Asia in terms of mission is a dynamic and challenging part of today’s world. It is home to more than half of the human race, and has the lowest percentage of Christians of any continent. It is the birthplace of most world religions. This plurality of religions, along with the unprecedented development taking place throughout the region, are factors now shaping Maryknoll’s nearly century-old missionary response on Asian soil. Presently Maryknoll priest and brothers serve in 12 Asian nations, all vastly different from each other.
Maryknoll’s first overseas missions were in Asia. The first group of missioners to go overseas arrived in Hong Kong, China at the end of 1918. Within a few years after Maryknoll’s arrival in China Maryknollers were already responsible for the mission areas of Jiangmen, Wuzhou, Guilin and Jiaying in southern China. In 1922 Maryknoll assumed responsibility for the area of Pyongyang in northern Korea and also took responsibility for the vast Fushun mission in northeast China. The following decade saw Maryknoll begin mission work in the Philippines and Japan. More recently Maryknoll has begun working in the countries of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Nepal and Bangladesh.
Today Asia is about advent, an advent of seeing light in the dark. East Asia, the poorest region in the world three decades ago, has witnessed phenomenal poverty reduction. Sadly the reality of such rapid radical change has created its own set of miseries and challenges to human dignity and has degraded the environment. Moreover, the vast majority of Asian still remain very poor. These are some challenges to which Maryknollers are endeavoring to respond.
Seeing Asians receive their fair share of the world’s goods is welcome news. At the same time globalization has tended to turn people and the earth into commodities. An excess emphasis on materialism is corroding the cultural values, traditions, and spirituality of Asia. The missioner brings the vision of Jesus and gospel values into the mix of the market place, reminding people that material goods alone cannot satisfy the deeper aspiration of the human person.
The range of Maryknoll ministries is almost as broad as the Asian continent itself. While many Maryknollers serve in traditional parish settings, ministering to an ever increasing Catholic population, others find themselves in endeavors aimed at addressing the needs of refugees and migrants, especially those of the undocumented, those in exploitive work situations, or those who have become the unfortunate victims of human trafficking, a horror most keenly felt by women and children. A number of Maryknollers have taken on more specialized ministries, such as teaching in seminaries or in helping the Asian Church develop its own missionary identity through the formation of missionary sending communities. Some have become well-respected spokespersons in such fields as global climate change and challenges to the increasingly fragile environment. In a number of instances the pastoral programs developed in Maryknoll parishes have becomes models for other dioceses.
The range of Maryknoll ministries is almost as broad as the Asian continent itself. Some work on college campuses as teachers touching the lives of students or help to mentor the growing numbers of priests and sisters in China. A number of Maryknollers work in health fields, caring for those with AIDS or afflicted with leprosy, while some try to provide a fuller life for the blind, the deaf and land mine victims.
Recognizing that the challenges missioners face lie beyond the ability of any individual or particular group to respond to, Maryknollers in Asia often team work with NGOs, or in collaboration with other missionary groups. In some instances Maryknoll has become its own NGO to serve creatively in countries where missionaries are not normally welcomed.
Many Maryknoller having labored into old age in their mission choose to spend their retirement in their missions, knowing the value of still being able to do small kindness, acts of compassion or the value of giving spiritual counseling. Advanced in years, they intercede through their life of prayer for those in need of heaven’s help.
Mission is not a one way process. Missioners themselves are being evangelized by the people they are sent to serve. Interreligious dialogue has a particular significance in Asia, where less than 13% of the population is Christian. Recognizing that you cannot look deeply into the soul of Asia without a real knowledge of the religious tradition and practices of it’s people, Maryknollers in Asia make special efforts to continually deepen their knowledge and experience of other faith traditions. Throughout the region, Maryknoll maintains on-going education programs directed to this end. Genuine interreligous dialogue depends on openness to the mystery of God which is beyond all religions. The Word became flesh is an invitation to perceive the Word in all cultures. Jesus, after all, came to proclaim the reign of God, a reality beyond religions.
Aware that most Asian religions traditionally stressed inner spiritual experience over belief, many Maryknollers strive to deepen their own contemplative prayer through the practice of meditation, convinced that the Jesus they bring to Asia must come from within, not from without.
As seekers and sharers in the mystery of the Divine, Maryknoll priests and brothers serving in Asia stand at the crossroads of religions, listening to the Spirit. Deeply rooted in their own faith in Jesus Christ and his message, they open themselves to the power and presence of the Spirit manifested in other religions, in their sages and symbols, scriptures and traditions. Through this dialogue, the missioner comes to know his faith commitment in a new and deeper way. Or, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “Through dialogue we make God present in our midst. As we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God. . . As believers of different religions we are all co-pilgrims in pursuit of the goal that God sets for us.”