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Asia Synod ends, but its impact is far from over

Roman Catholicism came to the Far East during the past 500 years largely as the result of expanding European empires. Initially a religion of conquerors, Catholicism became, in the eyes of many Asians, a religion of those who collaborate with outside forces. This has been Asian Catholicism’s historical burden.

However else one might view the fruits of the work of Western missionaries in Asia, their works cannot be divorced from centuries of human subjugation and humiliation, the exploitation of the East by the West.

Meanwhile, the religions of Asia have been as much of that continent’s soul as Christianity has been essential to our own Western heritage. The difference is that Asia’s story is told through Hindu rituals, Buddhist chants, Confucian courts, Taoist mysticism and Islamic pilgrimages.

Only in this century, with the breakup of Western colonialism, did it become belatedly clear to church fathers that Catholicism needed an Asian face. No other would do.

Grasping this insight and energized by the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI flew to the Philippines in November 1970, at a time when popes seldom left Rome and hardly ever Europe. There he commissioned the bishops of Asia to get on with the task of inculturating their churches.

Paul VI was present for the first gathering of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. The organization, a network of smaller committees, set out on the difficult task of reclaiming the Asian carpenter Jesus Christ, taking him back from the West. That decision spawned an inevitable contradiction. The Asian bishops had to break away from their “historical burden,” from traditional Catholic patterns, without cutting ties to Rome itself. At issue was a question we have all come to share: How do we become a truly global church?

Not breaking out of old patterns, the bishops reasoned, assured that Asian Catholicism would never grow. Moving forward would mean coming into conflict with Rome -- unless wise authorities understood the Asian dilemma. Greater freedom and autonomy were called for. The answer: a new language of church. The Asian bishops developed the idea of building church as “a communion of communities.”

It has taken a quarter century for the Asian bishops to work out their 21st century vision. And it is still emerging. Development of the vision has been aided by periodic gatherings of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. The vision’s development has been assisted by Western missionaries sensitive to Asian realities.

A quarter century later, the bishops brought this vision to the Synod for Asia, to the global stage. These bishops speak about their mission as nothing less than “a new way of being church in Asia.”

Central to the vision is the establishment of “a truly local church.” The Asian bishops have described it as “a church incarnate in a people, a church indigenous and inculturated.” They explain the life of the local church as “very much shaped by its relationship with the Asian world and the society around it.” By extension, they write, “the concrete mode of its evangelization is molded by the history, tradition and culture of the peoples of this ancient continent.”

This is the entry point into what the bishops speak of as the church’s “triple dialogue” with culture, other religions and the poor. Evangelical conversion is not an end; it is a potential by-product, one seen as dependent on the Holy Spirit. They see Catholics as being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, living in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized who make up most of the continent.

In many nations, Asian Catholicism has emerged as a beacon of light celebrating human dignity. In South Korea, people have flocked to the church because of its human rights posture.

Interfaith dialogue is essential to the vision. The Asian bishops see the hand of God in the other religions of Asia and seek to cooperate with them in building communities that support life. Community-building can involve but is not limited to the Christian disciples.

That is why some bishops during the synod suggested that readings during eucharistic celebration not be limited to Christian texts. Why not Hindu or Islamic texts as well?

Even in the origins of the synod there was irony. Pope John Paul II called for it and chose its theme, “Jesus Christ the Savior and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia,” to emphasize the need for faithful evangelization, focused on Jesus Christ as savior. This is precisely the focus the bishops of Asia have given to their mission. At issue before and during the synod has been the method of evangelization. While the curia may have thought it necessary to teach the Asian bishops how to evangelize, how to proclaim Jesus as savior, the Asian bishops ended up carrying their evangelization message back to the center of the old European empire. It was their subdued hope they might evangelize Rome itself.

The Asian bishops came without a political purpose or strategy but not without an understanding of the ways of Rome. As one bishop remarked: “Maybe we’ve got to go to Rome to show them Christianity is alive in the church.”

Whose evangelization method will be the more enduring remains to be seen.

The Asian bishops are a formidable group. Unlike many bishops’ conferences in the West, their ranks are not divided. This is because they seek out consensus. For these bishops, Vatican II renewal was more of a beginning than a moment of change. So there has been almost no backlash in the post-conciliar era.

The Asian bishops showed integrity during the synod. They lived what they preached. Always kind, reflective, open, they treated everyone with equal respect. They would have wanted a far more open gathering with fewer rules and more time to share experiences. But they went along, despite curial manipulations. They spoke openly and honestly. They showed admiration for their pontiff. They see in John Paul an elderly and holy man.

Meanwhile, Asian Catholicism’s growth has been concurrent with an even larger growth within the church. Catholicism’s historic European/North American axis during the past quarter century has shifted south and east. Unlike a quarter century ago, most Catholics today are non-European and non-North American. At the close of the 20th century, Roman Catholicism is no longer a Western religion; it is a global religion. The Asian bishops see themselves as helping give birth to a new global Catholicism, a faith that is at once local and universal.

The synod itself, as currently configured, is intended to be a consultative forum aimed at assisting the pope. It is by no means the expression of the functional, collegial decision-making some had envisioned. Its strict adherence to laws and process provides much room for manipulation for narrow purposes. And that happens a lot.

If measured solely by the propositions that emerged from the month-long event, the synod’s costs and its effectiveness are questionable. Yet the event brought together for the first time the bishops of the Middle East and Far East. They found much mutual support and shared many similar experiences. Bishops from both ends of the continent resoundingly agreed that church administration has become far too centralized. Change, they said repeatedly, is needed.

The synod’s final 59 propositions are only vague shadows of the original ideas the bishops expressed during the gathering. Calls for the consideration of new, non-Latin, Asian rites will not reach John Paul’s desk. Yet he was present for all of the synod’s early sessions. He heard the unfiltered interventions of 191 synod participants.

Curial staff often treat the pope as if he needs to be protected from ideas that might differ from his (or their) own. Others hope he can listen, but don’t expect change at his age or at this stage in his pontificate.

The airing that took place during the synod, many observers note, was nevertheless significant. Some said the speeches and subsequent discussions have more to do with the next pontificate than with this one.

That would be the first time the deeper questions raised in the synod -- those having to do with how authority operates within the church -- could reasonably be assessed.

Students of this synod would find it to be a case study of misused authority. Bishops who came to Rome at times expressed bewilderment; many felt demeaned. Many wanted out. Some left. Were it not for the fact “we have to sign in” for each session, one bishop remarked, the synod hall would be largely vacant. Not much real collaboration occurred.

At the same time, this synod provided hope. It reminded us that the seemingly endless debate between those who support post-conciliar renewal and those who have opposed it is not limited to Western boundaries. It is far broader. The Asian bishops are forcing the discussion into every corner of the church.

In the final analysis, the synod was a gathering of hope. It provided the universal church with a reminder that Jesus Christ’s resurrection was not just a moment in time. It is a forever occurrence. It is, as the Asian bishops tell us, always a call to “a new way of being church.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 29, 1998