

Nuns, priests march with protesters against Sri Lanka port project – video

 

Colombo, SRI LANKA – The People’s Movement against the Port City Project, including nuns and priests marched in protest today from the Fort Railway Station to Gall Face Green urging the government to ban the project, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror reported.

Some nuns stood along the sidewalk holding placards while fellow sisters marched on the road with priests, Buddhist monks in saffron robes, environmental activists, and other protesters. Priests spoke with police officers, but the police stood firm face to face with the nuns and stopped protesters at the World Trade Centre. Some groups continued protesting sitting down.

See photos by Shameera Rajapaksa

Sri Lankans, including government officials, have expressed concern about the environmental impact of the 1.4 billion dollar Chinese-funded ‘Port City’ on reclaimed land next to Colombo harbor.

nation.lk online newspaper quoted Eran Wickramaratne, Deputy Minister of Highways, Higher Education and Investment Promotion at a recent event in Colombo citing issues with of water, transport and sewerage. He also warned of possible water scarcity for the future residents.

Wickramarante reportedly noted that with 300,000 people or half the population of Colombo living in the 500 acres of land of the port city, the present sewerage system of nearly 200 years old would not be able to hold or carry waste from such a population.

“Stop Port City Immediately!” read the streamer carried by marching nuns.

 

 

 

Local Church – what is it?

“Local Church is more than a geographical reality. A local Church is a theological and spiritual reality with concrete socio-cultural dimensions.

AMOR musician nuns by NJ Viehland

It is after all the insertion of the mystery of Christ’s Church in a local culture…

Alleluia was sung in Vietnamese at the opening Mass for the 16th Asia-Oceania Meeting of Women Religious at the Benedictine Sisters' Saint Scholastica's House of Prayer in Tagaytay City, Nov. 2013. NJ Viehland Photo

Alleluia was sung in Vietnamese at the opening Mass for the 16th Asia-Oceania Meeting of Women Religious at the Benedictine Sisters’ Saint Scholastica’s House of Prayer in Tagaytay City, Nov. 2013. NJ Viehland Photo

AMOR lord have mercy chinese by NJ Viehland

‘the local church is the realization and the enfleshment of the Body of Christ in a given people, a given place and time (FABC Plenary Assembly I, no.9)…'” 

Nuns from around  the region opened their 16th Asia-Oceania Meeting of Women Religious  with a Mass at the Benedictine Sisters' St. Scholastica's House of Prayer, Tagaytay City, Philippines. NJ Viehland Photos.

Nuns from around the region opened their 16th Asia-Oceania Meeting of Women Religious with a Mass at the Benedictine Sisters’ St. Scholastica’s House of Prayer, Tagaytay City, Philippines. NJ Viehland Photos.

– Witnesses & Prophets Building Up the Local Church in Asia,
Archbishop Orlando B. Quevedo, OMI
          The Role of Religious in Building Up the Local Church, FABC Paper 116

AMOR XVI Conference in photos

"A mystic is a prophet in contemplation..." Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious 16th Conference (AMOR XVI) final statement, Nov. 17, 2013, St. Scholastica's Center of Spirituality, Tagaytay City, Philippines . / By N.J. Viehland

“A mystic is a prophet in contemplation…” Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious 16th Conference (AMOR XVI) final statement, Nov. 17, 2013, St. Scholastica’s Center of Spirituality, Tagaytay City, Philippines . / By N.J. Viehland

"A prophet is a mystic in action" - AMOR XVI Conference final statement. Participants listened to environmental and human rights activist Sister Stella Matutina, a Filipino Benedictine, share about her work and challenges she faces on Day 5 of the conference that gathered more than 70 nuns and representatives of partner groups in St. Scholastica's Center of Spirituality, NOV. 10-27 , 2013. / By N.J. Viehland

“A prophet is a mystic in action” – AMOR XVI Conference final statement. Participants listened to environmental and human rights activist Sister Stella Matutina, a Filipino Benedictine, share about her work and challenges she faces on Day 5 of the conference that gathered more than 70 nuns and representatives of partner groups in St. Scholastica’s Center of Spirituality, NOV. 10-27 , 2013. / By N.J. Viehland

TAGAYTAY CITY, Philippines – Sixty-five religious women from Asia and Oceania concluded an eight-day conference with a commitment to deepening their spiritual bonds and strengthening cross-cultural and international cooperation to better serve the needy.Held Nov. 10-17 at St. Scholastica’s Center of Spirituality here, the AMOR XVI (Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious) conference’s theme, “The Mystic-Prophetic Dimension of Religious Life,” led the women to combine their spiritual and prophetic ideals.

[ Read full report here ]

Holy Spirit Sister Eden Panganiban, Chairperson of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the Philippines welcomed participants and guests to the 16th Conference of Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious (AMOR XVI) during the opening Mass Nov. 11, 2013 in St. Scholastica's Center of Spirituality, Tagaytay City, Philippines  / NJ Viehland Photos

Holy Spirit Sister Eden Panganiban, Chairperson of the Association of Major Religious Superiors of Women in the Philippines welcomed participants and guests to the 16th Conference of Asia-Oceania Meeting of Religious (AMOR XVI) during the opening Mass Nov. 11, 2013 in St. Scholastica’s Center of Spirituality, Tagaytay City, Philippines / NJ Viehland Photos

AMOR South Asia Postulants NJ Viehland Photos

Nuns of various congregations and territories in Asia and Oceania recited prayer petitions during the opening Mass of AMOR XVI Conference celebrated with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila on Nov. 11, 2013 in Tagaytay City, south of Manila. /By N.J. Viehland

Nuns of various congregations and territories in Asia and Oceania recited prayer petitions during the opening Mass of AMOR XVI Conference celebrated with Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila on Nov. 11, 2013 in Tagaytay City, south of Manila. /By N.J. Viehland

AMOR nuns speak out NJ Viehland Photos

– More photos to come –