Ecclesia in Asia: An Evaluation

Ecclesia in Asia


Ecclesia in Asia is a document issued by Pope to serve as a blueprint for the expansion of the Roman Catholic faith in Asia. It summarizes ideas and conclusions of the Special Asian Synod held in Rome from April 18 to May 14, 1998. It was officially promulgated by Pope John Paul II in New Delhi, India on November 6, 1999.

The document stated that “just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the Third Christian Millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent of Asia.”

We Asian peoples like to think in symbols and images, and do not indulge so much on analytic reasoning or speculations; we prefer evocation to demonstration, intuition to argumentation, wisdom to science. There several cultures here, different kind and coloured people here, numerous languages exist here and the philosophy and theology and the very mind set of the people are different from that of the west. Having in mind all these context of cultural and linguistic veracity of the people of Asia Pope John Paul II inspired by the Holy spirit write this document as it was clear from the very title itself Post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia of the Holy Father John Paul II to the bishops, priests and deacons, men and women in the consecrated life and all the lay faithful on Jesus Christ the saviour and his mission of love and service in Asia: “…that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10)

1.  The Structure of the Document

The Exhortation is composed of seven parts dealing with the following themes: the Asian context, Jesus as Savior, the Holy Spirit as Lord and Giver of life, proclamation of Jesus in Asia (with a focus on inculturation), communion and dialogue for mission (with a focus on ecumenical and interreligious dialogue), the service of human promotion, and Christians as witnesses to the Gospel.

The long document concludes as “The peoples of Asia need Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Asia is thirsting for the Living water that Jesus alone can give (Jn 4:10-15). The disciples of Christ in Asia must therefore be unstinting in their efforts to fulfill the mission they have received from the Lord, who has promised to be with them to the end of the age (Mt 28:20). Trusting in the Lord who will not fail those whom he has called, the Church in Asia joyfully makes her pilgrim way into the Third Millennium.”

The content of the document is the following:


The Marvel of God’s Plan in Asia (1)

Background to the Special Assembly (2)

The Celebration of the Special Assembly (3)

Sharing the Fruits of the Special Assembly (4)

 Chapter I – The Asian Context

Asia, the Birthplace of Jesus and of the Church (5)

Religious and Cultural Realities (6)

Economic and Social Realities (7)

Political Realities (8)

The Church in Asia: Past and Present (9)

 Chapter II – Jesus the Saviour: A Gift to Asia

The Gift of Faith (10)

Jesus Christ, the God-Man Who Saves (11)

The Person and Mission of the Son of God (12)

Jesus Christ: the Truth of Humanity (13)

The Uniqueness and Universality of Salvation in Jesus (14)

 Chapter III – The Holy Spirit: Lord and Giver of Life

The Spirit of God in Creation and History (15)

The Holy Spirit and the Incarnation of the Word (16)

The Holy Spirit and the Body of Christ (17)

The Holy Spirit and the Church’s Mission in Asia (18)

 Chapter IV – Jesus the Saviour: Proclaiming the Gift

The Primacy of Proclamation (19)

Proclaiming Jesus Christ in Asia (20)

The Challenge of Inculturation (21)

Key Areas of Inculturation (22)

Christian Life as Proclamation (23)

 Chapter V – Communion and Dialogue for Mission

Communion and Mission Go Hand in and (24)

Communion within the Church (25)

Solidarity among the Churches (26)

The Catholic Eastern Churches (27)

Sharing Hopes and Sufferings (28)

A Mission of Dialogue (29)

Ecumenical Dialogue (30)

Inter-religious Dialogue (31)

 Chapter VI – The Service of Human Promotion

The Social Doctrine of the Church (32)

The Dignity of the Human Person (33)

Preferential Love of the Poor (34)

The Gospel of Life (35)

Health Care (36)

Education (37)

Peacemaking (38)

Globalization (39)

Foreign Debt (40)

The Environment (41)

 Chapter VII – Witnesses To the Gospel

A Witnessing Church (42)

Pastors (43)

The Consecrated Life and Missionary Societies (44)

The Laity (45)

The Family (46)

Young People (47)

Social Communications (48)

The Martyrs (49)


Gratitude and Encouragement (50)

Prayer to the Mother of Christ (51)

2. An Evaluation of the Document

2.1 Truly Asian, Authentically Christian

While the Pope sees the crux of the matter as doctrinal (Christo-centrism), the bishops’ interventions saw their problem as not with Jesus the Christ – who is widely accepted and loved by Asians – but the presence of a foreign Church burdened by a colonial past. Ecclesia in Asia finds it strange that Jesus the Asian, has become a foreigner in Asia (EA 20). Apart from the indigenous Churches in the Near East and Kerala, most remaining Churches are the result of colonial expansion and missionary outreach working hand-in-hand. Whatever the nuances, however great the social contribution of the mission Churches in the past, however heroic the sacrifices of cross-cultural missioners over the centuries, the fact remains in stark clarity: the Latin Churches of Asia are a foreign presence. They are alien in the official dress of its leaders; alien in its rituals; alien in its formation of cultic and community leaders in foreign thought patterns in seminaries whose professors are foreign-educated; alien in its large, often rich, institutions among people who are generally poor; above all alien in that Christians have had to uproot themselves from their own cultural identity in order to claim a “hybrid” Christian one. This is a major issue for most Asian bishops. However, Ecclesia in Asia mentions it in passing in a single sentence as though the problem was over:”… the Church in many places was still considered as foreign to Asia, and indeed was often associated in people’s minds with the colonial powers” (EA, 9).

