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 Global Perspective

August 23, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 16

John Prior, SVD
John Prior is a Divine Word Missionary who has been working in eastern Indonesia since 1973. He holds a doctorate in inter-cultural theology from Birmingham University in the United Kingdom and is a consultant with the Office of Evangelization of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences and with the Pontifical Council for Culture, Rome.



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Asian churches search for renewed inspiration
A personal reflection on the Asian bishops' meeting on the family

By John Prior, SVD

Majestic and elegant, the melody was carried by a single oboe which gently invited the other instruments to join in at the end of each phrase. This music from the Korean court of yesteryear created within us a sense of profound peace. Yet not long after attaining near absolute inner silence, we were woken from our ecstasy by jagged rhythms as improvised folk music, gradually increased in tempo in line with the urgent beat of a janggu drum. The evening climaxed with a vibrant, not to say ear-shattering, percussion quartet pounding out rustic music, the vivid rhythm driven by the players' ever-increasing enthusiasm.

The churches of Asia Gather
The Church in Asia Gathers
Theme: The Importance of Family in the Culture of Life
Aug. 17-22, 2004

Asian church leaders -- lay, clergy and religious -- met in South Korea in August 2004 to discuss issues around the official theme: "The Family Towards a Culture of Life" Read's daily coverage of the event here: Asian Meeting. The meeting was the 8th plenary assembly for the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences. Read the bishops' message.  Read the plenary's final statement

Within an hour we had moved from the "moonlight-on-water" harmony of the royal court to the thundering drums and percussion of the downtrodden minjung (oppressed). This concert, by the National Centre for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, mirrored the challenge facing the churches belonging to the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC): to survive contentedly as small, quiet pockets of Christianity set apart from wider society or boldly enter the drum-beat of Asia's masses who seek dignity and identity in an uncertain world.

The 181 participants of the FABC Eighth Plenary Assembly came from 22 Asian countries. There were six cardinals, 80 bishops, 35 priests and religious, both women and men, and 60 laypeople. Not represented were mainland China and Laos. Married couples, including one interfaith couple, rooted reflections in lived experience.

Four married lay theologians -- three of them women -- were present at Daejeon: Astrid Lobo Gajiwala of India, Balbina Lee Mi-young of Korea, and Agnes Brazal and Jose de Mesa of the Philippines.

Apart from the Philippines and East Timor, the Asian Churches are vibrant minorities living amidst majority Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian and secular communities. The assembly theme was "The Asian Family Towards a Culture of Life." The family is the meeting point of the dreams as well as the challenges of today.

There was no keynote address and no workshops. A single working paper was discussed over the week in regional groups. As Edmund Chia, a Malaysian theologian and coordinator of the assembly explained, "We want to be flexible and free to listen to God's Spirit speaking in and through the bishops. The program will be developed as the days progress and will be responsive to the immediate concerns and needs which the bishops discern as arising."

The programme altered day by day to allow the bishops to listen to one other and become aware of the hopes and challenges facing Asian families from Nepal to Indonesia, from Sri Lanka to Hong Kong. Understandably some bishops would have preferred a more predictable timetable, with many printed papers to take home for reference.

However, most were happy with the relaxed, informal "family" atmosphere where bishops were free to think through key issues and express themselves in their own languages in smaller groups.

Most participants agreed that the reflection on the Asian family has only just begun. The bishops listened to experiences beyond their own countries and have expressed their pastoral concerns. Now experts can accompany the bishops in thinking through the issues.

The working paper, written up by a team under the leadership of Archbishop Orlando Quevedo of the Philippines, had already gone through a number of drafts and been circulated to the 20 episcopal conferences at the beginning of 2004. After much input throughout the assembly, this 44-page document was approved on the final day. It is not so much a "Final Statement" as a springboard for further reflection on the Asian family in today's world.

How does it read 12 months later?

Following the usual "see-judge-act" approach of the FABC, the "Daejeon Statement" is divided into three main parts: Pastoral challenges; a theological-pastoral reflection and pastoral recommendations for family ministry.

The document pinpoints a number of Asian family values that live on in our post-modern world: "Asians continue to value marriage as sacred. Children are cherished as gifts of God… It is the elders that assure the family's cohesiveness … The hospitality of Asian families, even of the very poor, is proverbial. Despite many serious difficulties from within and without, Asian families have relatively high stability... With their deep religiosity and sense of the divine, they are effusively optimistic…"

However, all values are ambivalent. Family values are at once a living heritage to be passed on, and the root of much corruption where family is more important than civil society.

