On Monday afternoon at The Catholic University of America, Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle spoke at length about the seminal Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes and its implications for the modern world, with a special focus on Asia.
The talk, which lasted for an hour, marked the 50th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World.
"Some people, even up to now, 50 years after the [Second Vatican Council], are still asking the question, 'Why does the church bother with the world?' " Tagle said.
"Should not the church focus itself on strictly spiritual matters?" he asked rhetorically. "Why would the church become mundane by talking about the political world, the economic life of countries, the environment, peace, and all of these things?"
Why? Because of Catholicism's amazement at the value and dignity of every human being, the cardinal said -- an amazement that is reflected in Gaudium et Spes.
"Gaudium et Spes from one perspective could be considered an ode of the church to the beauty, the value of every human person," Tagle said. "And this is not a strategy."
"This is deeply theological," as the human person is "part of God's revelation in Jesus Christ, who is truly God and truly human."
"There is mission involved here," Tagle said.
The cardinal explored the question of Catholic evangelization in Asia, "where two-thirds of the population of the world is found" but where Christianity is "a tiny minority ... just 3 percent of Asian peoples," half of whom are found in the Philippines.
When the Catholic bishops of Asia meet, Tagle said, they interact by saying " 'Oh, you belong to chopsticks Asia.' They say, 'Oh, you belong to curry Asia.' We define ourselves according to food."
"You want to learn about harmony, yin-yang?" he joked. "Try sweet and sour. Don't do it in the philosophy classroom. Do it in the restaurant."
Truthful evangelization requires careful attention to "concrete men and women," the cardinal said, "especially the teeming masses of the poor and the young."
And it requires dialogue, he said.
In Asian society, a "direct" proclamation of the Gospel may not be a smart approach, Tagle said.
"If I have a visitor and I cannot verbally tell the person to leave my house," he said, "how would I do it? I would look out the window and say, 'I think a snowstorm is coming.' If the person is Asian, that person will pick it up and say 'I think so, I better go.'
"Now who says that isn't direct?"
"The church in Asia is asked to encounter peoples in their concrete cultures" where "attitudes and value systems emanate," the cardinal said.
This means engaging "the ancient religions" and philosophies of Asia, "most of them older than Christianity."
Indeed, "in some parts of Asia, Christianity is perceived as alien to Asian cultures," Tagle said. "Some especially extremist and fundamentalist parts of Asia would say that Christianity would even harm or destroy our Asian ways of being human."
Evangelization, Tagle said, means having to ask "the hard question: What happens when the other party does not welcome dialogue?"
And it means encountering the reality of Asian poverty, he said.
"These past 50 years, questions like growth that does not exclude the larger population -- inclusive growth -- how could that happen? And how could the resources of the Gospel be shared to the world of Asian economies, the world of politicians, the business world, so that everyone could benefit from economic growth?"
"We have new forms of the poor in Asia," Tagle said. "The forced migrants ... the refugees."
And "new forms of slavery," he said, "the trafficking in human persons, sex tourism."
Increasingly, he said, evangelization in Asia means engaging the culture of "big metropolitan cities," where "50 percent" of Asian people live.
"The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed." But "do [city people] see mustard seeds?" he asked. "They see mustard when they buy hot dogs."
"When you go to some of the slums in Asia, you won't see the sun," Tagle said. "You don't know whether the sun has risen [because] these communities live in alleys between tall buildings."
"How do you talk in liturgy about Jesus the sun rising when [people] don't see [the] sunrise?"
When Pope Francis visited Asia, the Philippine cardinal said he saw at "close range some of the directions coming from Gaudium et Spes."
In the pope's interactions with Asians, "you could see that a dialogue was happening," Tagle said. "He was not just a teacher," he said. "He was a learner."
[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]