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Asian bishops must end the theological quarantine
Thailand | Updated: September 19, 2022 03:49 AM
Kenosis — self-emptying — is a crucial concept for understanding dialogue and mission in Asia
Thai Catholics of Vietnamese descent carrying a cross ahead of Pope Francis' visit to Thailand, outside the Phra Mae Prachak Church in the central Thai province of Suphan Buri on Oct. 26, 2019

Thai Catholics of Vietnamese descent carrying a cross ahead of Pope Francis' visit to Thailand, outside the Phra Mae Prachak Church in the central Thai province of Suphan Buri on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photo: AFP)

Published on: September 19, 2022 03:49 AM

Part I

The Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) inaugurated its golden jubilee celebrations at the Shrine of Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd at Kitamrung, Thailand, on Aug. 20. The past 50 years have been incredible years to be etched in golden letters in the history of Asian Christianity.

Asian Christians will see a large number of bishops assemble in Bangkok for more than two weeks, Oct 12-30. Is not the jubilee a great occasion to take stock of the past and reorientate this institution toward the future?

As someone who delivered the keynote address at FABC plenary Assemblies in Tokyo (1986) and Bandung (1990) and who served as secretary of the FABC Office of Theological Concerns for over a decade, it is for me a happy occasion to recall what has been and also turn my gaze toward the future.

What have been some of the significant achievements of this transnational ecclesial body? They are too many to enumerate. But I would like to highlight just three — the most striking ones with enduring impact.

First, FABC has helped in the maturation process of the Asian local churches, each in its own way, by creating bonds of communion and exchange among them, breaking the isolation of these churches of the past missionary era.

As a result, there has come about a sharp consciousness of the distinct Asian identity of the churches in the region and a growing awareness of shared history and culture that go back millennia.

"Most forms of the theology of religion in the West evolved in conceptual terms, with a comparative religious approach"

There is now a common resolve to foster Christian life, mission, and engagement in the Asian multireligious and multicultural situation and the evolving socio-political contexts of the Asian continent.

The growing self-confidence of Asian bishops, thanks to FABC, could be sensed in the preparation and deliberations of the Asian Synod, Rome, in 1998. 

Second, the FABC has contributed to developing a theology of religion and dialogue in a very distinct way rooted in Asian experience and history.

Most forms of the theology of religion in the West evolved in conceptual terms, with a comparative religious approach. They fell far short of what Asians practice and understand by religion.

Theology of religion warranted further consideration and, indeed, a fresh rethinking of revelation and the vocation of other religions in the divine economy of salvation. It meant conjuring up a different framework that is Asian and experiential.

The very first document of the FABC Office of Theological Concerns was the formulation of "Theses on Interreligious Dialogue.” It captured the spirit and mood of the FABC and formulated a distinct Asian theological approach to the task of inter-religious dialogue.

Highlighting the global significance of the FABC's effort, I would say it has set a different paradigm in the theology of religion and dialogue, whose significance, I think, is now gradually being realized in the West and in other parts of the world. 

This was achieved despite unfortunate events that cast a long shadow on the Asian continent. I cannot refrain from referring to the ex-communication of an Asian activist — Tissa Balasuriya — for his theological statements, which hardly anybody noted. In hindsight, it looks like shadow-boxing.

Then there is the well-known case of Father Jacques Dupuis S.J., whose theological vision was shaped through Asian experiences but was misunderstood. My question is, what did the FABC do? It was a mute spectator, whereas it could have played the role of mediator and provided necessary clarifications to sort out the issues involved.

This has been done by many other episcopal conferences. I think this silence of the FABC when it should have played a crucial role is a blot on its credibility. Great, if the FABC learns a hard lesson to do a role of responsible mediation in the future.

"Again instead of playing a leadership role by clarifying its vision and orientation candidly, the FABC went into a theological quarantine,"

The other unfortunate incident is the remarks by the highest authorities in the Church on Buddhism, which were perceived as derogatory and unenlightened. That reminds me of the memorable words of Karl Rahner that we do know from history and experience that even the highest authority in the Church is not free from error.

From the 1990 Plenary Assembly in Bandung, the central administration of the Church turned its close attention to the FABC, whose vision and orientation, especially regarding the theology of religion, mission and dialogue, began to be viewed with suspicion.

Again instead of playing a leadership role by clarifying its vision and orientation candidly, the FABC went into a theological quarantine, apparently very intimidated. Unfortunately, it does not seem to have recovered fully from this shock that led to self-isolation and intellectual sclerosis.  

