The term “evangelization” comes from the Latin word evangelium, meaning “Gospel.” For all practical purposes, evangelization is synonymous with the word “mission” from the Latin missio, meaning “to be sent.” In Catholicism, the goal of both words is the same—making Christ known by spreading His Gospel. Practically speaking, this means working to bring others to the Catholic Church, in which Christ dispenses His graces, primarily through the sacraments.
Throughout the centuries, missionaries in Asia have employed a wide variety of evangelization methods—with varying degrees of success—to foster such conversion. In retrospect, the most successful approach by far was that adopted by the Spanish in the Philippines. Upon first landing on the islands, however, the missionaries faced formidable obstacles. First, numbering only few hundred, they could not hope to reach the half-million Filipinos inhabiting the islands (Phelan 44-49). To make matters more difficult, the native population was widely dispersed among the islands, making missionary activity extremely inefficient. Another huge factor was the language barrier. How were the missionaries to learn the natives’ Tagalog, let alone translate the truths of the Faith into this foreign language?
Unable to resolve their shortage of manpower, the missionaries in the Philippines decided to focus on the latter two issues. To overcome the evangelization problems posed by the natives’ decentralization, the Spanish undertook “an ambitious program of resettling the Filipinos into compact villages” so that they could more easily receive religious instruction (Ibid. 44). The Filipinos, however, greatly resisted relocating, and hence this attempted centralization was only accomplished very slowly. As it turned out, a key aid to the process was not force but rather the “colorful ritual of the Church,” which eventually enticed much of the native population to congregate near chapels—at least as long as services lasted (Ibid. 47). In this way, the Church’s liturgy proved to be an especially effective tool of evangelization.
With regard to language, “the translation of Christian doctrine into the vernacular was a key feature of evangelization” (Rafael 323). The missionaries went to great lengths to catechize the Filipinos in their own language, while at the same time leaving un-translated “highly charged words such as Dios, Espiritu Santo, Cruz, Jesu Christo, etcetera, which the Spaniards felt had no direct equivalent in the local language” (Ibid.). Instructions on the sacraments, especially guides to confession, were prepared in Tagalog to assist converts in putting into practice their new faith (Ibid. 321).
Far from finishing flawlessly, these evangelization efforts also presented problems and created controversies. Though it rarely turned violent, the Spanish attempt to centrally resettle the population faced much hostility, both externally and internally. Even the Spanish Archbishop recognized what an “affliction” it was to make the Filipinos “leave their little houses where they were born and have been reared, their fields, and their other comforts of life” (Phelan 45).
Communication blunders also abounded. In translating doctrine into Tagalog, the Spanish were often blind to the nuances between certain words, leading to misunderstandings of key Catholic concepts among the Filipinos. In particular, the Tagalog word chosen to represent a Christian’s debt of gratitude to God—loob—had a connotation associated with mutual obligations, leading some scholars to question if the natives didn’t convert out of shame for not being able to offer the Spanish anything in return (Rafael 333). Nevertheless, history seems to suggest otherwise. Today, the Philippines is one of the most Catholic countries on the planet, indicating the lasting effects of the initial conversions a half millennium ago.
It goes without saying that missionaries in every age would never go to such lengths to convert the whole world to Christ if they did not truly believe that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The end of all missionary activity, then, is the salvation of souls. This is the true challenge of evangelization.
Today, however, this understanding risks being obscured—especially in Asia—by factors both external and internal to Catholicism. In the video below, the Catholic archbishop of Agra, India highlights some of these evangelization challenges for the Church in the region. Although Catholics make up only two percent of the population, and despite intermittent persecution in some regions, the Church in India is “a vibrant reality.”
While the archbishop was generally very positive about the state of Catholicism, the interview nevertheless makes apparent many obstacles to evangelization in the region. For example, the theme of interfaith dialogue discussed throughout the latter half of the clip appears to be as much a crutch as a benefit. Though such dialogue promotes peace between Hindus and Christians, the archbishop related his hesitancy to baptize prospective converts due to fear of disturbing this harmony. Such a situation is crippling for a Church that exists to evangelize and considers baptism necessary for salvation.
Nevertheless, the overall growth of the Faith in Asia demonstrates that the challenge of evangelization continues to be met zealously across the continent. In the coming decades, this expansion promises to alter the face of not just Catholicism, but Asia itself. In the next section, we’ll consider what the future holds for the Faith as lived in this region of the world.