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Indonesian bishops take the lead


The Indonesia bishops are fed up -- so much so they have called for an ecumenical council to set things straight.

For three decades now, they have been petitioning Rome for permission to ordain married men. Without this change, they have argued, they cannot supply priests -- or the Eucharist -- to most of their nation’s 5.5 million Catholics. Most receive the sacrament only once or twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. “This is not by choice,” they wrote, “but by dint of ordination policy.”

The ethnically diverse archipelago of Indonesia extends for several thousand miles and is comprised of some 6,000 inhabited islands. Moving from island to island is a difficult task. The Indonesian bishops argue there is no effective substitute for an indigenous priesthood.

Caught between the pastoral needs of their people and Rome’s adamant opposition to a married priesthood, the 42-member Indonesian bishops’ conference last month wrote to Rome that a general church council is now needed to put an end to centralized church authority. They called for episcopal collegiality.

“We see great value in reforming the church at the dawn of a new era,” the bishops wrote, in a response to a working paper the Vatican had sent them in preparation for a synod of world bishops set for 2000.

They called for new and innovative leadership, saying it is required to bring hope to their people. They admitted that risks are inherent in change, but insisted it is necessary. “This ‘risk-taking’ leadership,” they wrote, is foreign to Vatican ideas, which they characterized as insisting on “loyal cooperation [and] never standing alone.”

The Indonesian bishops went on to say that the Catholic church of the next millennium needs to be a “constantly reforming” church, and its bishops must act collegially.

They said a general church council could “dismantle the centralizing power-structures put in place after the Gregorian reform at the beginning of the second millennium.” What is needed most, they added, is “a reforming church entering the third millennium under the inspiration of the first; a communion of local/autonomous churches, working in partnership with the See of Peter in Rome and with each other.”

“Episcopal oversight modeled on the absolute monarch” cannot be the model of church in the next millennium, they stated, adding that the church council must draw up a “comprehensive constitution” to assure that the “ancient principles of collegiality, subsidiarity and solidarity” once again become church norms.

The Indonesian bishops were among the more outspoken Asian bishops at a regional synod of bishops in Rome last year. The synod was called by the Vatican to discuss evangelization. At the month-long gathering, many Indonesian bishops articulated a vision of evangelization that has emerged in the past three decades in meetings and papers published by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.

To fulfill the mission of Catholicism in the next century, the federation has called for nothing short of “a new way of being church.”

Last year’s synod was one of several continental synods leading up to Jubilee Year 2000 celebrations. These synods were initially called for in Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente. As part of this process, the European bishops will gather in Rome next month.

Speaking at last year’s synod, Indonesian bishops criticized the way Rome has wielded authority during this pontificate. Citing Vatican II documents, they countered that the church is supposed to be a “communion of communities,” not a monolith lorded over by a few.

The synod’s focus on evangelization unveiled a distinctly different approach by the Asian bishops from the one advocated by the Roman curia. The Asian bishops spoke of evangelization as a form of witness to the life of Jesus. The curia said evangelization is properly the proclamation of Jesus Christ as savior of the world.

Many of the Asian bishops were not eager to come to Rome when the synod was announced but later began to see it as an opportunity to share their views of church with the wider church. The Asian bishops said that building local churches on a continent where Catholics make up less than 5 percent of most nations requires entering into dialogue. They spoke of a triple-dialogue, with the poor, with other religions and with local cultures.

To achieve this dialogue, the Asian bishops proposed greater local autonomy. They said that Catholicism would not grow effectively if a Western colonial model continues to be imposed upon the Catholics of Asia.

Rome controlled the synodal process. By month’s end, most of the flavors, colors and spices the Asian bishops had brought to the gathering had been extracted from the mix and replaced with an oatmeal substance that was finally served to the pope in a series of post-synodal recommendations. He is to respond to these recommendations in India in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless, most Asian bishops appeared to leave Rome confident that the local churches of Asia will find their ways -- and that Rome will eventually come around.

It was the Indonesian bishops’ conference that took the lead at the Asian synod last year. It would not be surprising to see their call for an ecumenical council spread to other Asian bishops’ conferences in the months ahead.

Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at TCFOX@aol.com. He and NCR opinion editor John Allen will attend the European bishops synod in October. Look for their reports in the paper and look for their daily updates at NCR’s Web site at www.natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999