Despite such shadows, the FABC has made its mark as a transnational ecclesial body with a decisive and singular contribution on the interreligious front. It has led the universal Church to rethink its traditional theology of religion and dialogue. The FABC’s theological perspectives have even seeped into the magisterial documents of Rome. We are beginning to see its impact today.

Third, the FABC's understanding of the Church and its mission in the light of the Kingdom of God served as a bridge for collaboration to transform the world with peoples of other religions and goodwill.

The fact that the Kingdom of God is larger than the Church and cannot be identified with it allows ample spaces for dialogue and cooperation with peoples of other faiths and bodies involved in regenerating society and the world.

As a result, there has come about an exhilarating and contextual understanding of the Christian mission, despite efforts to impose on Asia an account of the mission of colonial vintage. Asia being a potpourri of both religions and cultures forms a unique lab for evangelization with rather than an evangelization to.

As if responding to such efforts at imposition, the Japanese bishops said candidly and forthright in their submission for the Asian Synod, “Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but in Asia, before stressing that Jesus Christ is the Truth, we must search much more deeply into how he is the Way and the Life. If we stress too much that ‘Jesus Christ is the One and Only Savior,’ we can have no dialogue, common living, or solidarity with other religions. The Church learning from the kenosis — self-emptying — of Jesus Christ, should be humble and open its heart to other religions to deepen its understanding of the Mystery of Christ.” 

I think kenosis is a crucial concept for understanding dialogue and mission in Asia, and it would appear that the Japanese bishops hit the nail on the head.

"Mission in Asia will be pursued on the horizon of the ultimate meaning of the presence of the Church in the world, in society, and among people"

Speaking of mission, I learn, in the context of the FABC jubilee celebrations, one tends to talk about the need to pass on from a "mission Church" and become a “missionary Church.”

If it is understood that we have become a Church no longer dependent abroad for our mission work and are missionaries unto ourselves, it is fine. However, this well-meant distinction could also be a flawed one.

For, it seems to operate from the binary thinking of colonial and post-colonial. Accordingly, we in Asia were "mission Churches" in colonial times. Now that we have grown, we have become a Church that sends missionaries to other parts of the world, and hence, a "missionary Church."

Such a distinction is relatively marginal and off the mark from the principal trajectory of mission and its re-conception by the FABC in the light of the differentiation of the Church from the Kingdom of God.

Mission in Asia will be pursued on the horizon of the ultimate meaning of the presence of the Church in the world, in society, and among people.

Documents such as Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II on the Church in the Modern World, Evangelii Nuntiandi of Pope Paul VI, and Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis are to be read and assimilated for furthering the Kingdom-centered practice of mission in Asia, and the 50th anniversary of the FABC is a beautiful occasion for that.

"The vision, insights, and initiative generated by this triple engine of FABC percolated other offices and contributed to their flourishing"

The dynamism of the FABC comes from its various offices. This body's health and growth depend significantly on how effectively they function. Each of the multiple offices of the FABC has contributed significantly to the organization's overall growth. If I were to single out for special commendation, I would think of three offices:

First and foremost is the Office of Human Development, whose contribution has been remarkable, thanks to great thinkers like Bishop Julio Labayen and Bishop Francis Claver of the Philippines, Cardinal Soter Fernandes of Malaysia, and Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar, inspiring this office.

Another most active and creative office has been: the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue, which relentlessly pursued a vigorous Asian trajectory for interreligious understanding, thanks to its long-time secretary Father Poulet-Mathis S.J. and the chairperson, the great Archbishop Angelo Fernandes, and later Archbishop Felix Machado.

Furthermore, it cooperated with the Protestant body of the Christian Conference of Asia in the common task of interreligious dialogue. To this, we must add a most productive body — the Office of Theological Concerns — with some landmark documents such as the one on dialogue, local Churches, Church and politics, the Spirit in Asia, and Asian theological methodology. 

The vision, insights, and initiative generated by this triple engine of FABC percolated other offices and contributed to their flourishing. Finally, it should be acknowledged that some of the most innovative initiatives took place through the hard work and encouragement of Archbishop Henry D'Souza of Calcutta, who served quite a long time as the secretary of the FABC.

Part II 

* Father Felix Wilfred is a Catholic theologian based in Chennai, India. He has been a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and a visiting professor at several international universities. A former secretary of the theological advisory committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), the 74-year-old priest was also president of the International Theological Review Concilium published in seven European language editions. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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