Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need interviews Fr. Emmanuel Asi, Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bible Commission in Lahore, Pakistan. Fr. Asi is a biblical scholar who, for over 20 years, has been teaching theology to ordinary people - and this in a country were Christians make up no more than 2% of the population.
Q: Father Asi, the Christians in Pakistan number about 2% of the population; did you come from a traditional Catholic family?
Father Asi: It is a blessing that I come from; not only a Christian family, but a very, very traditional Christian family. My father, when he was a young boy about the age of 12, was converted to Christianity by a Capuchin missionary from Belgium. When he was converted at the age of 12, he was un-alphabetized (unschooled). He had to learn how to read and write and he memorized all of Scripture; he could tell where each passage was written. Later he became a spiritual leader of the community - 18 families in a big village where the majority are Muslims. My father was a tailor by profession. He would sit on the ground in our simple village and do his tailoring and people would come - even Muslims would come - and we would sit next to him and read the Word of God. He would interpret and do the exegesis and preaching and at the same do his stitching work. The whole village and the villages around considered him and named him a holy person - in our language a Sadhu - and they would come to him for blessings. When animals or children were sick they would come to him for blessings. Muslims too would come to him for blessings. And for important decisions they would come to him and at times he acted as a reconciler even for neighbouring villages. So, that is the family background where I come from.
Q: So your deep love for the Scripture comes from him?
Father Asi: Yes I inherited this from my parents; my father. At a very early age and at night before we go to bed; we did not have electricity in our village, he would tell as Biblical stories, narratives and episodes. So we knew all; Biblical verses, stories, and episodes even at a very, very young age. Six days he would do his work and on Sunday he would preach the Word of God. On Sundays he would take us: my mother, my brothers and sisters to neighbouring villages. Wherever he would go he would act out biblical dramas, sing songs and preach. Morning and evening prayers were recited not only in our family but my father would gather the whole Christian community and we would pray.
Q: What was the reaction of the Muslims?
Father Asi: The Muslims also respect the Word of God and talk openly about religion. The only confrontations with the Muslim occurs when one speaks against their religion or on a few doctrinal dogmas; truths like the Trinity and Jesus as the son of God.
Q: Approximately, I believe, 40% of the population can read in Pakistan. So illiteracy is an enormous problem, how do you overcome this challenge in your teaching?
Father Asi: When it comes to the Word of God or speaking about one’s faith, this has never been a problem. Our medium of instruction is in two languages; though our mother tongue is Punjabi, we use the national languages English and Urdu, so being literate or illiterate has never been a problem. People are attentive, attracted and inspired and they never get tired. The preacher or organizer may get tired because of the shortage of time bur people never get tired listening to the Word of God.
Q: Theology can often be very profound. How do you bring down, if you will or simplify theology for the ordinary man?
Father Asi: Well, in contextual theology, the point of departure is different. In traditional theology, which is the dominant theology in the Church, the starting points are: God, Philosophy, Logic, or Theology or some Dogma or Truth. In contextual theology, the starting point is life’s realities. So when you speak about life realities and God in it, the whole of theology becomes different. It is not we who are doing contextual theology; God was the first to do contextual theology. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God desired that the human person be Imago Dei the image of God and participate in Godhead. In Exodus chapter 3 in the passage just before that of the burning bush, God himself decided to come down on earth because He saw, poverty, exploitation, oppression of people, torture, slavery, and wanted to deliver, redeem and liberate. So it is God who is doing contextual theology; a God who does not want to stay outside history, above history but God, in context, in history and in daily life.
Q: So you start from the daily life of that particular individual, that mother, that husband…
Father Asi: Yes…and in fact, in fact, theology becomes more charming, more attractive and not something abstract and doctrine but has something to do with your life, something to do in reality, so it is God in context and the human person in context.
Q: What is the greatest satisfaction in your work?
Father Asi: Yes, the first level of satisfaction is my own personal and inner understanding that, for me, God is different: God is in me and in my context; God is interested in me and God who, in the words of St. John, is tangible, a God with whom you can dialogue. God is not an abstract God living up in heaven, outside my history, beyond my life and maybe I can reach him only when I pray or when I do good or virtuous works. God is real. God is experiential. God is tangible. This has given me hope and joy - my perspective that God loves me. And I share this love and transmit this love to others. The second level of satisfaction is when people listen and respond: ‘We understand’. And they do not mean on an academic level but from the heart. Simple people start talking, start reflecting and start verbalizing their own reflections about God. This has been one of my great satisfactions.
Q: You have some new projects that you are developing. One is the 100,000 Friends of the Bible. Can you tell us what this is?
Father Asi: Pope Benedict XVI in his document “Verbum Domini” emphasized the centrality of the Word of God in the life and mission of the Church and in every activity of the Church. There are seven points in the program. First, you have to own a Bible. Second is to read it daily. Third is to read it continuously, starting from where you left off. It is not opening the Bible randomly and to start reading but start to from the beginning and read regularly onwards, so in 2 or 3 years’ time if you read about 10 minutes a day you will have read the Bible. You are not studying the Bible, just reading the Bible. The fourth point is, once in a while, to share what you find inspiring and interesting with family and friends. The fifth point is to give a Bible as a gift within 2 or 3 years’ time. And the second to last point is perhaps in a years’ time to tell 5 or 7 friends to do the same and to join this 100,000 Friends of the Bible. And finally to praise and thank God that you’ve become or have joined and that you are among the 100,000 Friends of the Bible. You actually do not have to do something extra for this. It is just to fall in love with the Bible; as you becoming a friend with someone and you want to meet, talk and to be with that individual; it is just falling in love with the Word of God and doing the most minimum you can but to do it regularly and continuously in a joyful way. It will have a lot of many good and positive consequences. This year we are trying to print 70,000 Bibles in Urdu. So we are hoping that all these will be sold soon. It will be a miracle of the Word of God.
Q: I cannot help but think that you are walking in the footsteps of your father?
Father Asi: Thank you and I thank you for giving me this chance, as I said in the beginning, to talk about the Church in Pakistan and about the Word of God in Pakistan. I am very grateful.
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Sources here and here