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Posted Wednesday, August 18, 2004 at 11:30 a.m. CDT


A day of discussion; Asian Catholics are optimistic people, despite trials and setbacks
Asian hope rests clearly on the belief that the Spirit is alive within their Churches

Daejeon, South Korea

It is day three and the bishops, and invited participants, broke into discussion groups to offer further reflections on the working paper on the family, “The pastoral situation on the family in Asia,” which they received upon arrival and hope to publish in some form at the end of the week long gathering.

Today was a day devoted to workshops at which conference participants, lay men and women, religious and clergy all deliberated points in the working paper on the family.

Some of the early discussion today centered on the process of this plenary assembly of Asian bishops. The meeting has been intentionally structured differently from recent plenary assemblies, according to Brother Edmund Chia of Malaysia, one of the principal organizers, in order to give the bishops more time for discussions.

In January 2000, when the Asian bishops met outside of Bangkok at a pastoral center, they discussed 20 papers submitted by experts covering a range of social, economic, pastoral and theological topics. From those papers and subsequent discussions, a document drafting committee worked late into the nights piecing together papers for further consideration. Looking back, some thought the process was hectic and did not allow for enough reflection.

This time, responding to bishops who wanted more input and time for evaluation, Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, working with the FABC general secretariat, wrote a draft paper on the family under the assembly theme: “The Asian Family toward a Culture of Life.” That draft was sent out to each of the episcopal conferences for input before Quevedo redrafted it early this summer.

Speaking today in discussion groups, some bishops said they preferred the old process, which produced a better paper trail. Others said they liked the new process, which in some instances stimulated local input among lay couples and others. 

Participants sharing and listening.

Today and tomorrow assembly participants are meeting in groups by region – East Asia, South East Asia and South Asia - and at times by subject matter, to further assess the working paper.

While the bishops are reflecting, allow me to offer a reflection as well. This one begins with rain. Just about the time the Asian bishops began to arrive here last Monday the skies began to rain. It has hardly let up for three days -- with the remarkable exception of about one hour early this morning when Mass was celebrated on a lawn outside the St. J. Hasang Education Center.

It’s been raining for three days straight, forcing conference participants to dart from one building to another, or in and out of shuttle buses, under umbrellas.

There are two ways to look at the rain. The first is that it is unfortunate for conference participants who have to scurry from building to building under umbrellas. The second – we might call it the Asian way – is to see the bright side, to recognize that the rains have lowered the mid- August temperatures and humidity that makes life close to unbearable for many during Asian summer months. 

The lesson here is that many Asians -- and notably the Asians who have gathered here for the eighth plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences – are optimistic people, despite trials and setbacks.

Without a question Asian Catholics, like the wider Asian communities, are faced with challenges that appear to be of biblical proportion. The first section of he working paper, “The pastoral situation on the family in Asia,” lists at length a host of serious crises including widespread poverty, landlessness, cultural globalization, child labor, and ecological degradation among others.

At the same time, one can ask virtually any bishop here about the future of his local church and he has something optimistic to say. More precisely, he is likely to speak of hope.

Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, Bishop of Butuan in the Philippines

Consider the words of Bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos, Bishop of Butuan in the Philippines. He says without hesitation, “the level of globalization that exists as an empire is passing.”  Taking its place is a new kind of globalization, “globalization as humanity and collegiality and a sense of one world.” At the level of local church, he sees this same phenomenon. There are signs, he said, of new levels of “loving and sharing each others goods.” Is he hopeful? Very much so. Our hope, he says, is “anchored in the faith that we have in Jesus Christ.”

He adds that the religions of Asia share a common belief in “a culture of life, communion and service.”  He sees that coming from the Spirit.

Bishop Arturo M. Bastes of Romblon, Philippines speaks with optimism about the future.

Bishop Arturo M. Bastes of Romblon, Philippines speaks with similar optimism. Is he hopeful? Yes. He is looking forward to a biblical congress he is helping to organized, set for 2005, the theme of which is “God’s Word, Living Hope and Lasting Peace.”  “One of our aims of the congress is to make the bible more authentically Asia,” he says. The West, he adds, has dominated the church in Asia for too long and now Asians are gaining their own “authentic identity.” Asians, he points out, read the bible differently from most Westerners. The Western historical critical method is not as important as finding the message of the Spirit in the texts.

Some outsiders might not readily understand Asian optimism. It seems to come in part from being a relatively young Church. There appear to be a number of factors playing into the Asian Church mindset.

First, this Asian hope rests clearly on the belief that the Spirit is alive within their Churches and throughout the wider world – despite clear signs of human weakness and sin. Second, these Asians feel connected with the Spirit and believe they are being guided by the Spirit. Third, this Asian hope grows out of a confidence and an increased ownership of a vision of Church they have developed and laid claim to during the past thirty-five years.

It is a vision they proudly call “a new way of being church.” This vision is characteristically humble. Asians might be proud but they are not boisterous. Theirs is a vision based on humble dialogue. It is a vision that does not claim all the answers. It is a vision that believes they have more to learn, more to discover. Yet it is a vision grounded in Asian reality. It is a vision of minority churches, a vision of the triple dialogue: with the vast numbers of poor, with the rich religious traditions of Asia and with their local cultures.

A U.S. bishops' delegation headed by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, dropped in on the Asian bishops’ gathering. He was warmly received after speaking briefly during lunch. One Asian bishop, surprised to see an African-American U.S.bishops’ conference president, exclaimed: “He’s one of us!”


 Next to hope, fraternity characterizes the work of these bishops. Patriarchy is an Asian tradition. Excessive patriarchy dies hard, even within the Asian churches. But there is a new, though uneven, openness to women and a rich fraternity among the bishops themselves. This fraternity is clear and abundant at this gathering. Compared with Western episcopal gatherings – especially those aimed at producing faith-based statements for the public record – Asian bishops’ gatherings are relaxed and informal.

Plenty of time is allowed each evening and sometimes during the day for socializing, often with beer, wine and other spirits.

These are not tired old men.  They are men with energy and openness to the world and to the Spirit. They are grounded in their local churches.

Ask Antony Selvanayagam, Bishop of Penang, Malaysia where he finds hope and he says flatly, “We are fully into the building up of basic ecclesia communities. That is where I see hope.” Being open to the Spirit is essential to finding hope, says Bishop Boniface Choi Ki-san, Bishop of Inchon, Korea.

Ask Antony Selvanayagam, Bishop of Penang, Malaysia where he finds hope and he says flatly, “We are fully into the building up of basic ecclesia communities. That is where I see hope.” He goes on: “Individuals and families in these communities believe in one another. Living as a community their faith is strengthening.” He adds, “People who have been touched by the Lord are interested in being in communities.”

Being open to the Spirit is essential to finding hope, says Bishop Boniface Choi Ki-san, Bishop of Inchon, Korea. Asians are poor people and in this poverty is a kind of humility, a dependency, he explains, adding, “Asian people need God,” unlike some Europeans who “are already satisfied by themselves.”

So these Asian bishops and other delegates will continue to ponder family life and its many challenges in Asia in troubling times. They will produce a paper, adding to the rich FABC documents that have been published in the past three decades. In the final analysis, however, it will be their intimate connections with their peoples, cultures and religious heritages that will be the final measure of their success. By all appearances, that’s where they are encountering God.

[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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