Akkad in Mesopotamia was the center of the world’s first empire some 25 centuries before Christ. The Akkadian language outlasted the empire, becoming the language of several later cultures, including Babylonia.
Even 45 centuries later, we possibly still use a couple of words from that language in our day-to-day activities, words that may descend from the Akkadian words asu, “to ascend,” and erub, “to descend.” They were the roots of the words for “east” and “west,” where the sun ascends and descends. In English, we pronounce them “Asia” and “Europe.”
Eventually, the word “Asia” came to mean the mass of lands, cultures and peoples east of the Roman Empire’s heartland, a usage that survives in the Catholic Church.
That is why the Church’s 1998 Extraordinary Synod for Asia included parts of the world such as Lebanon that nobody thinks of when they hear the word Asia. It also accounts for Pope John Paul II’s meaningless exclamation in Ecclesia in Asia that Jesus was born in Asia.
In fact, the concept of Asia is a Western one. No culture outside of Europe seems to have tried to develop a single word or concept to encompass and categorize hundreds of cultures, languages, religions and environments either in their own neighborhood or for the whole world.
In Europe itself, its own continental designation came to embody a sort of nostalgia for the unity of the Roman Empire, a nostalgia that finds its latest manifestation in the European Union.
So, what is Asia? The word is used to cover so much that it actually designates nothing. Tour guides in Israel, petroleum engineers in Saudi Arabia, shepherds in Afghanistan, software developers in India, fisherfolk in the Philippines, monks in Thailand, artists in Indonesia, factory workers in China, Orthodox priests in Siberia, “salary men” in Japan - what have they in common? Not much beyond their human genome and an ancient Roman designation of them all as Asian.
There is, however, one area where the word Asia has taken on a useful meaning. Ironically, it has done so within the Catholic Church which is so wedded to the language, culture, mindset and even geography of the Roman Empire.
The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences began in 1970 when a group of bishops realized that more than any geographic designation, there were challenges and opportunities that linked them: post-colonial Churches that lacked power, the development of local Church leaders, the encounter with great religious and philosophic systems, poverty, political oppression and the beginnings of democracy.
The FABC began a process of theological exploration that took those challenges and opportunities as a starting point. A series of ground-breaking monographs, the FABC Papers, was one result.
Another result was a sense of communion among the bishops, a realization that what united them was not “Asianness,” but a shared commitment to evangelization in a non-Western world, in a non-Western mode.
The preparations for the Asia Synod showed how much this shared consciousness was at work when the bishops rejected the preparations by the Roman curia in favor of dealing with their own concerns.
When the FABC bishops with their experience of dealing with issues as a group encountered the other, unorganized, “Asian” participants at the Synod, it became clear that a new form of collegiality had appeared in the Church.
Unfortunately, the Synod seems to have been a high-water mark. Those appointed by Rome as successors to the FABC pioneers do not seem to be devoted to continuing the earlier work.
The FABC has changed from being a movement to being a bureaucracy that holds committee meetings and produces position papers, but which no longer provides an excited and exciting challenge to move the Church beyond the Roman Empire.
As a group of syllables, Asia has been around for a long, long time. As a useful designation in the Church, it had about 30 years of naming a part of the Church dedicated to finding new ways to evangelize outside the geographic and intellectual confines of the Roman Empire and its Vatican successor.
Can that vision be revitalized? What must we Catholics of this new “Asia” do to make that happen?
Maryknoll Father William Grimm is the publisher of UCA News and former editor-in-chief of “Katorikku Shimbun,” Japan’s Catholic weekly