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Old hierarchies inhibit Asian Church

A Christ-centered vision of service must be adopted to end inequalities

  • Virginia Saldanha, Mumbai
  • India
  • September 28, 2011
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The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) in 1990 came up with a wonderful vision for the Catholic Church in Asia called the “New Way of Being Church.” It was described as a “participatory and co-responsible Church, which lives as a communion of communities.”

It is a great vision for the future of the Church in Asia that preempts the problem of priest shortages and is in keeping with the vision of Vatican II, which calls for the participation of the Laity (People of God) in the mission of the Church.

Serious about this new vision, the Asian bishops appointed lay woman Cora Mateo as the first woman executive secretary of the FABC’s Office of Laity.  She immediately went to work on giving flesh to the “New Way of Being Church” by spelling out the vision and creating training modules known as the Asian Integral Pastoral Approach (AsIPA), which are offered to the member countries of the FABC to help realize the vision.

Several member countries including India adopted this vision as their pastoral priority, and many bishops in Asia set about starting Small Christian Communities (SCCs) at the grassroots in parishes.

SCCs are fairly active and present in several dioceses in Asia. But have all the stakeholders accepted equal responsibility in promoting this vision?

The reality is that clerical domination has hindered SCCs from working towards the vision. Participation and co-responsibility are based on maturity, respect and mutual responsibility as keys to harmony and communion.

Two recent Consultations that took place in Mumbai and Pune on the themes “Gender Relations in the Church” and “Building Integral Partnership for Prophetic Mission” in the context of the Gender Policy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, identified the hierarchical structure of the Church as one of the major challenges to equal partnership in the Church.

It does not flow from the mandate and example of Jesus, who emphasized servant leadership. The doctrine of the Trinity itself – three equal while different persons – challenges all hierarchical structures of power. The word hierarchy is not found in the New Testament.

The Consultations determined that there was a huge gap between who we are as followers of Jesus and what we need to be to carry out the mission of the Church effectively.

Leadership needs to be participative, inclusive and promoting dialogue, patterned on Jesus’ teaching and example of leadership. The Vatican II vision of the Church as the “People of God” has been effectively negated by the emphasis on a hierarchical structure that renders the majority of the People of God passive and uninvolved in the Mission of the Church.

The establishment of the hierarchy gives priests power and legitimacy to dominate and control the Church, and by virtue of the exclusion of women from the hierarchy, this power is used over them, since power is normally understood as power over another.

Discrimination and subjugation are constitutive of the hierarchy, which creates in women’s psyches the characteristics of subordination, passivity, servitude, dependency, unquestioning obedience and vulnerability. As a result men and women relate to each other in a dominant-subordinate relationship.

The new vision of Church requires priests who are trained to exercise servant leadership exemplified by Jesus in washing the feet of his disciples.  The inclusion of this ritual in the Eucharistic celebration can be a powerful sign that empowers everyone to be a leader, including women who sadly are forbidden to have their feet washed on Maundy Thursday when we recall the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus.

Sincere introspection on the very concept of power and hierarchy in the Church and secular society is needed to bring about change. Awareness of internal conditioning is a prerequisite to change. Education – both religious and secular – of women and men to overcome generations of power imbalance is crucial. The need to recognise that both women and men are victims of this imbalance is important as both need to change for true partnership to evolve.

Participants in the Consultations felt that as long as the Church remained fundamentally unequal, changes could still be initiated by delinking ordination and governance and vesting the People of God with administrative and juridical powers by virtue of their baptism (1Cor 3-13).

Additionally, the early tradition of women deacons in the Church could be restored. Since “sacred orders” includes diaconal ordination, women could then be included in decision-making.

To work towards a Church that reflects more truthfully the mind of Christ, where women and men work together without gender- or ministry-dictated hierarchies, towards the building of the Reign of God, the participants proposed a progressive deconstruction of existing hierarchical structures to form more inclusive and participative ones in keeping with the prophetic spirit of Jesus.

This can be achieved by de-mythologising and demystifying concepts like the priesthood and hierarchy, encouraging the belief that ‘we are the church,’ and formation at different levels for equal discipleship by creating modules on gender relations for seminarians and trainees at all levels in the Church; by transforming/reforming existing theological formation by appointing and affirming faculty that is critical, liberating and prophetic; and by fostering leadership at the grassroots levels in the Church and society through appropriate formation.

They committed to explore how the New Way of Being Church, based on the servant-leadership model and on the divine principle of charism given to a person to offer kenotic or self-emptying service, can help facilitate partnership and change the hierarchical structures in the Church.

Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Office of Laity with responsibility for the Women’s Desk. A freelance writer, she has a diploma in Theology for Laity from the Bombay Diocesan Seminary and is a woman activist working in India
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