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Polite toward Rome, true to their mission

By THOMAS C. FOX
NCR Staff
Samphran, Thailand

Conscious they were beginning a journey into the new millennium, the bishops of Asia gathered here and after 10 days pledged themselves to continue the renewal of their churches by increasing efforts to witness to their faith through service and through the building of a participatory church.

“Asian people will recognize the gospel that we announce when they see in our life the transparency of the message of Jesus,” delegates to the Seventh Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences unanimously agreed in a final draft statement. The gathering, which considered the theme, “A Renewed Church in Asia: A Mission of Love and Service,” took place at a pastoral center 20 miles outside of Bangkok. It drew some 160 bishops and other church leaders.

The Jan. 3-13 meeting was considered important for two reasons. It was the first gathering of Catholic bishops in the new millennium and it came less than two months after Pope John Paul II, during a weekend trip to New Delhi, India, released his response to the 1998 Synod of Bishops for Asia. The pontiff’s apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia repeated his directive that Asian bishops evangelize primarily by proclaiming Jesus Christ as the unique savior of the world.

The Asian bishops, meanwhile, have been hesitant to embrace this approach. At the synod in Rome and again at the meeting here, they expressed the need to evangelize by witnessing to the gospels and by entering into dialogue with followers of the other Asian religions. They talked about building local churches characterized primarily by service and love. They did not openly reject the pope’s exhortation as much as they said they would proclaim their faith by witnessing to it.

Privately many bishops here expressed frustration with Rome’s seeming inability to understand their “Asian” mindset and the circumstances in which their churches operate. Most Catholic bishops, with the exception of the Filipino bishops, head dioceses located in countries with only 2 percent Catholic populations. A number of bishops said openly that to proclaim Jesus as savior in Asian countries with majority Muslim populations would be an outright act of suicide.

The tenor of the plenary session, which takes place once every five years, was anything but confrontational. The bishops repeatedly expressed their respect for the Holy Father and their desire to be viewed as bishops within the universal church. However, the direction of the conference was determined largely by the work of the bishops’ federation over the past decade and much less by Ecclesia in Asia.

The Asian bishops cited Ecclesia in Asia in their final draft document, but only when it suited their purposes. For example, the papal exhortation underscored the need for the churches of Asia to inculturate more into Asian society although it effectively denied the Asian bishops the right to have the last word on developing liturgies or liturgical texts.

For their part, the final draft document of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences built on Rome’s encouragement. The Asian bishops emphasized the importance of having Catholicism take on a more Asian face. “We are committed,” they said, “to the emergence of the ‘Asianness’ of the church in Asia.” Their churches must increasingly embody Asian values, they explained, including a deep sense of the Spirit, of harmony and a holistic and inclusive approach to church life and activities in the wider society.

Globalization is top concern

The final draft statement released by the federation Jan. 12 highlighted a number of concerns that are especially pressing as the people of Asia enter the new century. At the top of their list the bishops placed “globalization, which, unregulated by juridical and ethical norms, increases the millions who live below the poverty line.” They said globalization is accelerating the process of secularization in Asia and it is helping to spawn extremist fundamentalism.

The document celebrated the fact that during the 20th century Asians freed themselves from the yoke of colonialism, but went on to say that “corrupt governments, a growing concentration of wealth among the few and international economic ‘restructuring’ ” are causing great hardships for their peoples.

The document lamented the deterioration of the environment and growing concentrations of people in urban areas. They linked these developments to global economic forces.

The document stated that the social and political challenges that face Asia today appear overwhelming and are so massive and complex that they cannot be dealt with separately. The bishops said that solutions would be found only through “integrated” responses by the churches and wider societies. “We need to feel and act integrally,” they said.

The document stressed the need for greater collaboration with the laity, more collaboration and more participation of all elements of their local churches, emphasizing the need to be more inclusive regarding women and youth. It called for the building of small gospel-based communities.

