Will the Asian bishops return home in a different way?

The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) was established in 1970 and 2020 was its Golden Jubilee year. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the celebrations have been postponed. They will take place from October 12 to 30 at the Pastoral Center of the Archdiocese of Bangkok in Thailand. Representatives of the 19 member countries will be present.

The general conference theme is “Let us travel together as the peoples of Asia…and they have taken a different path” [Mt 2.12]. The biblical allusion is to the return of the Magi to their respective countries after having adored the Child Jesus.

The quotation implies two ideas: a return “home”, that is to say, to discover oneself again; and a return to “together”, a reference to synodality, a key word in the Church today.

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The FABC is well aware of the changing realities both within each Church, as well as the global environment, as the Church transitions from a “Missionary Church” to a “Missionary Church”.

Indeed, the history of the Church’s mission in Asia predates Francis Xavier and dates back to the Apostles Thomas and Bartholomew, and even, as some may claim, to the heterodox Patriarch Nestorius.

The major expansion of Christianity, however, took place from the 16th century, when various European religious orders took the initiative to establish local churches. So we remember Mateo Ricci, Joao de Brito, Alexandre de Rhodes, Jose Vaz and many others.

“The small number of Catholics in almost all FABC members, except the Philippines, is a source of anxiety”

Today, these Churches have developed and stabilized so well that it is South Asian Catholics, whether priests, sisters or laity, who are a presence of faith in other parts of the world.

Although anomalies remain: the great mass of the People’s Republic of China is not part of the FABC; nor are various dioceses in West Asia, largely within the sphere of Islamic political influence.

So while there is certainly cause for celebration, there is also cause for concern. And what are they?

The small number of Catholics in almost all FABC members except the Philippines is a source of anxiety, as they face persecution and harassment.

Religious identity has become a determining factor in many Asian countries, which have transformed into majority regimes or theocratic nations. Christians are not always a powerful or influential minority and are therefore quickly reduced to second-class citizenship.

India, for example, which has long been a secular democratic republic, is rapidly transforming into a majority Hindu autocracy.

“We have to start treating all women in a spirit of justice and equal opportunity”

But the most serious areas of concern are probably internal, affecting the structure and circumscription of the Church.

As reports from the Future Church group make clear, young people and women are leaving the Church in droves, repelled both by its deeply flawed teachings rejected by sensus fidelium (sense of faith), and by the patriarchal domination of the hierarchy which excludes women from all significant administrative and ministerial roles.

Many wonder if the Church really needs clerical ordination as the key to occupying a place in its leadership structures. It is therefore vital to dissociate ordination and jurisdiction, but this very question meets with strong resistance from the clergy and the hierarchy.

To reimagine the place of women in the Church of Asia, we must begin to deal with all women in a spirit of justice and equal opportunity. Feminism is a growing reality in our world, and it is sad that the Church is so far out of step with it.

Until now, the bishops of the Church have always imposed respect and obedience on the faithful. It is unfortunate that this respect has been largely undermined by the clergy sex scandals and the aristocratic lifestyle of so many bishops. In fact, the bishops are considered the main obstacle to synodality and ecclesial reform.

Can bishops be trained? A tough question, really. The Church has a system of seminaries of about 7-8 years to train young men intellectually and pastorally, but no such thing exists for bishops.

“Dysfunctional governance is the most significant malaise in the Catholic Church everywhere”

Apart from a few week-long “crash courses” for new bishops, he has done little to educate these, his most senior officials.

As a French bishop said, “We are expected to be gifted in finances, in management practices, and to be good pastors as well as excellent communicators…and all this at the age of fifty- five years. Impossible!”

Well, impossible or not, it is a task entrusted to those who are appointed to “supervise” (episcopate) the functioning of the Church.

For, as the lay group, Future Church, has pointed out, dysfunctional governance is the most significant malaise in the Catholic Church everywhere. Far too many bishops see their role as autocratic in nature and seek little or no engagement with the people in their dioceses.

A moment of reflection tells us that the world is changing rapidly: the digital revolution, mass migration and climate catastrophe are some “signs of the times”.

In the Church, the presence of a pope called Francis is one of these signs, as well as his initiative: synodality.

Will the bishops of Asia seize the moment to launch a process of self-discovery, “to return home another way? Will they take their respective lay people with them, as required by synodality? Their moment of decision is now.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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