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What Pope Francis' visit to Korea could mean for the Asian Church

Re-strengthening the influence of the Asian Bishops would be a good, if challenging, outcome

  • Fr. William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • August 1, 2014
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Pope Francis plans to attend the 6th Asian Youth Day gathering in August. It is probably significant that rather than choosing a particular country for his first visit to Asia as pope, the pontiff has opted to take part in a pan-Asian event. Of course, since the AYD will be held in Seoul, the trip will entail a visit to South Korea.

Francis may be sending the message that he considers the Asian continent and the Church in it to be a particular focus of his papacy. His appointments of men with Asian experience as secretary of state and head of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples certainly seem to be evidence of that.

Papal trips early next year to the Philippines and Sri Lanka are already set, and preliminary steps have begun for an eventual visit to Japan, a place to which as a young Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio hoped to be assigned. The Asian Church rumor mill is even grinding out speculation about Vatican attempts to arrange a trip to China.

I am only mildly optimistic about the pope’s interest in Asia. My caution is due to the fact that Vatican interest in Asia in the recent past does not inspire confidence. Unless the pope’s interest in Asia is matched by interest and respect on the part of the curial people and offices that actually make things happen, we might be better off with "benign neglect" on the part of the pope.

There was a time when the Catholic Church in Asia was a noteworthy presence. Bishops like Kim Sou-hwan in Korea, Jaime Sin in the Philippines and Nobuo Soma in Japan were recognized leaders not only in their own countries, but throughout Asia and even beyond.

The Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences was a forum where the bishops of the continent could share and explore ways to approach the challenges facing the Church in an overwhelmingly non-Christian environment. The theological work they supported and published as the FABC Papers provided tools for theological reflection throughout the world.

Then, the Vatican took note of what was going on outside the European purview and crippled all that.

The event that drew worried and ultimately destructively controlling papal and curial attention to Asia was the Extraordinary Synod for Asia in 1998. During the lead-up to that gathering, the various Asian bishops conferences, led by the Japanese, rejected the premises that underlay the preparatory documents sent out by Rome. At the meeting itself, the revolt continued.

The curia was not ready for such independence, an independence that owed much to the fact that the bishops of Asia had, through the FABC, been gathering for years to discuss issues related to evangelization and Church life in Asia.

After the synod, a Japanese priest said to me, "We’re going to pay for this." He feared that the Japanese bishops’ conference would soon be packed with managers rather than leaders, and he hoped other Churches in Asia would be able to take the lead.

In fact, the college of bishops throughout Asia was eventually changed from leaders to managers who would be docile toward the "head office" in Rome. Some Asian bishops do, in fact, show glimmers of leadership, but by and large, there are no successors to the giants of a generation ago.

One indicator of that is the current state of the FABC. It is no longer a forum for exploration of the issues facing evangelization in Asia. It is merely one more bureaucracy that holds meetings out of habit. But, the excitement that comes of formulating a vision and making it real is gone.

Pope Francis may hope to revitalize the leadership of the Church in Asia, making it more like the ideal he has set for bishops who smell of the sheep. But, in order to do so, he will probably have to wait for opportunities to replace most of the current group while encouraging those who chafe at being held back by the sort of curial officials who have, in effect, controlled the Church in Asia for at least a generation.

An example of that control can be seen in the cockamamie insistence on Latin-izing translations of the liturgy in Asian languages, a frequently impossible task.

The abysmal ignorance and soaring arrogance behind that was exemplified by a Rome-based cardinal who told a Japanese bishop that he obviously did not know his own language.

In the long run, the shake-up, revamping or cutting back of the structures at the Vatican that many hope Pope Francis will enact may be more important for the Church in Asia than papal trips.

Whether or not the pope will trust the Holy Spirit to work through the Church in Asia without European oversight and control will determine whether or not his interest can bear fruit for the evangelization of Asia.

Fr. William Grimm is the publisher of ucanews.com.

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