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Plenary could reignite vital issues

The Church must rediscover vigor and momentum of Vatican II fifty years on

  • Father Bonnie Mendes, Bangkok
  • Thailand
  • March 30, 2012
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Vatican II was momentous, not least for the Church in Asia.

After Vatican II, churches in Asia became conscious they were Asian. Before, they were more in contact with churches in the West. For example, when the late Cardinal Valerian Gracias of Bombay returned from Rome after Vatican II, he said he found that Asian bishops had more friends in Europe and North America than in Asia, because they had studied abroad.

In 1970, five years after the conclusion of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI visited the Philippines. The more than 150 Asian bishops gathered there took the opportunity to set up the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC). They asserted that they are an Asian church, and that the Asian Church is a church of the poor.

Since then, we have seen the churches in Asia, mainly through national justice and peace commissions, coming out and dealing with issues affecting the poor and society.

The Church in India, for example, came out strongly in support of the rights of the dalit (former untouchables). The Church in Japan spoke out strongly against development of nuclear weapons and also the use of nuclear power. For the Church in Pakistan, justice and peace are crucial issues because Christians there have felt the brunt of many injustices.

During that time, there also emerged Third World theologies as a response to the increasingly brutal and repressive regimes of the times. Sri Lanka, for example, had so much freedom in the 1960s but all that changed. Malaysia also became quite dictatorial.

A milestone was reached in 1979, when the FABC’s Office of Human Development met in Tokyo. It decided there is a need for a mechanism to address injustices throughout Asia beyond making statements. The Asian Center for the Progress of Peoples was set up, based in Hong Kong, as a “hotline” to document injustices and excesses committed throughout Asia. This center was set up by the Asian bishops but it is an independent body.

The center gathers information mainly from national justice and peace bodies and sends out the information to its network of churches and Church institutions as well as individuals for their action. It suggests actions such as letter writing campaigns, giving addresses and information on relevant government bodies, ambassadors and foreign offices. The important thing here is that an issue is well documented.

The mood in Asia during the first 15 years following Vatican II was that of a strong desire and urgency to take forward the council’s ideas and ideals, because these represented the voice of the universal Church. In 1978 came the personality of Pope John Paul II, who had a slightly different focus.

He came up strongly on solidarity with workers. Then, the more conservative voices in the Church started to become very nervous and tried to push their own agenda. Now, we have a mix of different voices within the Church.

But the dynamism during the first 15 years after Vatican II is certainly not there anymore. In the last two decades, dynamic Asian bishops have become fewer and fewer. The Philippines is a good example of this. This is because the bishops have far fewer opportunities.

After Vatican II, there was a tremendous number of formation programs organized for Asian bishops and other Church leaders. For example, between the mid-1970s and mid-80s, seven BISAs (Bishops Institutes for Social Action) were held. The eighth was held only 25 years later – last January in Bangkok.

This malaise has led some people such as the late Japanese Cardinal Hamao Fumio to say there should be a Vatican III, so that the bishops themselves can again make a strong stand. There is a certain dynamism when all bishops gather together.

Today, bishops have to be shepherds in a very different environment. Look at what’s happening in say Libya. If the bishops get together, what will emerge would be more focus on essential things rather than minor things.

For example, recently there have been changes in the English liturgy. When the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” we respond “And with your spirit” instead of “And also with you.” The Japanese, in particular, find this very difficult, and have asked to use the old formula. There are forces in the Church in favor of these small insignificant changes in the liturgy. There are more important basic human issues that are not being addressed.

This is where there is a need for a new dynamism. The FABC plenary in Vietnam this coming November is an opportunity to recover the dynamism that we had in the Asia Church. Having a cardinal (Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay) as FABC secretary general will give it more strength. Each FABC office should make proper preparations and come up with a solid stand and good documentation on issues of the poor. People have to see a solid stand that is in line with Vatican II and the teachings of the Church.

There is hope. I feel something more dynamic will emerge in the FABC. Now we have many new bishops who have not yet met each other. There is a certain dynamism when they meet.

Father Bonnie Mendes is former executive secretary of the FABC’s Office of Human Development and former regional coordinator of Caritas Asia. He is also founder of the Human Development Centre in Toba Tek Singh, Pakistan, and former executive secretary of the Pakistani bishops’ National Commission for Justice and Peace
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