In workshops and in other discussions, the bishops made frequent references to the need of their churches to develop both their spiritual lives and further their commitments to working in the wider society. They again spoke of a “triple dialogue” — with culture, with the other religions and with the poor. They repeated their call for a “new way of being church.”

The final draft document was important not as much for the new ground it covered, which was marginal, as for the determination of the bishops to continue on the path the Asian bishops’ conferences have been taking for at least 15 years. The bishops say they feel encouraged by both the Synod for Asia and by the papal declaration that grew out of it.

The Samphran gathering took place at the spacious Baan-Phu-Waan pastoral formation center in a retreat-like atmosphere and allowed the bishops plenty of time to mingle. The meetings were informal and always cordial. Various bishops’ conferences took turns leading the eucharistic celebrations in the morning. These Masses combined English, the common conference language and the vernacular language of the chief celebrants.

The workshops and plenary sessions were inclusive. Women religious lay leaders and “fraternal delegates” from the United States and Europe participated freely.

Tough grilling for Tomko

Prefect for the Congregation of the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, represented the Vatican. The churches of Asia fall under the Congregation on Evangelization as they are still considered “mission territories.”

Addressing the gathering the first day, Tomko told the Asian bishops that “analysis of Ecclesia in Asia is the main duty” of the plenary gathering. His wish was not fulfilled. After his presentation, he faced some rough grilling by several bishops. They wanted to know what he had meant when he warned them about allowing “weak Christology” in Asia. He replied a weak Christology would be one that portrayed Jesus as simply a wise person or prophet — but not the Son of God. He was then pressed to say if he had encountered such a Christology in their midst. He replied he had not. Another bishop asked him flat out if Rome would ever recognize an Asian Christ “if it saw one.” The question brought widespread laughter.

Several bishops later remarked that Tomko seemed more flexible on Asian soil than he had in Rome. They expressed hope he was listening to what they had to say. Tomko left after the third day of the gathering.

The gathering included theologians from Europe, as well as the only official episcopal “fraternal delegate” from the West, Bishop John S. Cummins of Oakland, Calif., who is the Asian liaison for the U.S. bishops. He has been the U.S. bishops’ liaison with the churches of Asia for more than a decade. “Asia has a grasp of the Holy Spirit that we don’t have,” he noted, suggesting Western Catholics can learn a lot from their Asian counterparts. “You can grab the hope here! They [the Asian bishops] really exemplify hope and they keep their faith in the context of the community. There is nothing parochial about their mindset here.”

The bishops also heard from their general secretary, Philippine Archbishop Oscar V. Cruz, at the outset of the gathering. Since Cruz was not able to attend, the general secretary’s assistant, Maryknoll Fr. Ed Malone, read Cruz’s remarks. Malone has nurtured the federation of Asian bishops for years, serving as its chief administrator.

Cruz reminded the gathering that 76 percent of the 146 interventions made during the Synod for Asia dealt with only four themes, inculturation of faith, dialogue with other religions, with local cultures and with the poor. It appeared to be Cruz’s way of resurrecting some of the Asian episcopal concerns that got lost during the synod process in which they were synthesized by Roman curial synod administrators.

The final talk on opening-day was given by Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato, president of the Philippine Bishops’ Conference. “To evangelize, the church cannot be uninvolved in the joys and sorrows of Asian peoples,” he said. “She cannot be triumphalistic. She has to be a humble companion and partner of all Asians in the common quest for God, in the struggle for justice and harmony, for a better human life. The church has to be a lowly servant of the Lord and Asian peoples in the journey to God’s Kingdom. She has to be a church of compassion for the weak and the oppressed.”

For years Quevedo has been one of the principal architects of the federation’s vision. He asked the gathering to consider the components of a “renewed Asian church” and went on to suggest seven, all coming out of earlier plenary documents. He said that to renew the church in Asia is to:

  • Move from passivity and anxiety to active integral evangelization;
  • Move from an abstract and noninvolved universalism to the building of a truly local church;
  • Move from institutional think to deep interiority;
  • Move from individualism toward an authentic community of faith;
  • Move from clericalism to lay-leadership;
  • Move from comfortable and uncritical relationships with the rich and powerful to a church of the poor and a church of the young;
  • Move toward active involvement in generating and serving life in Asian societies.

