Posted Saturday, August 21, 2004
at 9:34 p.m. CDT
History is told in human stories
'There's a joyful feel about this place ... There's some quality
in this gathering that is remarkably attractive.'
By THOMAS C. FOX
Daejeon, South Korea
As the eighth plenary assembly of the Asian Bishops' Conferences was coming to a close, Bishop John S. Cummins, who has attended the past six FABC plenary gatherings, was thinking out loud about how this meeting had been different from others.
There was sadness in his voice when he noted his friend, Maryknoll Father Ed Malone, had been missing. Malone, 76, arrived here early this week, but seemed fatigued. He was taken back to Hong Kong for tests and rest.
Both Cummins and Malone have been as common as rice at FABC plenary sessions. Cummins, the retired bishop of Oakland, has represented the U.S. bishops. Malone has been the organization's assistant secretary general, the chief administrative position, with headquarters in Hong Kong.
Providence seems to have placed Malone at the right spot at the right time. He arrived in Hong Kong on the last day of 1971, just as the FABC was coming to life in the wake of a trip to Asia by Pope Paul VI, where he met with 180 Asian bishops. The excitement of the gathering sparked the idea of forming an Asian bishops' umbrella group.
One time Malone seminary student, Maryknoll Fr. James Kroeger, recalls his former professor "almost immediately" found himself assistant secretary general after arriving in Asia. Kroeger and others cite Malone's strong will combined with his affable ways and theological background as having been the right combination to nurture the organization from the beginning.
However, Malone's energy level has dropped in recent years, causing concern for his well-being and the future of the organization. Deajeon will now go down as the first "post-Malone" assembly. Malaysian Brother Edmund Chia, who had been assisting Malone for the past several months to organize the meeting, stepped in after Malone left and took up a host of administrative tasks.
The Asian bishops are grateful men and to the last one they recognize Malone's dedication and friendship. For Cummins, Malone's absence meant even more -- the end of an era. It was Malone, Cummins recalled, who invited him to begin representing the U.S. bishops at plenary sessions.
Cummins said it was only a few weeks back that Malone called him on the phone to ask who would represent the U.S. bishops at this gathering. On short notice, Cummins knew he would have to be the one to step in. "He's a strong-minded New Yorker," Cummins said of his friend, explaining some of the mettle that has made up Malone character. "He grew up in Manhattan." Yet despite the strength of his personality, he made sure not to overstep his boundaries, Cummins added. Malone did not allow the larger national bishops' conferences to dominate while promoting the smaller ones, Cummins explained.
The Asian bishops are always appreciative of outside help. Most of their national conferences are relatively poor. Malone worked without salary, as a missionary dedicated to the growth of the Church. He never questioned that it was the Asian bishops who were in charge of the FABC. He was there to serve their wishes.
Kroeger says that one of Malone's major achievements has been the organization of the 110 major FABC papers, published since 1976. Malone has gathered them, maintained them and now highlights them on the Internet. (A link to the "FABC papers" is on the Churches in Asia main index page.) It is in those papers that the story of the FABC's "triple dialogue" unfolds.
Another major Malone accomplishment, according to Kroeger, was the initiation of what are called bishops' institutes, training programs aimed at improving various pastoral and administrative skills. There have been nearly two dozen such training programs over the years.
Malone's absence at this meeting touched off speculation about his eventual replacement. The executive committee, made up of the presidents of all the national conferences and the general secretary, Archbishop Oswald Thomas Gomis of Columbo, Sri Lanka, took up the matter in executive session.
There seem to be two schools of thought regarding a replacement, one that says a non-Asian brings an outside perspective and impartiality, the second that the organization has long been mature enough to have an Asian in the post.
It is unlikely, however, that a replacement will be made before Malone has been consulted and his own well-being is assured.
[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
Reflecting on 20 years
"They make you feel so much at home," said the retired bishop of Oakland, John Cummins, searching for a way to describe the Asian bishops and the mood of a plenary assembly. There's a joyful feel about this place. It's the welcoming… There's some quality about them that is remarkably attractive."
This will be Cummins last plenary gathering as U.S. representative and he made the effort to put some thoughts and feelings into words.
"Anyone who comes from the outside is immediately welcomed and becomes very much part of their community. They do that to each other, and they do that to those of us who come from the outside. It's very hard to take it apart, but there is something about the experience of sitting among them. They have enormous respect for each other. It's very impressive."
"You've got the big and the small here. They don't provide an obstacle to the community. You've got India and then you've got Cambodia floating through here, and Laos. Strong Catholic populations don't impress those with less than one percent of the (total Catholic) population."
"However they put that together, there is something very church about it. They have a reverence for Rome. At the same time it's very much in their minds that they are Asian, and, therefore, they don't want to be dictated to. I think they keep a remarkable balance.
Cummins said he was not particularly pleased when he heard this year's meeting would be on the family. He liked broader themes. But after a week here, he says he's been converted. "I've changed my mind after watching the depths of the discussions here," he said, adding "this should be a model for the Church. What they've done has been quite remarkable."
-- Thomas Fox