Sunday, June 10, 2007

Peter Phan on Multiculturalism: Consulting Confucius (and Francis) Amid The Confusion

In a trio of lectures offered June 5-6 at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California, Georgetown University professor and author Peter Phan provided a much needed Asian Catholic perspective on the Church and its ministry in a multicultural society. The Vietnamese-born Phan spoke to more than a score of friars from throughout the St. Barbara Province—students, pastoral ministers, and academicians alike —about the opportunities and challenges facing the Church in the age of globalization. In doing so, he suggested both strategies and skills essential to ministering effectively in the emerging multicultural context. Strategies and skills, by the way, which are totally consistent with the Franciscan vision. The two-day event was sponsored by the St. Barbara Province Multicultural Council and hosted by the Multicultural Institute (, headed by Rigoberto Caloca-Rivas ofm.

Phan laid the groundwork for his audience by providing an historical and contemporary overview of the Asian Catholic experience in the United States. “You’ve come a long way, baby!,” he quipped, quoting a Virginia Slims cigarette ad from the early 1970s and proffered it as a mock motto of the Asian experience in America. “To understand US Asian Catholics, one must first know something about the history of Catholicism in Asia itself,” he continued, stressing that for the first five hundred years of its existence, the Christian community had its epicenter not in Rome, but rather in Baghdad, demonstrating the Church’s deep roots in the Asian continent. Primary among the gifts that Asians have brought to the US church and society today, Phan stressed, is a strong sense of community identity. Simplicity of life and a sense of frugality, he suggested, are other attributes which offer a counterpoise to American society’s rampant consumerism. In addition, a longstanding tradition of nonviolence held in many Asian communities brings with it attendant values of harmony and reconciliation—values of particular salience to the American situation.

Asian Catholics in particular, Phan noted, offer a new narrative, “a new way of understanding what it means to be fully human,” to the American context. The role of the laity in initiating ministry to the immigrant community, the contributions of religious women and laypeople, the preservation of language, customs, and rituals such as the veneration of ancestors all speak of an Asian way of “being” Church.

A tiny, yet strategic minority on both continents, Asian Catholics nevertheless are bearers of a vital tradition of Christian witness, Phan observed. The Asian Church is a church of martyrs; the sense of dying for one’s faith is an integral part of both its historical and even contemporary experience. Significantly, both laypeople and women religious have been instrumental in the establishment of religious education programs in both their home and immigrant communities. By virtue of being a minority imbedded among peoples of a variety of faith traditions, Asian Catholics understand that inter-religious dialogue is not primarily about talk, rather is descriptive of an entire way of life.

Both at the onset and throughout his lectures, Phan was quick to emphasize that the Asian Catholic experience is one in which ecclesiology has emerged from spirituality and not the reverse. It is an experience rich in possibilities for ministry in a multicultural setting. In his second talk, Phan emphasized that church leaders need to readjust their vision and strategies in order to respond to the emerging reality of global culture. In this new world, “the passport you hold in your hand says nothing about who you are.” One’s identity is no longer determined or limited by traditional geographic or ethnic boundaries. Consequently, the minister must become adept at “border crossing”— and at dismantling the unjust “fences” erected in society that deny full participation to all.

“Jesus is the border crosser par excellence,” Phan emphasized. The Incarnation, the Word of God made Flesh, is the consummate act of border crossing as “God steps out of God’s self and enters into the ‘otherness’ (of human experience.” Throughout his ministry Jesus crossed borders repeatedly: He was an itinerant, himself, wandering through and throughout country and countryside. He spoke to women, touched the ritually impure, engaged foreigners, outsiders, political enemies, and collaborators alike. His death outside the city gates of Jerusalem, followed by his Resurrection redefines the very status of border as barrier or fence to that of a marker of a new frontier.

“As multicultural ministers,” Phan continued, “we have to cross borders all the time.” Consequently, one needs to embrace new expressions of spirituality in order serve others effectively. The minister needs to understand the importance of developing a ministry of presence—“to know how to be present to others as they are, not as I expect them to be.” The minister must be prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue with others, not from a position of power but rather from the stance of giving witness. Adopting a stance of self-emptying or kenosis, the minister acknowledges that s/he “comes as a guest to the other and (is prepared to) respect and follow the rules of the new environment.” Not coincidentally, this list of “new’ ministerial virtues resonates with the lived experience of Asian Catholics.

In his final lecture, Phan challenged his audience to learn from the Asian experience “not as a set of techniques or strategies… but ultimately as a way of life.” The Asian context is one marked by chronic and persistent material poverty in spite of the vaunted material blessings of globalization. It is also marked by a richness of cultural diversity and religious expression. Interest and concern focus not on the intramural, structural issues that often preoccupy Catholics in the West, but rather on the “reign of God as the center around everything the Church does.” By the year 2050, Phan predicted, both the vast majority of the world’s population as well as the vast majority of the world’s Christians will be living in the Third World. It is a context, he asserted, in which the Penecostal movement as will be the principal source of growth in the Christian community at the expense of mainline, historical churches. At the same time, multiple religious membership will become normative for many people. This changing reality calls us to be a church in dialogue with the world rather than simply proclaiming to it.//

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