No audience for Ecclesia in Asia

A total of 23 workshops focused on different dimensions of the assembly’s overall theme. Topics included the Asian image of Jesus, consecrated life, ongoing formation for priests, dialogue with secular professionals, ecumenism, education, family, gospel-based communities, human values, interreligious dialogue, lay ministries, missionary dimension of local churches, religious fundamentalism, service to indigenous peoples, service to migrant workers and refugees, social advocacy, solidarity through justice and peace, small church communities, women, youth.

When it was announced that a workshop on “holiness” failed to attract a single person, the bishops burst into laughter. It was also noted that no one called for a workshop to study Ecclesia in Asia. Many participants expressed a concern that in facing so many complex and diverse problems, the church not act alone but instead must collaborate with other groups — ecumenical (other Christians) and interreligious (other faiths), as well as secular bodies of professional men and women.

Asian image of Jesus

A workshop on the “Asian Image of Jesus” recommended that the federation set up a new center to promote Asian culture and to foster a church sensitive to the “ancient and enduring cultures and spirituality” of Asia. The proposed center should help present the Asian image of Jesus through “stories, images, symbols, parables, myths [and] chanting of sacred texts,” participants of this workshop recommended. A workshop on women and the church urged establishing a women’s commission in each country of Asia and recommended that 30 percent of all church councils and committees comprise women. When the recommendation came to the floor, one bishop asked why the women should only have only a 30 percent representation and not a full 50 percent representation. The question brought laughter and a sprinkling of applause.

In the course of the meeting, discussions bared anguish as well as hope. An Indonesian bishop explained the complexities of working as a priest in heavily Muslim areas. One priest had worked for years in such an area doing simple social work. Eventually he was approached quietly by a young Muslim man who asked to be baptized. If word got out of such a baptism it could lead to the man’s execution. It could also lead to the extinction of the local Catholic presence. The priest refused to baptize the man.

Another bishop explained that no priests were available in a large section of his country. After considerable thought, he said, a fellow bishop decided the only way to bring the Eucharist into the area was to ordain two married men. He did so quietly some years back.

An Indian archbishop, upset with the way authority continues to be centralized in the church, said the Roman Catholic church should be united in matters of doctrine and morals. But on all other aspects of church life, the local churches need to be free to determine their own ecclesial paths.

Bishop after bishop deplored the growing gap between rich and poor in their countries. They see the new economic order as helping only a small fraction of their peoples.

A Filipino priest spoke about his role in heading the newest mission church in the world, in Mongolia. He has 87 Catholics in his flock, most of them converts and most of them youngsters who have taken up shelter in the past decade in his home for street children. He says many children live in the sewers of Mongolia. They go there to get away from the cold. He searches the sewers to find and aid them.

The gathering highlighted an important fact, one that sometimes gets overlooked outside Asia. No such thing as an “Asian church” exists, nor is there one way of being an Asian Catholic. The churches of Asia are as varied as those in the West. It is the bishops’ acceptance of each other and willingness to come together, their tolerance for differences among them that constitutes their “Asianness,” explained some long-time observers.

The 30-year-old federation is a network of Asian bishops’ conferences and it has been the principal means by which Asian leaders have come together to develop their pastoral plans.

The federation was founded by some 200 Asian bishops who gathered in Manila in November 1970 in the presence of Pope Paul VI. The 25th anniversary of this foundation was celebrated in January 1995 in Manila with the Sixth Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Plenary Assembly. Pope John Paul II was present for the occasion.

The federation has no president. The highest governing body is the plenary assembly, which meets every four years. Major federation documents are available online at the Web site of the Catholic Asian news agency, UCANews at www.ucanews.com/

UCANews contributed to this story. The full text of the federation’s final document can be found on the NCR Web site at www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/index.htm

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000