Then follows a long section on challenges: the poverty of rural and urban families, the phenomenon of mass migration and displaced persons, landlessness and uprootedness from local culture, cultural globalisation and its impact on the family, patriarchy in Asian families and societies including the church, the challenge of youth with a bleak future, child labour, a devastated ecology, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, families in the midst of conflict.

This section ends on a positive note: the networking of families in basic ecclesial and interfaith communities. The family is the basic, resilient community that is creatively constructing a human space for the future.

"The culture of integral life" is not reduced to issues of abortion and euthanasia, but starts with the biggest killer of them all: enforced poverty. The culture of death in Asia has more to do with economic and political violence than condom distribution.

One suggestion, yet to be taken up, was that the FABC establish a task force consisting primarily of married laity and lay theologians who would work together with relevant FABC Offices to outline a contextual theology of the family in time for the next FABC General Assembly in 2008. This theological and pastoral reflection would grow from the lived experience of marriage and family in Asia.

The third section of the Daejeon Statement called for a re-orientation of family ministry. The key pastoral question is not "How can families become more active in the parish?" but rather, "How can the parish strengthen the family's mission in society?"

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The Daejeon Statement takes up the question of interfaith families in paragraphs 95-98: "In Asia, the birthplace of the world's great religions, it is in the ordinariness of daily life that the encounter with peoples of other faiths takes place…"

"Many indeed are the ways by which inter-religious dialogue can take place at the level of the family... But it is especially in a marriage of peoples from different religions that inter-religious dialogue is both a dialogue of word, of love and life."

An interfaith couple from Mumbai, India, participated in the Daejeon Assembly -- Astrid Lobo (Catholic wife and theologian) and Kalbesh Gajiwala (Hindu husband and surgeon). Astrid explained: "We teach our children that both of our religions are focused on God, but that we have different forms of worship. The children have no difficulty accepting this. Meanwhile we share the common values that both of our religions profess."

Lived experience suggests that interfaith families are not so much problems as bridges.

The document acknowledges a variety of family forms. However, the desire of a few bishops that we welcome same gender oriented persons in our congregations and counsel parents not to reject their gay children, did not find its way into the Daejeon Statement.

Gays do not chose their sexual orientation and most have not received the call to celibacy. Some Asian countries, like host country Korea, are intolerant of gays and suicide rates among same gender oriented persons are high. Silence in the document is certainly preferable to rejection. An Archbishop spoke to me of how he once assisted a young gay man after an attempted suicide to accept himself as God had created him. There is a wide gap between official pastoral policy and personal counselling.

As the founding generation of FABC, appointed by John XXIII and Paul VI, pass away, there are questions about future direction under bishops appointed during pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Visionaries have yet to emerge; more noticeable, at present, are "pastoral managers."

With this change of leadership comes the question of credibility. The visionary language of FABC -- a church in mission through dialogue with the poor, with Asian cultures and with other faith-communities -- continues to be heard in Episcopal statements, but is not necessarily experienced by the average believer in the local congregation.

With a new generation of bishops taking over the leadership of FABC, and with the retirement of Maryknoller Ed Malone as assistant general secretary immediately following the assembly, a position he gallantly held since 1971, the federation is surely at an historic crossroads. Twelve months later this key position has yet to be filled.

If the FABC achieved its most prophetic moment six years ago during the 1998 Synod for Asia, then today it is in need of re-birthing in line with its original inspiration.

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Some bishops spoke of the need for restructuring the FABC both to rediscover its vision and create a new partnership with the laity. Representatives of lay movements have always been invited to the bishops' meetings. Can a more mature and regular partnership be created at local, regional and continental levels?

The informality and friendliness among bishops, clergy and laity at the Assembly, listening and discussing praying and singing, eating and relaxing together as a discipleship of equals is a solid foundation on which to build a "new way of being Church". For in Asia, mission is nothing if it is not relationships.

A year later an unanswered question remains: Are the Asian churches now returning to minority communities dependent on Rome, closed to the violent world around them, quietly content with the sublime harmony of the court, or are we witnessing a pause before the churches re-launch themselves as a network of diaspora communities, pulsating with the drum-beat of daily mission-in-dialogue with Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu fellow-pilgrims?

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