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Report faulted for neglecting Asian ideas

Vatican City

After two weeks of speeches in which 191 participants of the Synod for Asia addressed the assembly, with Pope John Paul II present at all sessions, synod members finally had the opportunity to speak among themselves. But the change in procedure, as the synod moved past the halfway mark, did little to resolve key differences of opinion on how Catholicism should develop in Asia.

The bishops’ discussions were largely shaped by a mid-synod report, put together by synod organizers and supposedly based on the initial speeches. However, many participants criticized the report for failing to adequately reflect the thinking of most Asian bishops.

Generally, the Asian bishops have called for “gradualism,” an approach to evangelization that starts with an acknowledgment of “Asian realities,” including poverty, the need for “inculturation” of Catholicism so that the church of Asia bears the marks of Asian life and recognition of the status of Catholics as minority voices in most Asian nations. Gradualism stresses witnessing and dialogue in conveying the gospel message.

Roman curia members, in contrast, have called for “proclamation,” insisting that the starting point of evangelical efforts is the announcement of Jesus Christ as savior to all. They emphasize that this core belief is what separates Catholics from others and must be proclaimed if fidelity to the church’s mission is to be achieved.

During the third week of the synod, which opened April 19 and will close May 14, tensions persisted. Tensions marked the meetings of the 11 working groups (eight English-speaking, two French-speaking and one Italian-speaking), according to interviews, documents and E-mail correspondence with participants.

Following several days of working group meetings, group leaders reported the outlines of their group’s discussions to the larger assembly. Liturgical texts and who should approve them became a focus of attention.

One English group recommended that Asian episcopal conferences be given “full authority” to create liturgical commissions to produce and approve translations, which the curia should ratify without question.

Another noted the “general feeling” that greater freedom must be granted to bishops’ conferences and to the regional councils of bishops in regard to liturgical matters, as “they know the situations best.”

Still another recorded a “strong consensus” that local churches should be given full responsibility for translations of liturgical texts.

So did two other English-speaking groups.

One English-speaking group added that the attitude of curia members with regard to matters of inculturation of liturgy had not been helpful. The group said that Latin rite liturgies are simply Western liturgies translated into local Asian languages, an approach the group said was inadequate. It also said that local Asian bishops needed to be taken more seriously by Rome in the development of liturgies since the local bishops know the people, languages and cultures.

Several English-speaking groups asked permission to use the sacred scriptures of other religions in Catholic liturgies. Other work groups, including one French-speaking group, disagreed with this approach.

A number of the working groups pointed out that effective evangelization continues to be hampered by the perception that Catholicism in Asia is “Western,” and “foreign.”

The umbilical cords of colonialism have not been fully severed, said one English-speaking group.

“Our Christian faith must by all means shed its reputation as a foreign religion and become better inculturated, taking on an Asian face everywhere without in any way compromising or diminishing Christ’s gospel teachings,” Bishop Francisco F. Claver, apostolic vicar of Bontoc-Lagawe, Philippines, reported on behalf of one working group. “The inculturation of the liturgy requires greater use of vernacular languages and indigenous symbols.”

Speaking about the relationship between Rome and the local churches, an English-language group reported that “collaboration” had to be strengthened. It recalled that in 1931, Pius XI formulated the principle of subsidiarity, a principle reaffirmed by a 1985 synod of bishops. “This principle of governance has to be practiced,” the group report noted. “In principle, when it is possible and effective, the decision-making has to be shared at all levels, and more trust has to be manifested.”

One working group said that to promote greater communion, local churches should not be considered as separate units but as part of the universal church.

Unity in diversity must be rightly understood and practiced in a spirit of mutual charity, the group said. Unity, not uniformity, is the goal.

Group leader Archbishop Leonardo Z. Legaspi of Caceres, Philippines, suggested that members of various Vatican departments “exhibit more fully pastoral attention and charity to whom they minister. A warm and welcoming attitude does much to promote ecclesial communion.”

One synod participant said that the Italian-speaking group “tended to sound more curial” because it had a greater proportion of members of the curia in it than did the French-speaking or English groups.

The mid-synod report, which came under fire from synod members, contained 15 questions that to many synod participants sounded defensive and out of step with their thinking on key church matters. As an example, some questioned why the bishops were being asked, “How can the church deal with some unorthodox trends among theologians?” when the issue was never raised as a concern by the bishops during the initial interventions.

The questions, one synod member complained, reflected “a discontinuity” from the main trends of the interventions.

Most working groups initially stuck with the questions, as the planners requested. Most groups then went beyond the questions to raise other issues.

Several Asian bishops complained that curial members tried to dominate the discussion groups. Bishop Stephen Fumio Hamao of Yokohama, Japan, told a reporter, “We came thinking they [the curia] would listen to us and learn something about the local churches of Asia. We did not expect they [curia members] would try to teach us.”

Hamao used the example of Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, who spoke for 45 minutes at the beginning of a discussion group session.

An Indonesian synod participant said he tired of hearing Cardinal James Stafford, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, talk at length about the need to maintain unity with the Holy Father.

One of the few women participants at the synod expressed her disappointment that none of the 15 questions dealt with women. She said women had become “almost invisible” in the discussions although in many Asian churches women constitute 60 to 70 percent of the faithful.

The conclusions drawn by the working groups are aimed at assisting synod members in formulating propositions to be taken to the full synod for approval. Once approved, they will be presented to the pope. He uses them in writing an apostolic exhortation published at a later date.

Tom Fox is NCR’s publisher.

National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 1998