Thomas Fox's new book, Pentecost in Asia, is an interesting, informative, hope-filled narrative of the transformation of the Church in Asia in the years following the Second Vatican Council. Written in easy-to-read journalistic style, the book traces the `quiet revolution' in which the Bishops of Asia gave birth to a new vision of church, built the necessary structures to implement it, and patiently continue to incarnate their vision in the face of recent and increasing pressures from the Vatican.
Fox brings to his work a background of nearly four decades of personal and professional interest, study and involvement in Asia. From his own `Asian Odyssey,' he invites readers to enter vicariously into the recent odyssey of the Asian churches by weaving together stories of personal encounters with important Asian church leaders with a description of key events and documents from the Asian Bishops' Conference
Part I details in six chapters the emergence, shaping and implementation of `the new way of being church in Asia.' It shows how the Asian bishops, largely a passive group at Vatican II, were energized by Pope Paul VI's visit to Manila in 1970. Inspired by the Pope's presence and his recent encyclical, Populorum Progressio, as well as the new theology of liberation emerging from Latin America, the bishops of Asia made their own `option for the poor.' At the same time, some of the visionary leaders among them outlined a proposal for a permanent structure to implement their vision. With its approval, the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) was born.
Subsequent chapters trace the history of FABC plenary sessions. In the important first plenary session in Taiwan in 1974, the vision took shape: local experience as the starting point, dialogue as the way, and the three-fold dialogue-with the poor, with culture and with other religions, as the content. This vision provided the basis for a `strategic plan of action' to be filled in more fully in subsequent meetings of the FABC.
In reading the account of these, one can readily see how the three dialogues continued to interact to carry the vision forward and to develop new commitments. For example, in exploring the theme of prayer in an Asian context, the bishops were led to affirm the need for a deeper dialogue with Asian cultures and with the rich ancient religious traditions of Asia. And their dialogue with the poor required new structures for learning from the poor as well as a commitment to concrete forms of human development to address the widespread poverty in Asia.
Part II forms a kind of interlude in the story of the FABC, with a section describing recent cross-cultural exchanges. One chapter focuses on some well-known theologians and spiritual writers whose work seeks to build bridges between East and West. A second chapter provides an overview of recent migrations from the East to show how persons from Asian cultures have enriched the Western church with their many gifts, most notably their sense of community, their profound spirituality, and a long tradition of lay leadership.
Part III takes up the story of the Asian Churches in the 1990's, a time when Rome began to `take notice' and attempted to translate things back into a Western mold. Fox describes in some detail the bishops' polite but determined response to Cardinal Tomko's blunt criticism of their `failure in mission' delivered at the1990 Bandung Conference. He also gives a good overview of the many efforts made by the Asian bishops to influence the 1998 Synod agenda through their pre-Synod critiques and numerous Synod interventions. But predictably, the end result was a document heavily filtered through the lens of official Roman theology and containing little of the Asian vision.
Despite these setbacks, the book ends on a note of hope. As Fox continually reminds the reader, the bishops of Asia are very patient men, always polite, but equally firm in their conviction that the vision they have charted for the Church in Asia is the vision required to enculturate a truly Asian form of Christianity, and one that is capable of addressing the most pressing needs of its people.
In my view, Fox's book is a gift to the worldwide church. The post-Vatican II journey of the Asian Church that it documents presents a compelling vision of what Church can be and of the kind of leadership needed to translate vision into reality. I recommend its use in college and seminary classes in ecclesiology, third world theologies, missiology, and in any course that addresses the topic of global Catholicism, supplemented by the study of some of the FABC documents.
The book also is valuable reading for bishops, pastors and laity everywhere who are committed to the task of meaningful church renewal. Hopefully, readers in our own country may find in it some helpful pointers toward the invoking of a `new Pentecost' for the Church in the United States as well.