Fifty years ago, our Congregation took a prophetic move to a Muslim country in Asia, Pakistan, to support the Christian minorities and to foster the interreligious dialogue with the Muslims, a dialogue that was already implemented in many countries in Africa. Twenty-five years ago, Father Pierre Schouver and his council decided that the Congregation would enlarge our Spiritan presence in Asia. Communities were opened in the Philippines (1997), in Taiwan (1997), in Vietnam (2007) and in India (2010). Some confreres questioned this orientation of the generalate. Spiritans were already working in more than 50 countries on four continents, and it is always difficult to find workers to give stability to our current communities. Why then did we dare to enlarge our horizons and reach a continent still largely unknown to us? It is true that already at the time of Poullart des Places, some of the placists (disciples of Poullart des Places) reached far-east regions such as China, Vietnam or Cambodia, and more recently that we have been in India in the 19th Century for forty years…but apart from some valuable tombs of our Spiritan ancestors, there was no continuity in our presence there. So what was in the mind of the generalate at the time of Pierre Schouver? Certainly our archivists could answer to this question, but what matters more than the first move is to know where we are now… Does our presence in Asia makes sense for the Asians themselves, for our missionaries and for our Congregation as a whole? If to make sense is a question of statistics and numbers, let us be honest, our Asian presence is not significant neither for Asian population (1/3 of the world population), nor for its Church, not even for our Congregation. The amount of Spiritans who have worked in Asia so far does not reach one hundred people and our zealous confreres have not make huge conversions in the place where they were sent. With the exception of Vietnam-India circumscription where our group is growing fast (20 final professed members already and 40 brothers in formation after 15 years of presence), Asian Spiritans are less than five members in the other countries where we work. But enough with statistics! Since when does God look at numbers to see if people find grace in his eyes? The Bible is full of people who looked at their own strength to see if they could face challenges, and for this very reason, collapsed. Meaningful presence should not be confused with efficiency.
Our presence in Asia is meaningful for many reasons. First of all, because in a congregation where African confreres are now the large majority of active confreres in the missions, to reach Asia is a way to build bridges between continents that remain largely unknown to each other. Historically, Europeans have been moving to many continents, for several centuries. Africans have been also reaching America in painful circumstances but progressively merged with the local populations and built their own Afro-American identity. Africans and Europeans have been neighbors since the creation of the world and although the history of colonization have also brought painful memories to many native peoples, they have learned to know each other. Australia is also a continent of migrations.
In the 20th century, Indians and Chinese have moved to Africa and the other continents for business purpose. Their groceries, minimarkets and restaurants are now famous all around the world. However, many people still look at Asians with suspicion. Asian governments on the other hand, are still imposing very strong restrictions to the migrants of all continents. If we had to inquire with the populations in our respective countries of origin on the four other continents what people know about Asia, their responses would be likely to be very limited. They would say: “Asian produce high-tech products and cheap ones, Asian are very numerous and are taking the leadership of the world economy,…” Basically, people would reply with general and superficial statements, showing that they don’t know much about Asia. For these reasons, there is no better way to get to know each other than to meet, to live and to work together. And here come the missionaries playing a key role in mutual understanding. Our Asian friends, parishioners or brothers in formation by knowing us, discover that our cultures are very diversified and of course, our characters and way to do missionary work are also very much related to our own backgrounds. As missionaries, we also understand that there is not a single Asian culture. As it is the case everywhere, climate, topography, religion, national History,… have shaped the cultures of people. No matter how different are people, there are always some general features that identify Asians and make them so specials. Harmony is a very cherished value in Asia. Harmony means to look together for a common ground that would satisfy each person, at least to a certain point. The disharmony would come when people consider that their own point of view and sake is more important than the consensus of the group, leading them to face conflicts. Even if conflicts exist in the Asian culture, most of the time, it remains hidden, precisely to avoid “loosing face” and putting at stake the stability of the society.
Another important value of the Asian society (in general) is the respect of the many beliefs of people. All the main religions on earth are originated in Asia and to be religious is considered as normal and positive. In many places, people quite easily accept the diversity of religions. They often ostensibly show their own religion. When entering in their house, one can spot many religious icons, together with the pictures of the beloved members of the family who passed away. As Bagamoyo II states, Interreligious dialogue is an integral part of the Spiritan mission in the world today. (Bagamoyo II, chapter III). Where are we as Spiritans on this commitment? We have engaged in the two first steps of interreligious dialogue, dialogue of life and of actions. We live among the people and sometimes engage with them on charity projects. Dialogue on religious experience and theological exchange is more difficult. It requires to master the language and common religious experience is often considered a threat to the Christians who are a tiny minority in societies predominantly Buddhists, Hinduisms or who follow traditional religions considered as superstitious.
How do the Spiritans feel in such an Asian environment? Of course, each Spiritan would have his own answer. As it is the case on the other countries where we work all around the world, some confreres don’t succeed in adapting to an entirely new environment, others strive to adapt and serve for a some years in the place where they were assigned and a minority feels really at home and don’t feel the need of going back to their circumscriptions of origin or any other place.
What about the local diocesan Church? Do they know us? Some bishops progressively know us and collaborate with us, but on a huge continent where many big congregations have stepped before us, let us be honest, our presence remains largely unknown. Let us remember however that evangelization is not something done in one day. It took centuries to evangelize the other continents and decristianisation of many of our countries of origin remains us that evangelization is an ongoing process. Asia remains the biggest continent in terms of populations who have never heard or barely heard about the Good News, a priority for us as Spiritans (Cfr.SRL 4)
Our world is also marked by a paradoxical reality. Politics are more and more reluctant to accept migrants (and as missionaries we are also victims of their policies) but the number of migrants is growing everywhere due to multiple reasons. Missionaries being themselves migrants, are more sensitive to the situation of migrants, whether people from their own countries or from the countries where they work. Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese speaking people are coming to so many countries in the world. For us, it is a duty, a mission and a joy to welcome them in our countries of origin and facilitate their integration. In the asian countries where we work, we also pay attention to the internal migrants, coming from the countryside to the cities or from other countries in search of a better life and job opportunity. (Cfr.Bagamoyo chapter 2, number 17)
Finally, let us not forget that in our congregation, there is a major shift in terms of religious vocations. We insist on living in international communities (cfr.Bagamoyo II, chapter 7) and we actually do it, but what about intercontinental communities? Western vocations and South American vocations are now reduced to less than 5% of the total number of vocations in our congregation. In Asia, on the other hand, there are still countries where young people are willing to commit to religious life and to discover missionary life, young people coming from India, Vietnam, Philippines, but also still unknown countries for us, such as Indonesia, East-Timor, China,… The Holy Spirit questions us through Bagamoyo II: are we willing to abandon some old commitments and engage in new areas of mission? Would we dare to trust in the Providence and go where everything is to be built, knowing that when missionaries are generous and initiative-takers, God will always provide a shelter for them and a local Church to welcome them? Are you reinforcing the international and intercontinental face of our Spiritan communities? (Cfr.Bagamoyo II, chapter 7)
Saint Thomas, Saint Francis Xavier, some 50 Spiritans and many other missionaries came to evangelize Asia since the right beginning of the Church. They were enthusiastic and many of them died in their countries of mission. They ask us, as Pope Francis do: “Would you go out of your comfort zone to reach unknown horizons and discover the joy of the mission on asian soil?” Asia expects us…let us generously respond to the call of the Holy Spirit.