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Asian bishops remain politely persistent.

VATICAN CITY--The story was told here last week of Mahatma Gandhi who returned from negotiations with India's British colonial occupiers unsuccessful in his efforts to win his nation's freedom. "You have failed," he was told by a despondent nationalist. "We have won," Gandhi replied. "We have engaged them in a discussion of our freedom."

Another story was told of an Asian bishop, all smiles after he finished addressing the synod, having spoken on the need to inculturate the faith in his local church. Minutes later at the coffee bar, he beamed to a fellow bishop: "We've got the ideas: we've got the theologies; the rest will follow ."

The stories are apt illustrations of the intangibles of this synod. According to experienced synod-watchers here this gathering is different from others for the frank discussion of issues that is occurring before Pope John Paul II and his Vatican bureaucracy. Notable, too, is the sense of patience exhibited by participants who, while saying a great deal, seem resigned to expecting little immediate change.

How the Synod for Asia, which runs through May 14, is viewed here depends on one's perspective. If the expectation is that Rome will yield to widespread Asian episcopal calls for greater autonomy and steps toward inculturation, disappointment is likely.

If, on the other hand, one takes a more measured view, shared by many Asian bishops here, that little is likely to change during the current pontificate, but that time is on Asia's side, the assessment turns more positive. And many agree that the synod has provided both the momentum for eventual change and an opportunity to place the Asian church on view before the universal church.


These Asian bishops are realists, said one Western missionary priest who has worked closely with them for more than 15 years. Unlike their African counterparts, the Asian bishops never asked for a synod. Many were shocked and even angered when Cardinal Jan P. Schotte, secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, announced it in 1995.

An Indian priest said he was angry at first, then became resigned to the notion of a synod. He summed up an Asian episcopal outlook toward the gathering by quoting a bishop who said: "Maybe we've got to go to Rome to show them Christianity is alive in the church."

The synod at least has drawn together for the first time in one assembly the bishops of the Far and Near East, two vastly different churches, "sharing only the adjective `Asian,'" as one Jesuit participant said. Several synod participants speculated last week that the Vatican may have thought that bringing the two groups together might dilute the more outspoken of the Far East and Southeast Asia. If that has been the Vatican plan, it seems to have backfired.

The two groups have mingled well and have agreed through out their speeches, called interventions, that greater local autonomy is essential for effective inculturation and the evangelization of the faith. During the first phase of the synod, each delegate had eight minutes to speak. During this period 155 bishop addressed the body.

Pope John Paul II was present for all sessions. The pace of the synod was quick. Bishops who went on beyond their allotted time had microphones cut off. Some complained that the process, ruled by 53 pages of synod regulations, was more important than content. It was not the Asian way.

Asian conferences place much emphasis on building relationships, with documents as a secondary result. Here the emphasis was reversed--work was aimed at completing a statement of some kind.

A mid-synod report, intended allegedly to summarize the speeches, was written several days before they had been completed. This upset some and caused many to wonder if the gathering had been pre-scripted. There was also criticism that the report had watered down important ideas.

Generally, however, most Asian bishops took it in stride, at least publicly, even after the report once again went contrary to the wishes most often expressed by those attending on how evangelization should take place.

The report represented the view of Cardinal Jozef Tomko, Prefect of the Congregations for the Evangelization of Peoples, that evangelization must start with the person of Jesus and his unique role in the salvation of all peoples. This has been Tomko's basic position for years. The Asian bishops have said repeatedly that "proclamation" does not work in Asia, where Catholics are a tiny minority. They have called for dialogue and witness to spread the faith.

At an April 29 news conference, several Asian bishops put a positive face on the report saying further discussion on "emphasis" will continue. Bishop Joseph Vianney Fernando of Kandy, India, said that "a number of Asian fathers had already noted that key phrases and ideas, important to them, had been left out of the report." He said these would be part of the ongoing discussions.