Ecclesia in Asia is surely right in placing Christ at the center rather than the Church, whether Latin or Oriental. This is not to separate Christ from his body, the Church, but rather to accept the Church as sign, sacrament and instrument of Christ’s saving presence. The eternal, incarnate, redemptive, cosmic presence of Christ can neither be confined to, nor controlled by the Church. The central problem is neither Christ nor his acceptance/rejection by his fellow Asians. The key missiological problem is rather the Western Church’s alien tone and idiom inherited from colonial times. As for the how of mission we need time, patience and perseverance in order to move away from insulated, devotional practices and re-invent ourselves as dynamic diaspora living out a dialogue of life and action.

2.2 A New Way of Being Church

Another way of making the point for the Asian Synod to have a lasting impact, the Asian Churches must, with courage and creativity, find new ways of being Church, and hence construct an alternative ecclesiology. This ecclesiology, in a sort of Copernican revolution, de-centers the Church in the sense that it makes the center of the Christian life not the Church but the reign of God. Their mission is not to expand the Church and its structures in order to enlarge the sphere of influence for the Church but to be a transparent sign and effective instrument of the saving presence of the reign of God, the reign of justice, peace, and love, of which the Church is a seed. As the Exhortation puts it well: “Empowered by the Spirit to accomplish Christ‘s salvation on earth, the Church is the seed of the kingdom of God, and she looks eagerly for its final coming. Her identity and mission are inseparable from the kingdom of God he Spirit reminds the Church that she is not an end unto herself: In all that she is and all that she does, she exists to serve Christ and the salvation of the world” (EA, 17).

2.2.1 Church as a Communion

The Church, both at the local and universal levels, is seen primarily as “a communion of communities, where laity, religious and clergy recognize and accept each other as sisters and brothers.” At the heart of the mystery of the Church is the bond of communion uniting God with humanity and humans with one another, of which the Eucharist is the sign and instrument par excellence. In this ecclesiology there is an explicit and effective recognition of the fundamental equality among all the members of the local Church as disciples of Jesus and among all the local Churches in so far as they are communities of Jesus’ disciples and whose communion constitutes the universal Church. The communion (koinonia) which constitutes the Church, both at the local and universal levels, and from which flows the fundamental equality of all Christians, is rooted at its deepest level in the life of the Trinity in whom there is a perfect communion of equals.18 Unless this fundamental equality of all Christians is acknowledged and lived through concrete policies and actions, the Church will not become a communion of communities in Asia. Living out this fundamental equality is particularly difficult in Asia, not only because the insistence on the hierarchical structure of the Church tends to obscure and minimize it but also because it goes against the class consciousness of many Asian societies.

2.2.2 Discipleship of Equals

 The understanding of pastoral “discipleship of equals” leads to the second characteristic of the new way of being Church in Asia, that is, the participatory and collaborative nature of all the ministries in the Church: “It is a participatory Church where the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to all the faithful – lay, religious, and cleric alike -are recognized and activated, so that the Church may be built up and its mission realized. This participatory nature of the Church must be lived out not only in the local Church but also among all the local Churches, including the Church of Rome, of course, with due recognition of the papal primacy. In this context it is encouraging to read in the Exhortation the following affirmation: It is in fact within the perspective of ecclesial communion that the universal authority of the successor of Peter shines forth more clearly, not primarily as juridical power over the local churches, but above all as a pastoral primacy at the service of the unity of faith and life of the whole people of God” (EA, 25). A “pastoral primacy” must do everything possible to foster co-responsibility and participation of all the local Churches in the triple ministry of teaching, sanctification, and service in the Church and must be held accountable to this task so that these words do not remain at the level of pious rhetoric but are productive of concrete structures and actions. Only in this way can the Church’s teaching office and the pope’s ministry of promoting unity be effectively exercised, learning from the varied and rich experiences of being Church from all corners of the globe and welcoming respectful but frank warning and correction when errors of intellectual narrowness, moral arrogance, and  spiritual blindness have been committed.

