MUMBAI, India – Asia’s top Catholic prelate says the real challenge for the Asian church is to engage with the Eastern spiritual and indigenous cultures of the continent.

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, was speaking at the opening Mass of the 50th anniversary meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) taking place in Bangkok, Thailand. Bo is the president of the organization.

The event is taking place Oct. 12-30, and marks the anniversary of when Pope St. Paul VI started the federation during his 1970 trip to the Philippines. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the commemoration of the event, which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020.

“The Asian church stands in front of the burning bush of existential problems of Asia: Exploitation, nuclear winter, big power rivalry, despotic evil displacing democracy, the commodification of human tears, ecological holocaust, pandemic, millions in distress, migration, wars and displacement, natural and man-made disasters. Will the Asian church rise to the occasion?” Bo asked during his homily.

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According to the Center for Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, there are currently nearly 383 million Christians in Asia, out of a total population of 4.56 billion, meaning only 8 percent of the people are Christian, the lowest proportion in the world.

Over half of the Christians in Asia are Catholic, and the only two majority Christian countries on the continent – the Philippines and East Timor – are predominantly Catholic.

In his homily, Bo said the church is called to be missionary.

“The FABC started with the visit of Pope Paul VI who insisted: The church exists to evangelize. That is her core mission and identity. Pope Benedict articulated the New Evangelization with three objectives: proclaiming the Good news, ad gentes; deepening the faith of the baptized; and energizing the evangelized to become evangelizers,” the cardinal said.

However, he also noted that Eastern religions offer an example to Christians.

“As the vast parts of the traditionally Christian areas are becoming secular, the East holds a great attraction to the West. The last 50 years saw an explosion of interest in Eastern spiritual traditions.  The interiority of the Asian religions, the simple mysticism, making millions take to cultivate prayer methods, and the popularity of mindfulness and mediations – all point to a great thirst for experience. The East has insisted on experience. Not many explanations!” Bo said.

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“That is our great challenge. Moving from words to action. Moving from just structures into experience and interiority. Concepts and words do not impress people. A church that shares because of an intense and personal encounter with Jesus. A missionary church that proclaims through witnessing,” he continued.

He also called on the Asian church to engage with the Eastern spiritual and indigenous cultures of Asia.

“A vast land mass of Asia, starting from the shores of the southern China sea to the central parts of Asia, is the home to indigenous people. Their history and their spirit have gained great attention under the present pope. Laudato Si’ [Pope Francis’s 2015 ecological encyclical] is inspired by the way traditional communities showed stewardship to the modern man,” Bo said.

The cardinal said the FABC anniversary “demands from us that we reset our relationships,” and noted Francis has emphasized that the Christian faith is “not only a set of dogmas but a relationship: with God, with nature and with one another.”

“That ensures witness. We are in urgent need of not only a personal witness to the message of Christ but a collective witness.  The first Christians proclaimed their communal witness.  The identity and mission of the Asian church need unity. One of the great hurdles of Christianity in Asia is ‘Christ divided’ among so many. The Catholic Church needs a universal approach despite our diversity. Our diversity is a great strength, the various rites are great gifts of faith. Unity is not uniformity,” he said.

“Our mission demands being one in spirit and of one mind.”