Longtime synod observers remarked that this synod, while controlled by its organizers, had a flavor unlike others that have preceded it. "During the Synod for America," said a European journalist stationed in Rome, "the Americans knew what couldn't be said and censored themselves. They ended up hedging their thoughts. This time the bishops are speaking their minds." Several synod participants referred to the Asian bishops as determined--and polite.

The atmosphere inside the synod by all accounts has been cordial. Each person who spoke, regardless of subject or quality of remarks, received applause from the group. This has not happened at earlier synods. The Asian bishops seemed to try, in their opening remarks, to let the weight of their experiences convince Vatican officials of the importance of their needs. Two dozen members of the Roman curia, its top officials, are synod participants.

For example, most of the Vietnamese bishops, in their addresses, spoke about the need for inculturation of the faith. They used the example of ancestor worship. The Catholic church once condemned the practice, common throughout much of Asia, and it remained a serious obstacle to evangelization.

Then in 1965 the church accommodated and began to speak of ancestor worship within the framework of the communion of saints. Vietnamese and Chinese bishops both said that the emphasis on ancestor shows respect that is compatible with Christian teaching and can enhance its understanding.

"But the weight of history still holds many Vietnamese back " one Vietnamese bishop told the synod. The message was clear: Catholic teachings can--and must--accommodate to Asian realities.

A new way

The synod theme is evangelization: "Jesus Christ the Savior and His Mission of Love and Service in Asia." It was chosen by Pope John Paul Il. But most Asian bishops said the church is most effective when it reaches out to the poor and preaches through example. Many spoke of "a new way of being church," meaning living in-solidarity with the poor and with greater lay/clergy collaboration. Many topics were raised by the bishops including family life, peace and justice work, migration, human rights, the work of the laity and authentic Asian spirituality. The major themes to emerge, however, involved the need to establish a more balanced relationship between the central and local churches; the need for greater cultural sensitivity and diversity in Catholic religious expression; the need to affirm Christian life through service and solidarity with the poor; the need to cooperate with the other religions of Asia in addressing the pressing social and economic crises of the times.

Much was said about Asian poverty. but the synod papers and interventions had little analysis of the recent Asian economic collapse. This upset some, including Raj Komar, an Indian who works with a Catholic international intellectual movement, Pax Romana. He expressed disappointment that the bishops had avoided analyzing the forces behind the economic crisis, which he blamed on the process of globalization and speculation by the rich in "the hot dollar."

He said national governments in Asia had lost control of their economies and that privatization of Asian economies is creating havoc in that region of the world

An early synod document made only brief reference to the crisis, linking it with Asian debt. Komar called the analysis "totally inadequate," saying the debt crisis is only a symptom of greater structural problems in the Asian economies. Recent Western-forced structural adjustments, lee said, have taken great tolls on the poor. He-called such forced measures immoral. Asian bishops acknowledged that further economic analysis is needed but said they did not yet feel confident to take on the complex subject.

The heart of the message the bishops delivered in Rome during the synod's first two weeks was primarily ecclesial, not social or economic. It was summed up by the general secretary of the Vietnamese Bishops Conference, Nguen Son Lam, bishop of Thanh Hoa, who said in an interview, "The churches of Asia must put on Asian clothes." To do this properly, the bishops were saying, they need the authority to make decisions on matters of church life.

The synod interventions revealed diverse Catholic experiences across the Asian continent. Bishops from South and Southeast Asia, for example, spoke of what they do or plan to do in contacts with willing Muslims, while most from the Near East said they can only hope Islamic believers in their areas will be open to dialogue someday: Eastern rite patriarchs, meanwhile, having seen Rome extend numerous concessions to the Orthodox churches in efforts to win unity during the current pontificate, called for similar concessions, starting with greater autonomy within their own rites.

The Asian bishops arrived in Rome well organized and prepared, much of this the result of more than a quarter century of active collaboration under the auspices of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences, an organization of Far East and Southeast Asian bishops (see accompanying story).

