||Japans bishops offer alternate plan for synod
By THOMAS C. FOX, NCR Staff
This is the first of a series of NCR articles on the
Synod for Asia, set for April 19 to May 14 in Rome. Pope John Paul II announced
his intention to convene the synod in his 1994 encyclical Tertio Millenio
Adveniente. The Vatican sent an initial outline of synod topics, called the
lineamenta, to the bishops of the 40 Asian conferences in September 1996. This
article deals with one response to the lineamenta, that of the Japanese
bishops, who raised questions about the process itself.
The bishops of Japan have returned to the Vatican a stinging rejection of its proposed agenda for next months Synod for Asia, saying the gathering cannot succeed if non-Asian, Vatican directives determine the content and process of the month-long proceedings.
Instead of answering questions asked by the Vaticans lineamenta, or preparatory document, sent to Asian bishops in late 1996, the Japanese bishops conference came up with a list of its own issues and questions, proposing a synod more in tune with Asian realities.
The stark tone of the Japanese document reveals serious tensions between the Japanese bishops and Rome. It underscores serious differences with regard to issues of culture, theology and ecclesial mission.
The Asian synod, set to run from April 19 to May 14, will draw bishops from close to 40 Asian nations, areas of the world where Catholics remain a minority -- in some cases a growing minority. While many of the responses from the national conferences in Asia question the lineamenta, the Japanese response marks a radical repudiation of the Roman approach to running synods.
Since the questions of the lineamenta were composed in the context of Western Christianity, they are not suitable, the Japanese bishops wrote. From the way the questions are proposed, one feels that the holding of the synod is like an occasion for the central office to evaluate the performance of the branch offices.
The bishops warned that a synod following such a path is certain to fail.
To succeed, the issues addressed and the process by which they are addressed must stem from the minds of Asians, not Vatican officials, the Japanese bishops wrote.
The decision concerning the global direction of the synod should not be made by the Roman secretariat, but should be left to the bishops from Asia.
The Japanese bishops said the synod is further complicated by language barriers. Just translating the lineamenta took three months, they noted. They suggested to the Vatican in a 4,000-word document (Official Response of the Japanese Church to the Lineamenta) that:
The Japanese bishops document paid special attention to the 25-year-old Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences -- FABC -- saying its deliberations were not adequately represented in the Vatican lineamenta.
The Japanese bishops proposed that the practice of having a succession of bishops give reports be replaced with greater reliance on the conclusions of representatives of the two blocks of FABC and the Middle East Asian bishops. This, they said, would focus the scope of the synod and assure a better chance of developing a concrete plan.
The Japanese bishops further suggested that language groups be dissolved and replaced with clusters of bishops who meet around themes or religious cultures.
The Japanese bishops asked for the involvement of women, pointing out that women are frequently objects of discrimination in Asia. They called for inviting experts in dialogue from other religious traditions.
Admitting that Catholicism in Asia faces formidable challenges, the Japanese bishops said the synod must not be aimed at discovering how the Asian church can be propped up by the Western church, but rather be a meeting where the bishops of Asia have an honest exchange and learn how they can support and encourage one another.
The Japanese bishops said they found a defensiveness in the lineamenta, especially in its Christology.
If we stress too much that Jesus Christ is the one and only savior, we can have no dialogue, common living or solidarity with other religions, they wrote. The church, learning from the kenosis of Jesus Christ, should be humble and open its heart to other religions to deepen its understanding of the mystery of Christ.
They deplored the image of the church in the lineamenta, saying it is not as rich or deep as that of Vatican II, especially the images of the church as people of God and the church as servant which, they said, are not stressed.
These two images have special meaning for the church in Asia, which in order to serve Gods kingdom lives in a minority position with and for others.
The Japanese bishops said that the proclamation of Christ, stressed over and over in the lineamenta, must give way to dialogue with other religions.
In place of a spirit of triumphalism, they emphasized the need for compassion with the suffering if evangelization is to be successful.
The Japanese bishops reminded Rome that this association with the poor has been the central evangelization theme to emerge from repeated meetings of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences.
The Western mind thinks in terms of distinctions, and these are found in the lineamenta, the Japanese bishops pointed out. In the lineamenta a great deal is made, as in traditional scholastic theology, of distinctions and differences. However, in the tradition of the Far East, it is characteristic to search for creative harmony rather than distinctions, the bishops wrote.
They went on to criticize the lineamentas evaluation for success in missionary efforts, rejecting number-counting and stressing instead fidelity to mission.
The Japanese bishops then proposed topics they would like to see discussed at the synod:
The Japanese bishops concluded their document with a plea to Rome to reconsider its relationships with local churches, a relationship not based on centralization but on collegiality.
National Catholic Reporter, March 27, 1998