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Synod offers hope for church in Southeast Asia

Catholics hope gathering will help strengthen families, reinforce teachings

Synod offers hope for church in Southeast Asia

'What's very clear is that the attacks on the family are intensifying,' says Jose Tale, chairman of the Philippine chapter of Couples for Christ, which took part in preparatory meetings for the October synod. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)

Published: September 28, 2015 07:28 AM GMT

Updated: September 28, 2015 03:44 PM GMT

The 14th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will be taking place Oct. 4–25 at the Vatican. More than 360 participants, including 18 married couples from around the world, are expected to attend and discuss "the vocation and mission of the family in the church and in the contemporary world." In a series of features, ucanews.com explores the pastoral problems and challenges of contemporary families throughout the regions we cover. Today's feature examines Southeast Asia.

Jose Tale is a lawyer with a lucrative job for a multinational company. His wife, Babylou, works in a bank. 

Theirs is a love story that blossomed during their childhood in the sleepy town of Dumaguete in the central Philippine province of Negros Oriental, where they had no doubt their love eventually would bring them before the altar of the Lord.

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Career and opportunities for growth brought the young couple to Manila in the 1980s, and in 1986, Joe and Babylou were invited to join the Couples for Christ.

At first the happy and prosperous couple felt no desire to join the organization. "We had everything," Joe Tale said. But the call was persistent, and the couple relented to the invitation.

"I ran out of reasons ... That's when I guess the Holy Spirit really touched us. There's so much to learn and so much to improve on," he said.

Some 29 years later, Tale now heads the international Catholic lay ecclesial movement Couples for Christ, the only one in Asia out of the 122 global groups given recognition by the Vatican.

The organization joined preparatory meetings for the Synod of Bishops on the family this coming October, but Joe was unsure of how much "institutional influence" the group will have.

He is, however, confident that the Catholic family is in good hands with Pope Francis' emphasis on the role of the laity and the family in his recent pronouncements.

"In practice, [the pope] is even giving the laity bigger roles," Tale said.


Crisis in the family

There will be issues at the synod that can cloud the meeting, especially when it comes to realities on the ground. 

"We see that there are crises within families. There are separations," said Bishop Fransiscus Kopong Kung of Larantuka, head of the Indonesian bishops' Commission for Family.

"We, as a church, have concerns," he said, adding that the upcoming synod "will speak about the most important unit within the life of the church and society."

Bishop Kopong Kung said the church has to find ways and solutions to the challenges being faced by families "in the context of pastoral work."

The prelate noted that in Indonesia, local customs play a significant role in marriage. He said the challenge for the church is convincing Catholic couples to get married in the church.

"It doesn't mean that the local custom is eliminated," he said.

The Indonesian bishop said another "challenge" is the prevalence of mixed marriages.

"We see that it has been a reality which we have to face pastorally. How do we deal with it so that we don't reject it even though it's not ideal?" said Bishop Kopong Kung.


Expectations from the ground

A month before the bishops' meeting in Rome, expectations have been raised on the diocesan level across the Southeast Asia region.

Father Hyginus Myint Soe, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Yangon, wants the requirements and obligations for remarried Catholics to be clarified.

"We expect more guidance from the synod," said Father Myint Soe.

He noted that there were "diminishing family values" in Myanmar due to poverty and injustice brought about by the country's political and economic upheaval.

"The family is a domestic church and a foundation for evangelization, so it's crucial to promote family values," he said.

A particular issue for Myanmar are controversial laws related to race and religion.  

"The church needs to study these laws and carry out an education plan for Catholics," the priest said.

In Cambodia, where a small Catholic community is trying to rebuild after nearly being wiped out during the genocidal Khmer Rouge years, the synod will not have much of an impact on the ground, explained Father Antonysamy Susairaj, apostolic administrator of Kompong Cham.

"In Cambodian society the church is a very minuscule church. This church life is not what the synod will talk about at all."

"Here, people focus on how they're going to do their studies, whether they can find jobs, how they're going to do their jobs: these are the discussions of the developing country," he said.

Leaders of various faith groups lead the celebration of the anniversary of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 2013. (Photo by Roy Lagarde)


Another reality that affects Asian families is migration.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila described it as "a different type of separation."

"It's not separation that's 'good riddance' but separation with pain," he said. 

"So we ask, 'What kind of pastoral care can we give for the [contract] workers to remain faithful to their families ... and what can we do for those left behind?'"

The Couples for Christ has tried to confront the issue of migration head on. 

"We have to reach out to [migrant families] without relaxing on the teachings of the church," Joe Tale said, adding that it has been common for some migrants to start new families in other countries.


Relevance of the synod

Tale said the coming synod has become doubly important for lay people like him who are involved in the church's family renewal movement.

"It's very timely," he said, in light of recent developments in issues related to the family.

Tale expects that the synod will come up with an "updated guide for marriage and family" that will help Catholics respond to recent developments concerning issues like same-sex unions and divorce, among others.

"What's very clear is that the attacks on the family are intensifying," Tale said, adding that new guidelines are needed.

Bishop Gilbert Garcera of Daet, head of the Philippine bishops' Commission on Family and Life, said the synod is an "occasion for people of Asia ... to be listened to."

The prelate said Asian delegates will present "the hope that the world needs, that is, there are still many Asian couples and young people witnessing Christian family values."


No changes

Bishop Kopong Kung said that there will be no changes in the church's teachings on marriage even with present realities like divorce and same-sex unions.

"We don't talk about being softer. But we talk about pastoral work," the prelate said, adding that the church "still highly holds its official teaching."

There are pastoral challenges, he said, like Communion for separated or remarried Catholics. 

"We can't see them being excluded from the church. They are also members of the church that have problems," Bishop Kopong Kung said.

The synod will have to address these challenges and realities. "We talk about pastoral praxis. What should we do for such families?"

"God's charity is open to everyone. The pastoral praxis can be varied in accordance with cases each family faces," the prelate said.      

Father Yohanes Purbo Tamtomo of the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Jakarta said "the challenge is to develop a pastoral counseling [program] for families."

He said the church already has a program to prepare couples for marriage "but it's like teaching them how to swim."

"After they get married, they are let go. We need ongoing formation for the families," he said.

With reports from John Zaw in Mandalay, Katharina Lestari in Jakarta, Roy Lagarde in Manila and Abby Seiff in Phnom Penh.


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