These bishops know each other, having worked together since 1970 when the federation was: formed in Manila at the urging of Pope Paul VI. Their interventions were often supported by theological expressions produced by the federation during the past 25 years.

Diversity not uniformity

Bishop Orlando B. Quevedo of the Philippines on several occasions spoke about the federation's three basic insights during its history: The church must be a voice of the poor, dialogue is the path to effective evangelization and the diverse cultures of Asia must be respected. This idea was repeatedly referred to as the federation's "triple dialogue."

"[Catholic] systems of belief are Western and foreign," he explained. "Catholic uniformity must be replaced with Catholic diversity."

Quevedo also stressed the need to build local "basic ecclesial communities." Calling them "a new way of being church," he described them as similar to the basic communities of Latin-America, except that basic ecclesial communities are initiated by the local church. He said there are already some 47,000 such communities in the Philippines.

From the outside, most of the interventions appeared haphazard, developing numerous and diverse church and social themes. From the inside, it has been a different story. Operating through their national conferences, many bishops arranged to speak in an order that allowed the thoughts of one bishop to build on the thoughts of another, attempting to weave together a tapestry of Asian experience, spirituality and vision so authentic it has to be taken seriously.

The Asians all appeared confident. Joseph Kurian, a layman and judge from southern India, used his synod time to speak about the Asian traditions of "togetherness and communion." He then noted that future synods could be improved if they were more inclusive, allowing both laity and clergy into the decision-making process. He concluded, expressing a not uncommon perception among Asian Catholics, that Asians "may have to take up the responsibility of re-evangelizing the church in the West of tomorrow."

According to some synod participants, the interventions demonstrated that the churches of Asia have mature theologies and rich spiritualities. The bishops said they now seek to gain trust through the synod.

One synod participant put it this way: "What we need from the Vatican is trust. Structurally speaking, trust is the easiest thing to implement--the giver need not do much--but it is really hard to do on the human level."

Even before the synod opened, the subject of trust was raised here with regard to local Asian churches that have had to submit for Vatican approval liturgical texts and other official documents translated by the local churches into Asian languages. The problem has been that Vatican personnel do not understand the Asian languages, certainly not the nuanced language of prayer and spirituality. Stories abound of embarrassing rejections of translations put forward by officials of the Asian conferences, who worked scrupulously with their theologians and biblical scholars to achieve the best results.

Upon completion of their tasks, they were asked by Rome to submit translations for approval. Not knowing the Asian languages, Vatican officials often sent the translated documents to Asian seminarians studying in Rome to examine and approve--or disapprove, as it has sometimes turned out. In some cases, students in Rome turned down translations that were the work of their former teachers and their own bishops.

"Can you image how humiliating that can be?" a priest from Indonesia asked. The priest told the story of Indonesian bishops who translated a liturgical text from Italian into Indonesian. Rome then asked that the document be submitted for approval. The Indonesians complied.

Months later, the Indonesian bishops' conference was asked by Vatican officials if they would retranslate the document into Italian so it could be understood in Rome.

Addressing the synod, Philippine Bishop Francisco Claver, apostolic vicar of Bontoc-Lagawe, told the bishops it would be a "sterile exercise" to try to place blame on anyone for the lack of inculturation of the faith in Asia. The church must move on and trust the people to find ways of correctly expressing their faith in their own language and culture, he said.

He said it made no sense to send translations of liturgical texts to a bishop, let alone a Vatican official, who does not speak that language or live in that culture. "The best judges of the correctness, even theological, of translations and texts are the faithful and clergy of the place where the language is spoken," he said.

Language barriers, however, apparently work on behalf of the local bishops. They sometimes allow Asian churches more freedom of expression. For example, according to an Asian liturgist, there are 13 Malaysian Eucharistic prayers and 10 Indonesian Eucharistic prayers, compared with four in English.

