For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:47)
Proclaimed by the Apostles Paul and Barnabus in the Acts of the Apostles, these words epitomize one of the defining characteristics of the Gospel they preached. Instead of being limited to the descendents of Abraham like the Jewish religion that preceded it, Christianity was to be universal, embracing all peoples of all times. Convinced that “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female” (Galatians 3:28) missionaries throughout the centuries have ventured across the globe, zealous to extend the salvation won by Jesus Christ “to the ends of the earth.”
As Christ was from Israel, it may be rightly said that Catholicism in Asia is as old as its founder Himself. Nevertheless, Asia is also the largest continent in the world, covering almost 20 million square miles and justifying a distinction on our part between Asia Minor and Far East Asia. For the sake of this project, Catholicism “in Asia” is to be understood as referring to Far East Asia, separate from the westernmost region of Asia from which Christianity arose. In addition, as “Christianity” and “Catholicism” were once one and the same, the two terms can be used interchangeably up until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
Under these established definitions, then, Catholicism first arrived in Asia only a few decades after the resurrection of Christ. In the middle of the first century, St. Thomas the Apostle sailed to India, where he worked to convert the natives before being martyred around 70 A.D. Nevertheless, the fruits of his missionary endeavor were lasting, and even today many Christians in India trace their roots all the way back to the apostle himself. The video below features these so-called “St. Thomas Christians,” one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world.
As a whole, however, Asia’s contact with the West—and by extension Christianity—was limited until dawn of the Age of Discovery in the fifteenth century. Patronized to foster both conquest and conversion, Portuguese ships brought to Asia both explorers and missionaries. By far the most famous such missionary was St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Society of Jesus and often called the “Apostle to Asia.” After arriving in Goa, India in 1542, St. Francis Xavier spent the remaining decade of his life traveling extensively throughout Asia and spreading the Catholic Faith among its inhabitants. In total, it is estimated that he baptized hundreds of thousands in India and Japan, a figure unrivaled by any other missionary except perhaps St. Paul.
Still, even the success of St. Francis Xavier in mainland Asia was dwarfed by the astonishing spread of Catholicism in what is now the Philippines. In 1521, Portuguese-born explorer Ferdinand Magellan, sailing for Spain, landed on Las Islas Filipinas during his famous voyage around the world. In his account of the first encounter with the natives of the island, the chronicler of Magellan’s ship, Antonio Pigafetta, described the Filipinos’ seemingly enthusiastic embrace of Catholicism:
The captain told them that God made the sky, the earth, the sea, and everything else… and many other things pertaining to the faith. All joyfully entreated the captain to leave them two men, or at least one, to instruct them in the faith, and [said] that they would show them great honor. The captain replied to them that he could not leave them any men then, but that if they wished to become Christians, our priest would baptize them, and that he would next time bring priests and friars who would instruct them in our faith. They answered that they would first speak to their king, and that then they would become Christians, [whereat] we all wept with great joy.
Whether these initial converts were motivated by interior conviction or external factors, they nevertheless were the first step of a centuries-long process that led to the complete Christianization of the Philippines, today home to more Catholics than any other country in the world save Brazil and Mexico. Meanwhile, Catholicism continued to penetrate—although much less thoroughly—into the heart of mainland Asia, eventually arriving in China, Korea, and beyond.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Catholic Faith had been firmly planted throughout much of Asia. In the next section, we’ll look at some statistics reflecting the presence of Catholicism on the continent in the hundred years since.