The synodal experience has a positive effect on Asian Church
Father Clarence Devadass is a member of the Asian delegation to the Oct. 4-29 Synod on Synodality being held at the Vatican. The 57-year-old diocesan priest and theologian from Malaysia is the director of the Catholic Research Center (CRC) in Kuala Lumpur. Since 2005, he has also been involved with the Office of Theological Concerns of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC). He was a member of the organizing team of the Asian Continental Synod Assembly held in the Thai capital Bangkok in February that also drafted the final continental document presented to the Synod Secretariat.
Father Devadass, who is now in Rome to attend the Synod Assembly, recently spoke to Eglises d’Asie (Asian Churches), a French-language publication of the Paris Foreign Mission Society (MEP).
How did the first week of the Synod in Rome go?
We had a retreat before the opening of the Synod and it was a good way to start as it gave everyone a good state of mind. Many of us did not know each other and this retreat was an opportunity for us to meditate on the Word of God, to listen to the speaker and to remember that what we should do — it is not a ministerial or entrepreneurial plan, but it is entering into God's time and space.
During these three days of retreat, we listened to each other. In the experience of synodality shared by different countries, people and organizations, what I hear is that there is a lot of hope, with also some fears and worries about what will happen.Pope Francis himself says it; the Synod is not a parliament. It's not about voting for one thing or the other, but about discussing and listening to each other. For me, it is an opportunity to listen to the experiences of other countries and other continents. It gives us a broader vision of the entire Church.
What are the major topics in the final Asian Continental Synod document submitted to the Vatican?
The Asian continent is extremely large, from East Asia to Central Asia. However, we tried to identify commonalities. The first thing I would like to say is that the whole synodal experience has had a positive effect on the Church in Asia in general. People talked to themselves, the Church leaders spoke to them and consulted them, which brought out interesting opinions. Overall, we saw a feeling of joy, love, and deep respect for the Church.
Asian Catholics face various forms of difficulties, such as environmental issues, migration, internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees and economic inequalities. There is also the question of poverty, not only economic poverty but also digital poverty and spiritual poverty. There are also repressive governments in some Asian countries, where the practice of faith becomes difficult. In such countries, public space is considerably reduced, notably in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh.
In developed countries, there are also ideological issues, such as the secularization of society with new ideological developments such as the gender issue. We talked about how the Church in Asia finds its place in this context.
The pope seems to be very interested in Asia, where we see many conversions in some countries...
It's a little difficult to know what's in the mind of the pope, behind what pushes him to come so often to Asia. But regarding the conversions, we must understand one thing. Because of international migration, a good part of those who were once Christians in the West are now being evangelized by Christians from the East. Many Asians keep the faith alive in some of the oldest churches in the West. Filipino, Vietnamese and Indian migrant populations are at the heart of many Western churches today.
Former mission lands have begun to evangelize. I noticed this in a parish near London, where if you remove the Asians, Latin American immigrants and Africans, there are only elderly parishioners. We are a Church on a mission. In the midst of the difficulties we face, and even if people flee for economic reasons or asylum requests, we can see opportunities.
How is “contextual theology” relevant to Asia and to the “Asian” Church?
We have to be very careful when we talk about the Asian, African, European Church, etc. We must remember that we are one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church — the four pillars on which we build ourselves. But when we talk about the Asian Church, we are talking about an Asian mentality, an Asian context, which is very particular. For example, evangelism is very different in Western and Eastern Christianity. For example, consider India or Pakistan, where they have very repressive laws.
The Gospel is always the same, it is always there, but we must ask ourselves how to live it according to the context. When we talk about Asian contextual theology, we also think of interreligious dialogue which is very developed in Asia. We can't live without it. Because throughout Asia, except in the Philippines and East Timor (Timor Leste), Christians are a minority, sometimes forming less than 1 percent of the population. In Asia, we always look for harmony, it is part of our philosophy, and our way of being.
When it comes to inculturation, people often think about liturgy, but it's more about how one exists, and about how culture shapes the way of thinking. How to read the Gospel based on the signs of the times in Asia, and how we respond to them. In certain places, notably in my own country [Malaysia], it would be impossible to make direct proclamation, to stand up somewhere with the Bible in hand... The contexts are different. It is a question of how to include the Asian mentality in the reading of the Gospel, without changing a single comma.
What more you would like to share about the Synod?
People have high expectations of the synodal experience, which is normal. It is important, as the Holy Father said, to pause, to listen to what the Lord is saying because there are so many things happening in the world! We are too caught up in so many things. Our lives have become overwhelmed with too many concerns and worries. No one knows the future, and the pope tells us: “Let's pause, let's listen to each other.”
Some are hoping for a lot of change after this; I don't think that's the direction we're taking, not yet anyway. This is only the first part, the second will take place in October 2024. Now is the time to pause, listen to each other and understand what God is saying to each of us. I believe that is the point of this whole experience, as we are caught up in a world beset by so many distractions and attractions that sometimes we lose sight of what is important.
When Saint Peter was on the boat and told Jesus: “Order me to come to you.” He wanted to go to Jesus on the waters but as soon as he became aware of the strong wind, he began to sink and lost sight of him. I believe several things have led us to turn our eyes away from the mission of the Church, and the Holy Father invites us to look at Jesus again.
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