More lay representation would have been ideal but in this period of transition, even the limited participation was a blessing
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay (third from right) is pictured during the discussion session with other delegates at the Asian Synodal Assembly, Thailand on Feb. 24, 2023. (Photo: bangkok.synod2023.org)
The Second Vatican Council's document Lumen Gentium (light of the nations) clearly taught that the Church consists of all the baptized, not just the clergy.
The return to this conciliar concept surely is a powerful antidote to the recent discoveries of clerical domination and abuse in almost all spheres of ecclesial life.
In fact, the unprecedented opposition to this papal initiative even from within the Church — mostly from a powerful lobby of a vociferous clerical minority — is a clear sign that they are set to lose all the undue and excessive power and authority they had been used to wielding unjustly over the laity within the Church.
One characteristic of the current worldwide synodal process is to get all the baptized — the bishops, priests, religious and laity — involved in the ecclesial decision-making processes.
The unprecedented consultation of the baptized at grassroots levels on crucially important ecclesial issues was modeled for the harnessing of the sensus fidei fidelium (the sense of the faith of the believers) as it was done in the early Christian communities as we find in the New Testament, especially in the Acts of the Apostles.
This consultation — in the form of a questionnaire — thus, was uniquely novel in the sense that it was a process that began from the lowest rungs of the Church hierarchy — from the parish or ecclesial communities spread all over the world.
Those responses of the ecclesial grassroots were collected and sent to Rome by the bishops' conferences in each country by August 2022.
In September-October 2022, they were read word-for-word by the theological commission (consisting of members from all five continents) of the Secretariat for Synodality based at Frascati, and they were collated as they were (without any editing or interpretation as such), thus, formulating what was called “the Continental Stage Document” (CSD) which was approved by the special commission of cardinals and bishops drawn from all over the world.
It was this CSD that was sent to the seven zones of the world known as “continents”, namely, North America, South America, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Oceania for further discussion and discernment.
The two-day Asian continental stage of the synodal process concluded on Feb. 26 at Samphran, Thailand with an ecclesial assembly consisting of delegates from all the episcopal conferences of Asia.
Although the churches in Asia are used to episcopal assemblies, this is the first time (since the early centuries) that an ecclesial assembly of all the People of God was held in Asia.There were some 80 Asian participants from the 29 countries that constitute the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC). They consisted of all strata of the People of God — six cardinals, five archbishops, 18 bishops, 28 priests, four nuns and 19 laypersons (seven men and 12 women).
Their task was to read the draft entitled “The Asian Continental Final Document” prepared by a drafting team of nine persons (six priests, one layman and two lay women) after having read and discerned prayerfully the responses of the Asian bishops conferences to the CSD.
The draft served as an open-ended framework for reflection and discernment during the Assembly.
What was most inspiring during the whole assembly was how after each input and discussion, the delegates were asked to spend time in the chapel to reflect prayerfully on what they had heard.
Moreover, the delegates were divided into 12 small groups in which everyone had the opportunity to share his/her views, which were reported to the plenary by the secretary of each group.
At the end of a few interventions within these small groups, a two-minute silence was maintained in order to allow the Holy Spirit to speak and also to discern His voice. It was not only an experience of listening to what the Holy Spirit was telling the Churches in Asia, but also of discerning what His will for Asia really was.
As is evident from the meticulously arranged ecclesial dynamics (among the people of God) described above, the main aim of the current worldwide synodal process is to harness as much as possible the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through all the baptized.
As such, what was discerned prayerfully at the assembly with the involvement of all the participants, will now be collated and put together into the final Asian document by the same drafting and discerning group (who were unanimously endorsed by the assembly to do so), which will later be approved by the Central Committee of the FABC.
It is this particular document that will serve the drafters of the instrumentum laboris for the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2023.
True to the authentic synodal spirit, there was no vote taking to decide on various issues in a modern democratic sense, but everything was approved through consensus. It would have been ideal if the lay representation in the entire dynamics, especially at the Asian continental stage, were to be much higher because almost 99 percent of the Church membership consists of the laity.However, we should not forget that this is a period of transition in enhancing the lay participation in the Church, and in that sense, the Asian Ecclesial Assembly surely demonstrated great promise for the future of churches in Asia.
Sri Lankan Redemptorist Father Vimal Tirimanna is a leading Asian theologian, who teaches theology at the Pontifical Accademia Alfonsiana in Rome. The 67-year-old professor associated with the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) is also a member of the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat for the Synod 2021-2024.
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