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Asia synod opens with call for change

Vatican City

Dozens of Asian bishops offered polite but frank appraisals of local church life during the opening week of the Synod for Asia, many calling for greater inculturation of faith life and for the autonomy needed to make it happen.

The synod, which opened April 19, runs to May 14.

Despite a strictly enforced eight-minute limit on speeches and a synod format that allows for no formal discussions during the first two weeks, the Asian bishops wasted little time saying what was on their minds. The most common speech themes were the need to develop authentic Asian Catholicism, to evangelize through dialogue with members of the other great religions of Asia and to become a church of the poor.

The papally appointed recording secretary for the synod, Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi, set the tone early on in the gathering. In an address intended to summarize discussions that led up to the synod, he said, “The Catholic faith will not be intelligible or attractive to the peoples of Asia if it continues to be a carbon copy of the Catholic church in the West.”

Outlining the topics for synod discussion, Shan said the church’s mission of love and service must begin with “a genuine regard and respect for all the peoples of Asia, their religions and cultures.”

Shan, the bishop of Kaohsiung, Taiwan, said there is “a serious need for inculturating the faith in the cultures of Asia and for shedding an appearance of being carbon copies of churches in Western societies.”

He also said that if the Catholic church truly believes that the Spirit of God is at work in the world, then it must “recognize the profound rays of truth and grace” present in other religions and be a living witness to “the fullness of revelation in Jesus Christ.” Through dialogue the Catholic church will discover the values it shares with other religions and philosophies, he said, adding that an essential part of the church’s mission is witnessing to the personal transformation that comes with conversion to Christ, “especially as seen in solidarity with the poor and defense of human rights.”

The day before, during the synod’s first official assembly, Cardinal Stephen Sou Hwan Kim of Seoul, South Korea, one of the synod presidents, reminded Pope John Paul II, who was present in the hall, that Catholics in Asia represent “a small minority” and face “immense and serious challenges.” Then, quoting from a 1992 papal speech, Kim stressed that “interreligious dialogue at its deepest level is always the dialogue of salvation.”

In pre-synod documents, Vatican officials had called upon the Asian bishops to evangelize by proclaiming the unique redemptive role Jesus Christ plays in God’s salvation plan. Many Asian bishops’ conferences, responding to the Vatican, expressed a preference for evangelizing through dialogue with other religions and by living among and serving the poor.

Kim told the assembly, which included 25 top officials of the Roman curia, that the Asian bishops have worked together among themselves in a “collegial” atmosphere for the last three decades to respond to Asia’s “cultural, political and social realities.”

“While in full union with the church universal, we are to become Asian in our way of thinking, living and sharing our own Christ-experience ... with those still seeking the face of God in his son, the savior of all,” Kim said. “In the concrete, this means proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ above all by living like him, amidst our neighbors of other faiths and particularly with God’s poor as did Jesus.”

Later, during the first day of general interventions, with Pope John Paul again present, the themes of inculturation came up repeatedly. Several Japanese bishops offered critical evaluations of Asian church life, saying Catholicism has grown slowly in the region because the church has been too Western and too paternalistic and not adequately involved in Asian daily life. They said successful evangelization in Asia requires more personal witness than words and requires that greater freedom be given to local churches and less uniformity imposed by the Vatican.

The Japanese bishops’ conference last year criticized the synod and the synod process, refusing to respond to a pre-synod document issued by the Vatican. Instead, the Japanese bishops drew up their own response to questions they asked. They also called for changes in the synod format to allow the Asian bishops to take greater control of the month-long meeting.

Among their requests was a call for greater use of Asian languages during the synod. Responding to that request at a pre-synod news conference, Secretary General of the Synod Cardinal Jan P. Schotte said it would be impossible to introduce Asian languages simply because there are too many of them, 27 represented at the synod.

He said English and French, the two official synod languages, would be used. He further said that the Asian bishops, unlike the African bishops, had not requested a synod and were not initially enthusiastic about it. However, he said the Asian bishops had come to see its importance for the church.

During the opening pontifical Mass, with an eye on the need for cultural sensitivity, synod organizers used more than a dozen Asian languages and introduced Indonesian dancers who brought offerings to the altar. Vatican observers called it an unprecedented development. Noticeably missing, however, was the use of Japanese in the liturgy, causing a stir among synod participants. Several inquired if a message of displeasure was being sent by the omission but were told by synod officials that it had been an oversight.

