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Posted Thursday, August 19, 2004 at 3:05 p.m. CDT


Bishops scrap meeting agenda
We need to make room for the Holy Spirit, they say

Daejeon, South Korea

An interesting thing happened on the way to Day 4 of the Asian bishops' gathering here. Much of the day's schedule got scrapped in a move intended to open the meeting to the Holy Spirit.

The eighth plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences has taken on a life of its own. After a day of meeting in regional groups to discuss various aspects of family life, the assembly concurred that more time was needed for reflection and self-evaluation.

Some background is useful here. It was in 1990 when the Asian bishops gathered in Bandung, Indonesia, that they confirmed a method of reflection and pastoral action that has a distinct FABC flavor. Taking the "see, judge and act" approach, they added a spiritual component, evaluation through the lens of faith. This addition is often connected to the writings of the Sri Lankan Jesuit theologian Aloysius Pieris.

During the first general session Thursday morning, Philippine Bishop Antonio G. Tagle informed the assembly that the day's schedule had been altered to add more than an hour of quite contemplation. He asked delegates to re-read and contemplate the working paper, which was crammed with information and analysis but apparently needing spiritual guidance. It was a conclusion the conference's reflection committee made after getting input after a full day of discussions Wednesday.

Off they went. Some alone, others in pairs, still others by language groups to read once more the working paper reflectively. Social analysis suddenly seemed to move into a form of theology, Asian style. The process is not new. It is a component of what the Asian bishops like to say is their "new way of being church."

I asked Malaysian De La Salle Br. Anthony Rogers, the chief coordinator for the eight-member conference "reflection team" to explain the process. For the past 12 years Rogers has been executive secretary of the Office of Human Development and has become a key person in the evolution of FABC pastoral planning.

Brother Rogers
Brother Rogers
What change occurred last night? I asked.

"The basic change," he responded, "stemmed from the realization that we cannot adequately talk about family realities without a deeper faith perspective. Last night we began to ask ourselves, 'Why are we emphasizing all the external causes molding family life without asking if there is something else within ourselves and our the church that needs a more radical transformation?' "

He then gave the following example. "We have been speaking of broken families. But maybe there is also brokenness within the church, brokenness in terms, perhaps, of a lack of communication among the clergy, religious and laity. Maybe another form of brokenness stems from the administrative responsibilities of our bishops. So we are taking time to ask ourselves some more questions. We are taking time to be more introspective."

Reporting back to assembly on results of discussion groups
He went on to explain that the way one looks at reality is molded by the way one looks at oneself. "We are using many words to describe what is happening to the family, even theological descriptions, but what about the values that are behind these descriptions? Do we fully understand, for example, the word "forgiveness?" We know families need forgiveness and that there is a lot of anger and violence in families. Are we heeding the woundedness in our families?"

Rogers said that Wednesday night the reflection team, after listening to and reading the responses of the various groups came to a new stage "where we saw so many of the so-called outside phenomena, but were not asking adequate questions about ourselves. Were we examining the deeper underlying causes of family stress? Maybe we need an alternative culture, for example, in our church and in our homes."

Archbishop Quevedo
Archbishop Quevedo
Philippine Archbishop Orlando Quevedo, who wrote the plenary's working paper, told me today that the discussion on family would now continue at the level of the local churches. In other words, the eighth plenary is only a point in a longer journey.

Like other key moments in the FABC history, plenary assemblies often end up this way. One of the thornier questions that has kept coming up in discussion groups is the status to be given to inter-faith marriages. The phenomenon is becoming more common in Asia.

'Both of us are very God-centered'

