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Synod for Asia puts our faith at crossroads

Roman Catholicism’s worldwide demographic balance shifted from north to south during the second half of the 20th century, almost certainly altering the course of church history.

When the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962, most of the world’s Catholics lived in North America and Europe. Entering the new century, most Catholics will live in South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania, where the fastest growing local churches can be found.

It has taken Roman Catholicism nearly 20 centuries to become true to itself -- to become “catholic,” a global religion.

For centuries, Christianity’s richest theological advances have come out of the Near East and Europe. Today, the rich, new thought is just as likely to emerge from South America, Asia or Africa.

Call it the browning of our faith.

The implications are monumental, yet difficult to imagine.

For starters we Western Catholics will need to adjust our thinking, our vision, if we are to live as sacramental examples to the wider human family.

Our vision will have to be matched by our actions. As global awareness increases, we must confront issues of injustice around the global family table. Our changing awareness should find it intolerable that starvation stalks a third of the human population and another third lives at subsistence levels. No longer can we turn a blind eye to sinful inequities in world resource ownership or distribution.

As for the church, as institution, our Western church leaders will be required to take risks to share more widely the process of decision-making. Asian Catholicism must grow from Asian soil through Asian faith perspectives. The traditional Western model of church structure must accede to new models for a new era in Catholic history.

Now comes the Synod for Asia. It opens in Rome this month. This synod comes in the wake of two others, synods for Africa and for America. However, this will be the most unpredictable of the three. Bishops and national conferences are bringing varied concerns to the gathering. But perhaps most important of all, this marks the first time Latin rite Asian bishops from the Far East will mingle with non-Latin rite Asian bishops from the Near East for organized and extended dialogue. Their shared stories, emerging out of vastly different histories but similar aspirations, could play a role in shaping the face of Catholicism on the Asian continent in the decades ahead.

Called by Pope John Paul II in 1994 in his apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (The Coming of the Third Millennium), this future-oriented synod rightly focuses attention on the world’s largest continent, home to more than half the human family.

Although hundreds of thousands of words have been written in preparation, they could all amount to nothing once the synod convenes. A careful reading of the Vatican’s initial synod document, the Asian bishops’ responses to that document and the Vatican’s response to those responses reveal two diverse dynamics and two different paths for the future of church life in Asia.

The Vatican emphasizes the New Evangelization, stressing the unique role of Jesus Christ in human history, culminating in a call to conversion; the Asian bishops begin with patterning life upon the example of Jesus the servant, and hold that proclaiming Jesus to people of other faiths is best achieved through dialogue and through standing with the poor. The Vatican speaks of the promotion of Catholic truth to all; the Asian bishops stress living as disciples of Christ, even as a small flock. The Vatican emphasizes Jesus as Savior to all, and the Catholic church as the principal vehicle of human salvation. The Asian bishops speak of Jesus as liberator, and God as creator and Spirit, allowing wider overtures to the other great religions of Asia. The Vatican preaches revealed truth as leading to light; the Asian bishops seek an integral religious expression, freedom from sin but also from everything that limits the human capacity.

While important differences of perspective on key church matters are evident here, public confrontation appears unlikely. It is not the normal Asian way. More likely, the Asian bishops will patiently explain themselves, listen attentively and return to Asia -- to proceed as they feel the life of faith requires. In the final analysis, Asian forces, including social, economic and ecclesial circumstances, are shaping the church there. In a phrase, they live there; the West does not.

Another way of putting it, given the timing of the synod and the dynamics of ecclesial realities, the importance of this synod may have more to do with the next conclave -- with electing the next pope -- than it has to do with the shaping of any particular document to emerge from this meeting.

Admittedly, it is misleading to speak of the local churches of some 50 Asian nations as an entity. They happen to share a continent, but their histories, circumstances and needs are as different as any local churches anywhere. However, the convening of an “Asian” synod does help to focus attention and imagination. To gain from this synod, we, North American Catholics, need to listen carefully to what the Catholics of the East are attempting to tell us.

If we take the time, we may end up more informed and more sensitive to Asian needs and aspirations. If, on the other hand, we fail to take the time, we may find it increasingly difficult to relate to the East, overlooking a unique opportunity to cross the global bridge these Asian Catholics provide for us.

The documents of the Asian bishops’ conferences, gathered by UCA News, the Asian Catholic news service, reveal the following common Asian church concerns:

  • The Asian bishops speak of growing economic hardships. They remind us their churches are poor.
  • They speak of the onslaught of massive new economic disruption, a widening gap between rich and poor as consumer-driven economics take hold in Asia.
  • They speak of being vulnerable witnesses of the faith. While Catholics make up 41 percent of Europe, 46 percent of North America, 88 percent of South America, Asian Catholics comprise less than 3 percent of Asia, and in many Asian countries less than that. Only in the Philippines are Catholics in the majority.
  • They speak with Asian pride. They are proud that Jesus was an Asian. They are proud that the great religions were all given birth in Asia. They recognize that the handprint of God can be found in all of Asia’s religions. After all, Asian Catholics all claim ancestors, family and friends who are Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims. They say that to seek religious truth in Asia is automatically to be in dialogue with followers of other faiths.
  • They tell us to pursue harmony and to avoid confrontation. The Western mind may favor abstract distinctions, but personal relationships, the concrete here-and-now, matter most for Asians. Scholastic thought is foreign, even mysterious, to most Asians.
  • They remind us it is a painful historical fact that Catholicism entered much of Asia (Korea was “self-evangelized”) coupled with Western colonialism and Eastern subservience. The scars linger. They remind us that these historical circumstances make it difficult to explain themselves and their love for their church to Asians of other faiths. History continues to color their evangelizing efforts.
  • They say they embrace their Trinitarian faith as they stress the challenges of its incarnational spirituality -- focused on Jesus Christ and enlivened by the spirit of love.
  • They say their sense of church and theologies and liturgies -- their being Catholic -- must finally grow from Asian soils, Asian experiences and Asian circumstances. These, they tell us, require Catholicism in Asia to be humble, to be in dialogue, to be a servant church and to live and preach Christianity through example.
  • They say that Asia has much to offer the West if the West is willing to listen.
  • Finally, they say that to achieve their dynamic vision of church, for Catholicism to be successful in Asia in the third millennium, they need trust and space, the ingredients of true collaboration, beginning with effective episcopal shared decision-making.

The people of God have good reason to take heart as we approach this synod, becoming more cognizant of the East. In the many tens of thousands of words written by Asian hands in preparation for this synod, one finds the clear and confident and hope-filled voices of the Asian sons and daughters of Second Vatican Council Catholics. These are Catholics eager to shoulder the challenges of Christian faith and to make differences with their lives.

We need to walk hand in hand with them to usher in a new era of Catholicism, the global era of faith.

National Catholic Reporter, April 17, 1998