A Roman Catholic priest gives a blessing to a devotee during a confession on Easter Sunday outside the Holy Redeemer Church in Bangkok on April 12, 2020.(Photo: AFP)
The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) was established in 1970 and 2020 was its golden jubilee year. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the celebrations were postponed. They will take place this October 12 to 30 in the pastoral center of Bangkok Archdiocese in Thailand. Representatives of the 19 country members will attend.
The theme of the general conference is “Journeying Together as Peoples of Asia … and they went a different way” [Mt 2.12]. The Biblical allusion is to the return of the Magi to their respective countries after adoring the Christ Child.
The quotation implies two ideas: a return “home,” that is, to discover oneself anew; and a return “together,” a reference to synodality, a keyword in the Church today.
The FABC is well aware of the changing realities both within each Church, as well as from the global environment, as the Church turns from being a “mission church” to a “missionary Church.”
Indeed the mission history of the Church in Asia ante-dates Francis Xavier and goes back to the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew, and even, as some may claim, to the heterodox patriarch Nestorius.
The major expansion of Christianity however took place from the 16th century on, which is when various European religious orders seized the initiative in planting local Churches. Thus we remember Mateo Ricci, Joao de Brito, Alexandre de Rhodes, Jose Vaz and several others.
"The small numbers of Catholics in almost every member of FABC, except the Philippines, are a source of anxiety"
Today these Churches have grown and stabilized so well that it is South Asian Catholics, be they priests, sisters, or lay people, who are a presence of the faith in other parts of the world.
Though anomalies remain: the large mass of the People’s Republic of China is not part of the FABC; nor are various dioceses in West Asia, largely within the Islamic sphere of political influence.
So though there is certainly cause for celebration, there are also reasons for concern. And what are these?
The small numbers of Catholics in almost every member of FABC, except the Philippines, are a source of anxiety, as they are prey to persecution and harassment.
Religious identity has become a determinant in many countries of Asia, which have turned into majoritarian regimes, or theocratic nations. Christians are not always a powerful or influential minority, and so are quickly reduced to second-class citizenship.
India, for instance, which for long was a secular democratic republic, is now rapidly turning into a Hindu majoritarian autocracy.
"One must begin to deal with all women in a spirit of justice and equality of opportunity"
But probably the gravest areas of concern are internal, affecting Church structure and constituency.
As the reports of the group, Future Church, clearly indicate, young people and women are leaving the Church in droves, put off both by its deeply flawed teachings rejected by the sensus fidelium (sense of the faith), and by the patriarchal dominance of the hierarchy which excludes women from all significant administrative and ministerial roles.
Many ask whether the Church actually needs clerical ordination as the key to occupying a place in its structures of leadership. How vital therefore to de-link ordination and jurisdiction, but this very issue meets strong resistance from both clergy and hierarchy.
To reimagine the place of women in the Asian Church, one must begin to deal with all women in a spirit of justice and equality of opportunity. Feminism is a growing reality in our world, and it is sad that the Church is largely out of sync with it.
Hitherto bishops in the Church have always commanded respect and obedience from the faithful. It is unfortunate that this respect has been largely undermined because of the sexual scandals of the clergy, and the aristocratic lifestyle of so many bishops. In fact, bishops are seen as the main obstacle to synodality and ecclesial reform.
Can bishops be trained? A difficult question, really. The Church has a seminary system of some 7-8 years to train young men intellectually and pastorally, but nothing like this exists for bishops.
"Dysfunctional governance is the single most important malaise in the Catholic Church everywhere"
Apart from a few “intensive courses” of a week’s duration for new bishops, it has done little to educate these, its most senior office-bearers.
As one French bishop put it, “We are expected to be gifted in finance, in management practices, and to be good pastors as well as excellent communicators … and all this at the age of fifty-five. Impossible!”
Well, impossible or not, this is a task entrusted to those appointed to "oversee" (episcopacy) the running of the Church.
For as the lay group, Future Church, has indicated, dysfunctional governance is the single most important malaise in the Catholic Church everywhere. Far too many bishops see their roles as autocratic in nature and seek little or no engagement with the people in their dioceses.
Just a moment’s reflection tells us that the world is changing rapidly: the digital revolution, mass migration, and climate catastrophe are some “signs of the times.”
In the Church, the presence of a pope called Francis is one such sign, and so is his initiative: synodality.
Will the bishops of Asia seize the moment to launch a process of self-discovery, “returning home by a different way?” Will they take their respective laity along with them, as synodality demands? Their time of decision is now.
*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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