     "Both of us are very God-centered. That is the first common point we have," says Astrid Lobo, a Catholic who with her Hindu husband Kalpesh Gajiwala, are helping the Asian bishops discern a pastoral response to interreligious marriages, an increasingly common phenomenon in Asia.
Kalpesh Gajiwala and Astrid Lobo
Kalpesh Gajiwala and Astrid Lobo
     Said Astrid: "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."
     Said Kalpesh: "We stress the importance of spirituality. It is the essence of awakening our inner being. By getting in touch with our soul we recognize the Divine inside and outside ourselves. Catholicism and Hinduism lead to the same Divine. The children understand this."
     Both agree that both religions stress the same values. Adds Astrid: "I feel a very important focus on Jesus. When you die you will be asked, 'When I was hungry did you give me to eat? When I was thirsty did you give me to drink?' " Kalpesh agrees, saying, "Hinduism stresses the same compassion and need to love the other and to be truthful and honest to the other and to integrate the whole society into one unit."
     "I have found a tremendous openness to interfaith families here," said Astrid. She and Kalpesh have shared their married experiences with bishops and others over meals and in discussion groups for the past several days. She added that some bishops think this is a big moment to develop a theology for interfaith marriages. "Questions include what is a sacrament and what is the sacrament of marriage?" She said, "At least people are thinking about it."
     Kalpesh said that interfaith marriages are living examples that can lead to answers about how religions can live in harmony. Building on the same point, Astrid said people often look to the church as offering something to the family. "But here we have interfaith families having something that they can offer to the church."
     If Astrid and Kalpesh are any indicators, this week's FABC assembly on the family has only begun to open up a host of discussions likely to enrich the Church and wider society.
-- Thomas Fox
Two invited participants on hand here to help the bishops are Astrid Lobo and Kalpesh Gajiwala, a married couple from Mumbai, India. She is a Catholic; he is a Hindu. They have three children, two daughters and a son. Some 20 percent of Catholic marriages in India are with spouses who are Hindu or follow other traditions. The Asian bishops, working with couples such as Astrid and Kalpesh, are in a good position to discern a pastoral response to couples in interreligious marriages. (See boxed story.)

In the first general session, Japanese Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao, the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, spoke about the changing needs of migrants and refugees. The Catholic church has been a major world advocate of these displaced people for decades. The church, of course, celebrates a human family that knows no national boundaries.

For two decades, Hamao was bishop of Yokohama, Japan, and became the first Japanese to head a Vatican office. When in Yokohama he became an outspoken peace advocate, opposing Japan's growing military ties with the United States. He protested at the U.S. Navy's Yoksuka naval base. Hamao told the assembly he was pleased to be home again on Asian soil. His comment drew a warm ripple of laughter. Hamao then spoke about a relatively recent migration affecting all the countries of Asia, the migration of East Asian workers to the oil producing countries of West Asia. Increasingly, this labor migration, he said, involves women and children, adding that Asia hosts the largest refugee population in the world, peaking at 11.2 million in 1992 and totaling 9.3 million in 2001.

Cardinal Hamao
Cardinal Hamao
"When migrant or refugee families reach their destination country, their hopes for a better future are very often challenged. There, they are often met with problems like the cultural differences, which the family is forced to face without being prepared for it." He reminded listeners that the Holy Father has called upon all parishes to open their doors to migrants and refugees.

By early evening, tired delegates were being served a delicate green tea and a living lotus flower tea by women dressed in traditional Korean costumes. Entertainment for the evening included several movies, one being "Whale Rider," the story of a young girl who becomes the inspiration and spiritual leader of her village. The world is changing and the 180 to 200 Catholics who are gathered here, like the whale rider, appear to be catalysts in that change.

[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.]

Family topic challenges FABC structures

     In the wake of two days of reflection and discussions, it became clearer today that the topic of family has been drawing together the nine offices of the FABC and some of the desks attached to those offices. Each office has a stake in the well being of family.
     When the central committee of the FABC decided on the topic of family in 2001 there was little way it could have predicted this outcome. As the FABC has grown over the past three decades, its administration has expanded. The number of FABC offices has expanded. Today these offices, while working with minimum means, work out of different Asian cities. These offices include Social Communication, Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Human Development, Consecrated Life, Clergy, Laity, Evangelization, Theological Concerns, and Education and Student Chaplaincy. They all work with the central secretariat, headed by the general secretary, Sri Lanka Archbishop Oswald Thomas Gomis. He, in turn, has been supported by assistant secretary general Maryknoll Fr. Edward F. Malone, who has been with the FABC institution since its inception.
     Malone took ill on the first day of the gathering and returned to his home base in Hong Kong. His absence placed the responsibility for running the assembly on the shoulders of Malaysian De La Salle Brother Edmund Chia, who has been operating on four hours of sleep nightly for the last 10 days.
     The family topic has drawn the FABC staffs closer together, but has also revealed inconsistencies in communication and coordination, which the FABC, according to Chia, will now need to attend to.
-- Thomas Fox

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