The new universal catechism, a priest said, has never been translated into Indonesian by the Indonesian bishops. They have told Rome that the document is intended for bishops and that they are capable of reading it in English and French.

Another priest said that the churches of Asia are less polarized than those in the West because right-wing groups? lacking language skills, have stayed away.

Trust a main issue

Outside the synod chamber, away from the specifics of the matters at hand, the issue of trust--or more accurately, Vatican distrust--seemed to grow as the synod progressed. For many it was becoming a central focal point of discussion. The dogmatic, fast-paced and sometimes heavy-handed ways of the West can be perceived as highly insensitive when encountering the relational-based, development ways of the East. One Asian bishop said the West has its rationality; the East has its wisdom. There is enormous pride among the Asian bishops that all the great religions began in Asia and that Jesus himself was an Asian.

The church has grown in Asia, spreading especially among the tribal or indigenous peoples. It is difficult, a Pakistani told me, for some Westerners to think of their church as Western. But that's what it is, he said. Carmelite Bishop-Francis Hadisumarta of Manokwari-Sorong, Indonesia, brought up the issue of trust forcefully in his synod address and following his talk, according to several synod participants, he was repeatedly congratulated during breaks for having spoken so honestly. What Hadisumarta told the synod is that it does not make sense for bishops" conferences to translate liturgical texts into local languages, only to then submit them to the Vatican for approval from "people who do not understand our language."

What we need is trust: trust in (loaf and trust in each other," he said, adding that "Bishops are not branch secretaries waiting for instructions from headquarters. We are a communion of local churches."

What made his address even more remarkable is that he spoke on behalf of the Indonesian bishops' conference. Hadisumarta called for greater participation of all Catholics in church decision-making. He said liturgical translations and adaptations, the appointment of bishops and qualifications for priestly ordination are areas in which the decisions of local bishops should be accepted by the Vatican.

He then told the synod that the Indonesian bishops' conference has been asking the Vatican for 30 years for permission to ordain married men known for their virtue, holiness and stature within the local community. Because of a shortage of celibate priests, he said, the majority of Indonesian Catholics live by the Word. rather than by Word and sacrament. We are becoming `protestant' by default." he said. "Cannot such pastoral concerns be worked out and decided upon by the local episcopal conference?"

He advocated that the Roman curia should become "a clearinghouse for information, support and encouragement rather than a universal decision-maker."

"We envisage a radical decentralization of the Latin rite," he finally said, calling for the formation of new patriarchates, "say the patriarchate of South Asia, of Southeast Asia and of East Asia."

Like the autonomous Eastern-rite churches in union with Rome, he said, the new patriarchates would have their own rites, reflecting their own cultures, but would be united with the Vatican "in faith and trust."

Similarly, Philippine Archbishop Leonardo Legaspi of Caceres told his fellow bishops that in Asia they must place a new and different emphasis on the primacy of the pope in the church.

The universal authority of the pope is "an essential part of our Catholic faith." he said. It "is not primarily concerned with juridical power over local churches and peoples, but is above all a doctrinal and pastoral ministry of service which enhances those very values of harmony, peace and love which make possible dialogue and coexistence with Asian governments and religions."

Melkite Bishop Cyrille Salim Bustros of Baalbek, Lebanon, called for a reaffirmation and strengthening of the autonomy of the Eastern-rite Catholic churches. He said the election of bishops by Eastern-rite synods should not have to be approved by Rome. Bishops' appointments traditionally have been the privilege of the patriarchs: the pope is the "patriarch of the West," which gives him! the power to appoint bishops in the Latin-rite church, but not in the Eastern rites he said.

The Eastern-rite synods should be allowed to establish dioceses outside their traditional territories and appoint pastors for their faithful wherever they live, without needing Vatican approval, he said. And, Bustros said, the Eastern-rite churches that have married clergy in their traditional homeland should he allowed to have married clergy in all their dioceses.
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Title Annotation:Synod for Asia
Author:Fox, Thomas C.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 8, 1998
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