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Women can help Asian Church in ‘expanding the tent’

But very few of them knew about the synodal process taking place in Bangkok last month
The three-day Asian Continental Assembly on Synodality underway at the Baan Phu Waan (The Sower’s House) Pastoral Training Centre of the Bangkok Archdiocese in Thailand on Feb. 24

The three-day Asian Continental Assembly on Synodality underway at the Baan Phu Waan (The Sower’s House) Pastoral Training Centre of the Bangkok Archdiocese in Thailand on Feb. 24. ((Photo: bangkok.synod2023.org)

Published: March 14, 2023 11:33 AM GMT
Updated: March 14, 2023 11:33 AM GMT

The recently concluded Continental Assembly for Asia, the second step in the synodal process, was a non-event for the people of God in Asia.  Was the document for the continental stage (DCS) even shared with the people of God in Asia?  To my knowledge, the people were largely oblivious to the whole synodal process.

Back in 1991, the Asian bishops had articulated their vision for the Church in Asia and described it as “a communion of communities,” where “laity, religious and clergy recognize and accept each other as sister and brothers,” (FABC V, 8.1.1) in a participatory and co-responsible Church.

A lot of work was put in by the Office of Laity to train the laity to adjust to this model of the Church which was adopted by most of the Ecclesiastical Conferences. Women were the majority of leaders in the SCCs (small Christian communities). However, the momentum towards that vision was lost with the closing down of the desk in the Office of Laity that promoted this vision of the Church. The Church in Asia slid backward to being a patriarchal and hierarchal institution. 

Globally, however, the People of God have been gathering in virtual communities, reflecting, and discerning as they felt called by the Spirit. I share some reflections here.

“The hope for the future of the Catholic Church lies in the empowerment of all the baptized to be the Body of Christ together in the world, and for the world,” stated Dr. Elissa Roper, an Australian theologian, as she addressed about 100 Catholics gathered online on March 9, in answer to the question put to her by the Catholic Women’s Council, “Is the synodal process expanding or shrinking the tent for women?”

"Is the big inclusive tent willing to change its attitudes and structures to include women pushed to the peripheries?"

“The tent is a space of communion, a place of participation and foundation for the mission. All the baptized are co-responsible for the one mission of the Church, the one Misssio Dei,” stated Dr. Philomena Mwaura, a theologian from Kenya.

The metaphor of the ‘tent’ is used in the title of the DCS of the synodal process, “Enlarge the Space of your Tent.”

The tent is a wonderful metaphor for ‘Church.’ It can be small enough to accommodate a family or a neighborhood community, and large enough to cover a field to welcome all. As Dr. Roper pointed out, “My hope is that we will stretch the metaphor of ‘tent’ beyond our parish or diocese model; that we may perceive the many tents of our family life, local community, our shared tent as women mercied by God, and the tent of our own hearts, minds, and spirits. May we learn to “not hold back” as we “enlarge the site of our tent.”

However, to convert our current model of a patriarchal and hierarchical Church to the open model of a ‘tent,’ we have to overcome a number of obstacles.

Dr. Mwaura asks “can the Church in Africa provide spaces for radical inclusion when women, young people, and children who still bear the brunt of clerical abuse of power when women are still excluded from power and decision-making? While certain categories of women continue to be denied Holy Communion? Is the big inclusive tent willing to change its attitudes and structures to include women pushed to the peripheries? How soon will this inclusion of all take place?” 

Her question for Africa is echoed by women everywhere!

“For synodality to be a realistic hope it involves a two-pronged approach: 1. The replacement of clericalism and hierarchy with synodality. 2. Sharing our renewed life of friendship and collaboration [with each other and God] in wider and wider circles. Going forth from the tent we call the Catholic Church into the wider, all-encompassing tent of God,” Dr. Roper asserted.

Dr. Rafael Luciani, appointed as Expert of the Theological Commission of the General Secretariat for the Synod of Bishops, spoke of the need for a New Ecclesial Culture. He made a difference between decision-making and decision-taking. 

Decision-making is a process that involves the communities or Small Christian Communities (SCC) as we know them. Shared decision-making is taking guidance from the communities for decision-taking. Working from the bottom to the top and giving back to the people at the base, is the culture that is practiced in the Church in Latin America. The synodal process was executed in the same way. 

He pointed out that CELAM has fostered the creation of an Ecclesial Conference.  Each community has a representative on the Parish Pastoral Council, elected by the community.  From the parish, representatives are sent to the diocesan council and then to the National Pastoral Council.

"Women’s leadership can help in the inculturation of the Asian Church towards dialogue and expanding the tent, in Asia"

The synodal process in India was a silent process that took place without the knowledge of the majority of the baptized. I did not know who my parish representatives were at the diocesan gathering. I recently asked a gathering of about 350 women in the Diocese of Bombay on women’s day about how many of them had heard of the synodal process taking place in the Church. Only about 15 put their hands up! 

Yet synodality means “Communion, walking together, participation together in the mission of the Church.”

All three theologians emphasize the responsibility of every baptized person in the mission of the Church.  All the baptized receive the power of the Holy Spirit.  “Restricting the involvement of women restricts the action of the Spirit in the conversion of clericalism,” explained Dr. Roper.

Dr. Mwaura points to the need for inculturation: “Since women play significant and prominent roles in the religious heritage of the people of Africa, this ought to be brought to bear on any attempt to inculturate the Catholic identity holistically.”   

In Asia, the bishops discerned that community and hospitality are central to Asian life.  Women’s leadership can help in the inculturation of the Asian Church towards dialogue and expanding the tent, in Asia. But how many women were present at the Asian Continental Stage which was themed “Expanding the Tent!”

The Covid lockdown gave women the opportunity to be ministers of Christ to people around in various forms of outreach and online liturgical celebrations that kept our faith vibrant and alive. As Dr. Roper concluded, “We are together the Body of Christ in the world, and for the world. Remembering that the Spirit is already working to enlarge the tents of our minds, hearts, and spirits.” 

*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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1 Comments on this Story
What Virginia says about Mumbai is true for the rest of India. The synodal process was either hush hush or conducted by carefully selected persons that were not reflective of the pulse of the people. It was with great difficulty that I was able to obtain a copy of the National Synthesis of the CCBI Latin Rite in India. The Church in India Seminar in 1969 was far more embracing, inclusive and forthright than the present synodal process. We have slid backwards, because a deeply entrenched hierarchy and clergy resists change and the need to come out of their comfort zones.
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