A decorated boat carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary sailing on a river in a procession by Thai Catholics of Vietnamese descent in the central Thai province of Suphan Buri, ahead of Pope Francis' visit to Thailand, on Oct. 26, 2019. (Photo: AFP)
This is part II of a two-part article
The heritage of the first three decades of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) has served as a sure point of reference. But unfortunately, the last two decades have turned FABC into a part of the maintenance Church with few creative impulses, ideas, and initiatives.
The generation of tall Asian bishops with far-sighted vision has given way to a sluggish, mediocre, and pallid status quo leadership. It is careful to maintain its power-hold and consequently fearful of new ideas and impulses. Such insights and inspirations are judiciously excluded and kept out.
So, far from being a source emanating continuously new energy and vision, the theological fountains of FABC seem to be drying up fast. How sad!
Looking ahead, I see at least five significant challenges that FABC needs to address urgently and in a prophetic spirit.
First, there are the political realities. I mean, the relationship between the Church and state in several countries cannot but be a matter of serious concern.
We think of countries such as mainland China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea. In South Asia, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are not far from authoritarianism. And then there are several Churches in central Asia that are struggling Churches.
Authoritarianism and totalitarianism of various hues are major issues that FABC needs to face in the coming years in its relationship with the state. This calls for a prophetic presence of the Asian Churches, not Churches bending backward to draw some smallish benefits for themselves and their institutions.
An entrenched clerical Church, unfortunately, will not be able to face the political issues of the continent. It requires absolutely the involvement of all Christian faithful. Small negotiated band-aid settlements could bring about temporary relief for the Church establishment without addressing the root causes.
The willingness of several church leaders to serve as the acolytes of totalitarian powers for short gains does not augur well for the Church in Asia. Not only the clerics, as they could quickly get drawn into power politics, but the entire local Church needs to reflect on the political situation of their respective countries.
Sometimes these pusillanimous leaders are willing to stay silent in the face of oppression and injustice to avoid getting on the wrong side of an authoritarian Government. Again, this provides short-term but illusory safety. They surrender the opportunity to be prophets with sign value.
Here again is the difference the earlier generation of inspiring leaders of FABC made, like Cardinal Jaime Sin, Cardinal Stephen Kim, Cardinal Soter Fernandez, Cardinal Stephen Hamao and the like.
The second issue is the growing inequality between the poor and the marginalized. What an irony, the second richest man in the world today is from one of the poorest countries of Asia, India, and that is the latest revelation of Forbes.
I see it as a metaphor for what is happening in Asia with wealth accumulation by a few and an abysmal negation of dignified life for millions of Asians.
According to an Oxfam Report, in 2017, 73 percent of the wealth created went to just one percent of India’s population. As many studies show, less inequality in societies reduces the chances of violence and increases prospects of peace and well-being.
The challenge of inequality needs to be addressed by Asian Churches in collaboration with people of other religions and new social movements.
A third challenge is human rights violations – of women, children, Dalits, migrants, refugees, unorganized laborers, domestic help, tribal, indigenous people and others. The dignity of the human person and the pursuit of the common good are integral parts of the Gospel, and they have been the bedrock of the social teachings of the Church.
Asian Churches need to get cracking on this intractable issue of human rights violations so rampant in Asia, especially with growing authoritarianism.
Fourth, one of the most bio-diverse worlds is here in Asia. The degradation of nature in the name of development is something pervasive. The vast network of Asian Churches, inspired by bodies such as FABC, should embark on concrete action to save the poor, whose lot is inextricably tied to a sustainable environment.
Asian Churches, with their extensive network, could contribute to addressing this burning issue. Will the jubilee of FABC be an occasion for the bishops to listen to the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth?
The fifth and final challenge, which will help address the four other issues, is to make FABC genuinely function in the spirit of synodality.
There needs to be constant exchange with the people of God, their faith, aspirations, dreams for the Church, and seeking of their deliberation and active participation. I wonder to what extent the spirit of synodality was there in preparing for the jubilee of FABC.
Only an FABC, functioning in the spirit of synodality and ensuring a more significant role to the people of God, will be in a far better position to face the other four challenges I mentioned.
The motto of the jubilee celebration reads, "Journeying together as Peoples of Asia… They went a different way” (Mt 2:12). If there is no real connection with the grassroots of the Church, what will happen is – to tweak the jubilee motto a bit – the people will journey together, and the prelates will go a different way!
I think FABC has a lot to learn from other transnational ecclesial bodies such as the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SESCAM), which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of foundation in 2019.
A beautiful example of how people were involved in thinking together with the leaders is the example of the conference at Aparecida, Brazil, of CELAM in which then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio played a crucial role. It was a collective effort of the entire Latin American Church.
Medellin, Puebla, and Aparecida have been landmark assemblies of CELAM, which tried to renew the Christian faith, mission and pastoral practices of an entire continent and continue to be sources of renewal for the people of God.
One of the most outstanding achievements of CELAM was that it empowered the people of God in their participation in the socio-political life of their countries and in the life and mission of the Church.
FABC has the opportunity to combine courage and creativity in fashioning a model that fully involves the Christian faithful, brings women into the heart of leadership and shifts away from a hierarchical model that will reflect the spirit of synodality.
Speaking of the future of FABC, it is important that such transnational episcopal bodies do not remain simply a source of inspiration – which could easily become a talking shop – but needs to be also endowed with greater theological and juridical status.
It, of course, depends upon the overall change in the universal Church and how much the central administration of the Church is ready to acknowledge a juridical status for such bodies as FABC. Without it, FABC would remain toothless. For, as we know many prelates are weary of any binding on them since they would like to exercise absolute power in their respective dioceses. Without a certain juridical binding force, FABC will lose its effectiveness, and all its bold vision could remain simply a pipe dream.
A second point to consider is that the day-to-day management of this organization requires a vibrant secretariat with a sufficient number of human resources. In this connection, I have been wondering whether Hong Kong is the right place for the administration of FABC to continue, with the Damocles' sword hanging over its head for the free exercise of its duties.
I mean, with the Chinese Communist Party entirely in control of Hong Kong, it would be increasingly difficult for FABC to function effectively in that city. The quicker a decision is made to transfer the secretariat, the better for FABC.
Further, experience has shown that FABC is effective to the extent its offices are proactive and come out with innovative ideas and projects. It would be necessary then to choose really the right kind of secretaries who will also do the work full-time.
A final point I wish to add is the importance of communication. The people of God, even some bishops, know relatively little about FABC, its vision, activities, history and documents. One of our bishops even thought FABC means Far Asian Broadcasting Corporation!!
As of now, little effort is made to bring the vision of FABC to the life of the people of God. The youth of Asia born and brought up after Vatican II do not know anything much about the inspiration behind FABC and its vision and functioning.
To cite a most recent example, we know that the bishops will gather for about two weeks in Bangkok to celebrate the 50th anniversary of FABC. Yet, there is hardly any information on the schedule, program, dynamics, or speakers. The people of God are in darkness as to what the bishops will do, and they have a right to know.
I searched frantically for information on this, and it is not available even on FABC's official website. I am afraid a shroud of secretiveness seems to cover the organization of the jubilee event.
We wish that the gathering of the bishops of Asia in early October in Bangkok does not become yet another clerical fanfare and carousel at a huge expense but becomes genuinely an occasion to insightfully reflect and discern with the entire people of God the future course of the Asian Churches.
* 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.