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Posted Tuesday, August 17, 2004 at 6:40 p.m. CDT


Asian church leaders get down to business
'Over next few days, we will take a closer look at where we
have been, how we have been, but especially where we are to go'

Daejeon, South Korea

The 8th plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences got down to work today. In his opening address Archbishop Oswald Gomis of Colombo, Sri Lanka, secretary general of the conference, reminded delegates of FABC's rich, 34-year history built on the "triple dialogue" with the poor and the religions and cultures of Asia.

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Archbishop Gomis
"Perhaps in the course of the next few days," Gomis said, "we will take a closer look at where we have been, how we have been, but especially where we are to go as a federation of bishops' conferences."

"The FABC has been a great help to us," he reminded the delegates. "It has created an episcopal fraternity that is unique and unprecedented. It is of great consolation to hear from some of the American and Australian bishops who have said, "How is it that you people know each other so well and are so friendly with each other?"

This plenary assembly's theme is, "The Asian Family toward a Culture of Life." Gomis encouraged the delegates, as they pondered the complex issues, to remain a visionary force at the service of Asian families as well as others in the universal church.

Representing the Vatican's Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples at the assembly, Archbishop Robert Sarah, an African, said he felt "culturally lost" in Asia, but grateful for the opportunity to address the Asian bishops. He spoke of how the peoples of the earth, while distant geographically from each other, can encourage each other in their faith and common evangelical mission, which, he said, is built on love.

"We can say all the prayers we want, travel around the world preaching the gospel, fulfill all pilgrimages, but our lives will remain empty if we do not love as Christ commanded us."

Speaking to the theme of the conference, he said that marriage and the family is increasingly under attack in the West, but "the Catholic church and the Asian and African societies must stand firm in presenting marriage and family life as something precious."

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As the bishops entered dressed in their liturgical vestments the informal mood of the early morning quickly became more solemn.
The general informality of the gathering took a sudden change mid-morning when the bishops entered a cavernous seminary chapel, built out of wood to represent a large catacomb. Korean Catholics have suffered waves of martyrdom over the centuries for their faith. Theirs at times as been a catacomb experience of church.

As the laity waited inside, two single rows of clergy -- first priests, then bishops, then archbishops and finally cardinals -- entered from the rear. At the end of the procession was a frail man, Cardinal Stephen Kim, retired archbishop of Seoul, Korea. Small in frame and seemingly made smaller by a towering white miter, Kim is a living FABC icon and deposit of FABC history. One of the founders of FABC and the man most responsible for the initial FABC vision, Kim is almost certainly hosting his last plenary assembly, a thought that only adds to his remarkable presence.

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The opening Mass featured a Korean women's choir and traditional music group.
The liturgy was solemn but carried a distinctly Asian dignity, a mixture of prayers and music. The rich bellowing voices of a women's choir rang out against the backdrop of a Korean instrumental group that featured flutes, traditional string instruments, an organ and a drum.

Archbishop Andreas Choi Chang-mou, president of the Korean bishops' conference, was the principal celebrant. He delighted his visitor guests by citing a Korean proverb: "How can I not be happy if a friend from a distance visits me?"

"My dear brothers and sisters," he said. "As Asians we have many issues in common, such as economic poverty, a wide gap between the poor and the rich, division because of different languages, division of peoples and ideological conflicts, and the environmental problems. Among others, we cannot ignore the question of the family, once one of the merits of Asian tradition, but now being destroyed."

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Archbishop Choi
"In Korea, the uncritical reception of Western culture transformed the traditional form of extended family into the nuclear family" he went on, "and caused a low birth rate and an aging of the population. In addition, sexual openness, sexual abuse and divorces are also rapidly increasing. I assume that this phenomenon is not limited only to Korea, but may be seen in many other parts of Asia where you live."

He then decried a fixation on money as the root of many of Koreas ills. He then warned: "The church is not an exception. If the church places her major concern on money instead of the Word of God, it deviates from the Kingdom of God."

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Archbishop Quevedo
After lunch, a general assembly session aimed at an initial dissection of the assembly's working paper followed. In preparation for this plenary, Archbishop Orlando Quevedo from the Philippines, the single most important author of recent FABC documents, working with FABC staff, hammered out a 15,000-word document on family life. It was sent to all Asian bishops conferences in January 2004. Responses were due by July 2004. Quevedo then incorporated those responses into the working paper through various drafts. The result of that work is the draft of the instrumentum laboris distributed to the bishops upon their arrival here yesterday. The work has been tedious, but has been aimed at reaching a general consensus by the time of the assembly.

As is the tradition with other FABC documents, this one begins with context. It is set in the vast problems and challenges facing families in Asia. It is then followed by a lengthy "theologico-pastoral reflection." The Asian bishops stress that theology divorced from pastoral care is bad theology. Good theology leads to positive pastoral responses. Pastoral action is the hallmark of the FABC. The final section of the document lists recommendations for family ministry.

Among the challenges listed include a growing Western secular materialist society that is uprooting traditional cultures; growing gaps between generations and, in the midst, a recourse by some to fundamentalism marked by violent intolerance.

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Bishop John S. Cummins, retired bishop of Oakland, Calif., was at the mass. For years he has been the U.S. bishops' conference's liason with the FABC.
Also listed as a serious challenge is traditional Asian patriarchy, which, the document argues, leads to male domination and the abuse of women as well as to double standards of behavior between men and women in society. This male patriarchy, the document states, also leads to an abortion mentality in many parts of Asia as female fetuses are selected for destruction.

The document states that the emergence of women in society is critical for the common good. It praises the advances in notions of equality among the sexes in Asia, saying women are gaining more access to education and professional advancement. The document notes, however, that as women take up work outside the home, often of necessity, grandparents are becoming primary nurturing figures along with domestic helpers and nursemaids.

The document also spells out the ills of child labor and it laments the hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced by armed conflict. Finally, it celebrates the growth of the thousands of mothers who have taken on roles as peace activists.

Quevedo said that the over-all pastoral question is: "How can family ministry and the church in Asia as a whole effectively respond to the pastoral challenges so described?"

He admitted in a brief interview that the Asian bishops, in tackling family issues, are charting new ground. "It's hard work," he said. "These theological and pastoral reflections are new to us, new territory."

The next several days of discussions will indicate just how monumental the task will be -- and if the Asian bishops can offer fresh ideas and new pastoral initiatives to beleaguered Asian families.

[Fox is publisher of the National Catholic Reporter and author of Pentecost in Asia, a book about the Asian churches. His e-mail address is tfox@ncronline.org.]


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