2.2.3 A Dialogical Spirit

The third characteristic of a new way of being Church in Asia is the dialogical spirit: Built in the hearts of people, it is a Church that faithfully and lovingly witnesses to the Risen Lord and reaches out to people of other faiths and persuasions in a dialogue of life towards the integral liberation of all. The universal church must have in mind the necessity of this triple dialogue. In the dialogue with the Asian cultures (inculturation), the Exhortation highlights the areas of theology, liturgy, and the Bible (EA, 22). In the dialogue with other religious traditions, the document emphasizes ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. It quotes approvingly proposition 41 of the Synod: “Interreligious relations are best developed in a context of openness to other believers, a willingness to listen and the desire to respect and understand others in their differences. For all this, love of others is indispensable. This should result in collaboration, harmony and mutual enrichment” (EA, 31). In the dialogue with the poor, the Exhortation affirms the necessity of the preferential love of the poor (in particular, the migrants, indigenous and tribal people, women and children), defense of human life, health care, education, peacemaking, cancellation of foreign debts, and protection of the environment (EA, 32-41). There is no doubt that if the Christian Church is to become truly of Asia, Asian Christians must be engaged, relentlessly and wholeheartedly, in this triple “dialogue of life and heart” and in this way fulfill their inalienable right and duty of proclaiming Jesus to their fellow Asians.

2.2.4 Being a Prophetic Sign

The fourth and last feature of the new way of being Church in Asia is prophecy: The Church is “a leaven of transformation in this world and serves as a prophetic sign daring to point beyond this world to the ineffable Kingdom that is yet fully to come” As far as Asia is concerned, in being “a leaven of transformation in this world,“ Christianity must give up its ambition, so enthusiastically endorsed in many missionary quarters at the beginning of the twentieth century, to convert the majority of Asians to Christ. The report of the demise of Asian religions was premature and vastly exaggerated. In Asia, where Christians still form but a minuscule part of the population after four hundred years of mission, and where non-Christian religions have recently staged a vigorous revival, the prospect of a massive conversion of Asians to the Christian faith is utterly unlikely. Christians in Asia must come to terms with the fact that they are destined to remain for the foreseeable future a “small remnant” who must journey with adherents of other religions toward the eschatological kingdom of God.

The objective of the Church‘s mission of “making disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) in Asia cannot therefore be adding as many members to the Church as possible, even though baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:19) remains the desirable outcome of the Church‘s mission. Rather, the primary task of the Church is to become a credible prophetic sign” of the coming reign of God. This new focus of the Church‘s mission must be the light guiding the ordering of its priorities and the choice of its policies which must not aim at serving the internal interests of the Church but the proclamation of the Gospel through the triple dialogue.

The significance of the Asian Synod and Ecclesia in Asia lies,  not so much in what they say as in the recognition that the Churches of Asia have come of age and must continue to pursue the task of becoming Asian, relentlessly, courageously, creatively. Only in this way can the Christian Church fulfill its missionary vocation which is the task of the entire Church.33 It is only by living out a new way of being Church that Asian Christians will make true what the Exhortation states as a fact: “Contemplating Jesus in his human nature, the peoples of Asia find their deepest questions answered, their hopes fulfilled, their dignity uplifted and their despair conquered” (EA, 14).

2.3 Ecclesia in Asia and the Biblical Pastoral Ministry

In EA, the explicit reflection on our ministry comes in chapter IV “Jesus the Saviour: Proclaiming the Gift”, in the section, “The Challenge of Inculturation” (nos. 21-22). Among the key areas of inculturation, priority is given to theological inculturation: “The Synod expressed encouragement to theologians in their delicate work of developing an inculturated theology, especially in the area of Christology.” (EA 22) This is to be undertaken “with courage and faithfulness“. The thrust of the document in this section is on the inculturation of the Good News. The word inculturation, culture and related words appear one hundred and one times in the document.

3.0 Conclusion

The significance of the Asian Synod and Ecclesia in Asia lies not so much in what they say as in the recognition that the Churches of Asia have come of age and must continue to pursue the task of becoming Asian, courageously and creatively. Only in this way can the Christian Church fulfill its missionary vocation which is the task of the entire Church. It is only by living out a new way of being Church that Asian Christians will make true what the Exhortation states as a fact: “Contemplating Jesus in his human nature, the peoples of Asia find their deepest questions answered, their hopes fulfilled, their dignity uplifted and their despair conquered” (EA, 14). What the Pontifical Biblical Commission says about the actualization of the Bible is valid for a dialogic approach to biblical pastoral ministry. “In any case, the risk of error does not constitute a valid objection against performing what is a necessary task that of bringing the message of the Bible to the ears and hearts of the people of our time” (Interpretation of the Bible in Church, p.117). A dialogic proclamation of the word is not a clearly defined task. It is a venture of hope. It will become an adventure of the Church in Asia. Today we are here to plant the seeds of a future visioning. Our task is to greet from distance that future and to keep sowing the seeds and nurture their growth. May this Apostolic Document strengthen us for such a mission.


  1. Pope john Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia, 1999.
  2. Losservatore Romano, november, 1999.

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