Why did He make the search for the truth so arduous, in the midst of a forest of rituals, of beliefs, of revelations, of faiths which have always thrived-and still do today-throughout the world?
You speak of many religions. Instead I will attempt to show the common
fundamental element and the common root of these religions.
The Council defined the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions in a specific document that begins with the words "Nostra aetate" ("In our time"). It is a concise and yet very rich document that authentically hands on the Tradition, faithful to the thought of the earliest Fathers of the Church.
From the beginning, Christian Revelation has viewed the spiritual history of man as including, in some way, all religions, thereby demonstrating the unity of humankind with regard to the eternal and ultimate destiny of man. The Council document speaks of this unity and links it with the current trend to bring humanity closer together through the resources available to our civilization. The Church sees the promotion of this unity as one of its duties: "There is only one community and it consists of all peoples. They have only one origin, since God inhabited the entire earth with the whole human race. And they have one ultimate destiny, God, whose providence, goodness, and plan for salvation extend to all. . . . Men turn to various religions to solve mysteries of the human condition, which today, as in earlier times, burden people's hearts: the nature of man; the meaning and purpose of life; good and evil; the origin and purpose of suffering; the way to true happiness; death; judgment and retribution after death; and finally, the ultimate ineffable mystery which is the origin and destiny of our existence. From ancient times up to today all the various peoples have shared and continue to share an awareness of that enigmatic power that is present throughout the course of things and throughout the events of human life, and, in which, at times, even the Supreme Divinity or the Father is recognizable. This awareness and recognition imbue life with an intimate religious sense. Religions that are tied up with cultural progress strive to solve these issues with more refined concepts and a more precise language" (Nostra Aetate 1-2).
Here the Council document brings us to the Far East-first of all to Asia, a continent where the Church's missionary activity, carried out since the times of the apostles, has borne, we must recognize, very modest fruit. It is well known that only a small percentage of the population on what is the largest continent believes in Christ.
This does not mean that the Church's missionary effort has lapsed-quite the opposite: that effort has been and still remains intense. And yet the tradition of very ancient cultures, antedating Christianity, remains very strong in the East. Even if faith in Christ reaches hearts and minds, the negative connotations associated with the image of life in Western society (the
so-called Christian society) present a considerable obstacle to the acceptance of the Gospel. Mahatma Gandhi, Indian and Hindu, pointed this out many times, in his deeply evangelical manner. He was disillusioned with the ways in which Christianity was expressed in the political and social life of nations. Could a man who fought for the liberation of his great nation from colonial dependence accept Christianity in the same form as it had been imposed on his country by those same colonial powers?
The Second Vatican Council realized this difficulty. This is why the document on the relations between the Church and Hinduism and other religions of the Far East is so important. We read: "In Hinduism men explore the divine mystery and express it through an endless bounty of myths and through penetrating philosophical insight. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition, either by way of the ascetic life, profound meditation, or by taking refuge in God with love and trust. The various schools of Buddhism recognize the radical inadequacy of this malleable world and teach a way by which men, with devout and trusting hearts, can become capable either of reaching a state of perfect liberation, or of attaining, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination" (Nostra Aetate 2).
Further along, the Council remarks that "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. The Church has a high regard for their conduct and way of life, for those precepts and doctrines which, although differing on many points from that which the Church believes and propounds, often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men. However, the Church proclaims, and is bound to proclaim that Christ is 'the way and the truth and the life' [Jn 14:6], in whom men must find the fullness of religious life and in whom God has reconciled everything to Himself" (Nostra Aetate 2).
The words of the Council recall the conviction, long rooted in the Tradition, of the existence of the so-called semina Verbi (seeds of the Word), present
in all religions. In the light of this conviction, the Church seeks to identify the semina Verbi present in the great traditions of the Far East, in order to trace a common path against the backdrop of the needs of the contemporary world. We can affirm that here the position of the Council is inspired by a truly
universal concern. The Church is guided by the faith that God the Creator wants to save all humankind in
Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man, inasmuch as He is the Redeemer of all humankind. The Paschal Mystery is equally available to all, and, through it, the way to eternal salvation is also open to all.
In another passage the Council says that the Holy Spirit works effectively even outside the visible structure of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium 13), making use of these very semina Verbi, that constitute a kind of common soteriological root present in all religions.
I have been convinced of this on numerous occasions, both while visiting the countries of the Far East and while meeting representatives of those religions, especially during the historic meeting at Assisi, where we found ourselves gathered together praying for peace.
Thus, instead of marveling at the fact that Providence allows such a great variety of religions, we should be amazed at the number of common elements found within them.
At this point it would be helpful to recall all the primitive religions, the animistic religions which stress ancestor worship. It seems that those who practice them are particularly close to Christianity, and among them, the Church's missionaries also find it easier to speak a common language. Is there, perhaps, in this veneration of ancestors a kind of preparation for the Christian faith in the Communion of Saints, in which all believers-whether living or dead-form a single community, a single body? And faith in the Communion of Saints is, ultimately, faith in Christ, who alone is the source of life and of holiness for all. There is nothing strange, then, that the African and Asian animists would become believers in Christ more easily than followers of the great religions of the Far East.
As the Council also noted, these last religions possess the characteristics of a system. They are systems of worship and also ethical systems, with a strong emphasis on good and evil. Certainly among these belong Chinese Confucianism and Taoism: Tao means eternal truth-something similar to the "Word"-which is reflected in the action of man by means of truth and moral good. The religions of the Far East have contributed greatly to the history of morality and culture, forming a national identity in the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, and Tibetans, and also in the peoples of Southeast Asia and the archipelagoes of the Pacific Ocean.
Some of these peoples come from age-old cultures. The indigenous peoples of Australia boast a history tens of thousands of years old, and their ethnic and religious tradition is older than that of Abraham and Moses.
Christ came into the world for all these peoples. He redeemed them all and has His own ways of reaching each of them in the present eschatological phase of salvation history. In fact, in those regions, many accept Him and many more have an implicit faith in Him (cf. Heb 11:6).