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Handprints of Asian bishops’ group are everywhere


Bishop after bishop addressing the synod in its first two weeks expressed common hopes for the future of the local churches of Asia. They often used the same metaphors and phrases in painting these verbal pictures. They talked of a “new way of being church.” They envisioned church as a “communion of communities.” They spoke of evangelization as a “triple dialogue” with local culture, religion and the poor.

These ideas did not come out of thin air, and the bishops were not cribbing from one another’s notes. Rather, they spoke from the heart, expressing ideas familiar to them, ideas that have emerged during the past quarter-century in statements written under the auspices of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.

Unknown to many Catholics in the West, the federation is undoubtedly Asia’s most influential Catholic organization, having served as the ecclesial, theological and organizational backbone for the bishops of Far East and Southeast Asia for the past 25 years. Not unexpectedly, the federation staff has been at work during this synod for Asia -- a gathering that one day may be viewed as the federation’s global coming out party. The handprints of the federation’s thought and activity are everywhere.

Days before the synod opened, the federation staff set up a temporary headquarters in a few rooms inside the Philippine embassy to the Vatican. Key Asian bishops and other federation leaders soon were meeting there to discuss strategies and help the bishops translate their thoughts from local languages into English and sometimes French. Staff members sometimes helped bishops draft interventions or find biblical texts supporting episcopal thoughts.

One of the federation’s rooms is equipped with a copying machine and computers with E-mail and Internet connections. Asian theological journals are available. Throughout the day, Asian bishops find the temporary headquarters a comfortable place to think, meet or relax. The location is superb, a three minute walk from the synod chambers, across the street from St. Peter’s Square.

One federation staff member, Jesuit Fr. Soosai Arokiasamy, editor of a Delhi-based theological monthly, was straightforward in speaking of the federation’s synod efforts. “Our goals,” he said, “are basic: to help the bishops and enrich the process.”

The federation is doing that and more. The “new way of being church” of which many of the Asian bishops spoke is described in a federation document written in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1990. The notion of a “communion of communities” is contained in a federation document written in Manila, Philippines, in 1995. The idea of “triple dialogue” is present in several federation documents written in the 1970s and ’80s.

The federation describes itself as a Roman Catholic organization existing “for cooperation among bishops’ conferences in Asia.” The different dioceses of each Far East and Southeast Asian country -- sometimes of two or three smaller countries -- are organized into national bishops’ conferences. These in turn are united under the federation network.

An outgrowth of the Second Vatican Council, the federation was founded by some 200 Asian bishops who gathered in Manila in November 1970 during the papal visit of Pope Paul VI. The federation celebrated its 25th anniversary in January 1995 in Manila with Pope John Paul II present for the occasion.

The federation has kept the bishops of Asia in touch with each other, developing ideas, theologies and strategies for the future of the faith in Asia. It stays in touch through communications and conferences, the most important of which are the federation’s plenary sessions. To date there have been six:

  • 1974, Taipei, Taiwan, “Evangelization in Modern Day Asia”;
  • 1978, Calcutta, India: “Prayer -- the Life of the Church in Asia”;
  • 1982, Bangkok, Thailand: “The Church -- A Community of Faith in Asia”;
  • 1986, Tokyo: “The Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World of Asia”;
  • 1990, Bandung: “Journeying Together Toward the Third Millennium”;
  • 1995, Manila: “Christian Discipleship in Asia Today: Service to Life.”

Member national bishops’ conferences include those in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Laos-Cambodia, Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. The bishops’ conferences of Hong Kong, Macau, Mongolia and Nepal are associate members.

National Catholic Reporter, May 8, 1998