Archbishop Leo J. Ikenaga of Osaka, Japan, the first bishop to address the synod on the first day of general interventions lamented before the 252 synod participants that evangelization in Asia had taken only “a few small steps” over the centuries. Baptisms are few, he said, and, more important, Christian thinking has not entered into the mainstream of Asian society. One reason, he said, is that Western Christianity, nurtured in Europe, has been preaching too masculine a God and emphasizing a division between God and the universe.

The Asian church needs to stress the more “maternal traits” of God, so that Christianity can take on “a warmer, more approachable face,” he said. Ikenaga went on to say that while the church traditionally preaches dogma and the catechism, Asians would be more receptive to the more “practical” approach that Jesus himself took -- such as healing the sick.

The next bishop to speak was Augustinus J. Nomura of Nagoya, Japan, who suggested the church ought to present Christ to Asian people as a “spiritual master,” as a guide who becomes the way. The church needs a spirituality that is rooted in Asia and emphasizes witnessing over teaching, he said. “A gospel that is embodied in our own lives carries much more credibility and power of conviction than a gospel that has only been wrapped up in beautiful words, teachings and moral injunctions,” he said.

Minutes later, Bishop Berard T. Oshikawa of Naha, Japan, told the synod that his primary concern is pastoral. He said the church does not need to look far to understand why Christianity has not grown in Japan. The reason, he said, is that “the norm for Christian life, for church discipline, for liturgical expression and theological orthodoxy continues to be that of the Western church.” That may be good for the West, he said, but for places like Japan it “unfortunately becomes a very effective block” to pastoral development. He called for a new church model guided by the Asian bishops, making sure that “no imposition of any kind hinders the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Oshikawa said this approach implies a redefined role for the Holy See, which should mediate church affairs with “prudence, flexibility, trust and courage.” He added that this would mean “moving away from a single and uniform abstract norm that stifles genuine spirituality, Asian liturgical expression, earnest Asian theological search and real growth in maturity.”

Many of the first bishops to speak were Japanese. The order of appearance, according to a synod spokesman, was based on request.

Archbishop Francis X. Kaname Shimamoto of Nagasaki, Japan, speaking on the need for an authentic Asian Christianity, but seeming to make a point that he could use a Western language, was the only synod bishop so far to address the assembly in Latin. According to an observer, the Asian bishops quickly placed earphones on their heads to listen to the translation. The pope did not use earphones. Nor did any of the members of the curia, sitting near the pope.

Cardinal D. Simon Lourdusamy, a member of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, also told the assembly that if Christianity is to take root in Asia, it must be inculturated and meaningful to local people. “The gospel cannot be proclaimed in a vacuum. Being the Word of Life, it addresses real life situations” such as poverty, disease, injustice, oppression of women and the abuse of the environment, he said.

Bishop Kuriakose Kunnacherry of the Kottayam diocese in Kerala, India, said the Second Vatican Council’s call to accept and admire a variety of churches has yet to be understood and implemented. “The Asian communities are not to be disfigured as to fit in the ecclesiastical structure in the Roman pattern,” he said.

Bishop Arturo M. Bastes of Romblon, Philippines, said the church needs to shift from a “Euro-centered to an authentically Asian church,” from a “triumphalistic model of church to a church that identifies with the social conditions of the people.” He was one of a number of bishops who spoke about growing Asian poverty under the forces of globalization and new consumerism and materialism.

While the need for greater inculturation was the dominant theme in the early sessions, other bishops spoke on other matters, including the worsening economic crisis in Asia, the need for peace, human rights, migrant needs, the family, the biblical apostolate and education.

Bishop Orlando Quevedo of Nueva Segovia, Philippines, delivered the strongest attack on the globalization of market forces and the manner in which they are further dividing rich from poor. “Clearly,” he said, “the Spirit of the Lord is calling the church in Asia to be a church of the poor.”

The Asian bishops responded to each intervention with polite applause. Synod observers noted this had not been the custom among bishops at earlier synods. The atmosphere in private sessions among the bishops, according to several participants, has been warm and friendly.

The peace issue surfaced in the remarks of Japanese Bishop Stephen F. Hamao of Yokohama who told the synod that working for peace and promoting respect for the environment should be central concerns of the church in Asia. Peace is a Christian, interreligious and international project, he said. Respect for the environment is also a part of achieving harmony and promoting peace, in addition to being an obligation to future generations, he said.

Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, apostolic administrator of Dili, East Timor, and corecipient of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, said the church must continue to work on behalf of human rights. “The church’s main contribution to the realization of human rights consists of a continuous and practical process of education ... to make Christians more conscious of the dignity of the human person,” he said.

Tom Fox is NCR’s publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, May 1, 1998