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Asian bishops gathered in Vietnam warmly welcomed by government


HONG KONG (SE) : One hundred delegates, including 71 bishops from 22 countries in Asia, gathered at Xuan Loc, to the east of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, on December 10 for the delayed Tenth Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) at which the 40th anniversary of its foundation was marked, under the theme, FABC after 40 years: Responding to the challenges of Asia.

In a controversial move, media was banned from attending the plenary sessions, however, papers presented by the bishops and other information was posted daily on the FABC website.

The plenary opened with a concelebrated Mass attended by representatives of the major religions in Vietnam and a welcoming ceremony was also attended by government officials.

Despite fears that the delay in calling the conference caused by the clash with Pope Benedict XVI’s unscheduled appointment of new cardinals would create problems with the government of Vietnam, all delegates received a warm welcome.

A representative of the civic authorities stressed the appreciation of his government to the Catholic Church for the role it has played in the cultural, moral and political growth of both the local community and the country at large.

In an extravagant gesture of welcome, he presented the papal legate to the assembly, the former archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, and the governing body of the federation with three man-sized flower arrangements.

Cardinal Rosales and the president of the federation, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, thanked the government for the warm welcome extended to all delegates from the moment they arrived at Tan Son Nhat Airport to when they reached the assembly venue.

They also promised that all Catholics in Vietnam would strive to be good citizens and make their contribution to the future development of the country.

The host of the assembly, John-Baptist Cardinal Pham Minh Man, from Ho Chi Minh City, said that for the past 35 years the Church in his country has been accompanying people as they strive to rebuild after the almost total destruction of the war that ended in 1975.

Reflecting on the changes he has witnessed during his life as a priest, Cardinal Pham said, “In my crowded city, there are two big challenges. First, after 1975, many people and the diocese itself were suffering many losses, loss of properties, loss of freedoms. Secondly, today people live in many kinds of freedom, freedom of the market economy system, freedom of the struggle for life, freedom of the race to consumerism and hedonism, freedom of abortion, of divorce...”

He added that in common with most Asian cities, “These freedoms open the way to economic development and at the same time to many social evils. They render the gap between rich and poor bigger, the spiritual desertification more arid.”

The conference reflected on how the dreams of a few bishops during the 1960s, combined with the openness of Pope Paul VI empowered the bishops of Asia to work together over the past four decades.

Discussion centring around the working paper for the assembly, Responding to the challenges of Asia, The New Evangelisation, began with bishop after bishop giving short summaries of the particular needs of their local Churches and the blocks they see to evangelisation.

As a sign of ongoing expansion, the federation welcomed its newest member, Timor Leste, which recently expanded to three dioceses, enabling it to form a bishops’ conference.

The newest nation in Asia has a small, but predominately Catholic population, whereas Turkmenistan, from which it stole the newest mantle, has a much bigger population and the smallest Catholic population in Asia.

It numbers less than 150 people, including diplomats, Filipino workers and expatriate business people, but is constantly expanding, albeit slowly, so deemed healthy.

John Cardinal Tong Hon, the bishop of Hong Kong, expressed his dream for the Church in the land that is very dear to his heart. “I hope one day that the FABC assembly can take place in mainland China,” he said.

However, he added that before reaching this goal the issue of the appointment of bishops must first be resolved… Thus a dialogue between China and the Holy See is urgently required.”

He then pointed to many similarities between Vietnam and China, saying that the prosperity in the Church and society in Vietnam brought to mind the Church in China.

“Since the 1970s, I have visited Catholics in China over 100 times. The last time was this past March, after I became a cardinal. I see similarities between the Church in Vietnam and that of China. Catholics in both countries are fervent and dedicated,” he reflected.

The bishop of Hong Kong pointed out that although his own diocese has been active in interfaith dialogue, it is impossible to have such a conversation with the mainland government, consequently, there were no representatives from the Church in the mainland able to attend the gathering in Vietnam.

“We cannot permit dialogue with a quasi-religion, namely communism in mainland China. For them, atheism is their faith, their religion.” No representative from the Church in mainland China was able to attend the FABC assembly.

Cardinal Rosales read a message from the pope to all delegates at the plenary assembly, as bishops reflected on the many problems they see stifling the development of freedom and a fertile land in which to sow the word of God, especially immediate threats to life, as illustrated by the nuclear spill in Japan last year.

In a gesture towards reconciliation among all people of Asia, Bishop Peter Kang U-il, from Cheju in South Korea, apologised to the people of Vietnam for the 5,000 civilians whom Korean troops summarily killed between 1968 and 1974.

The atrocities committed by South Korean soldiers during the conflict that Americans refer to as the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War.

In a private intervention at the assembly on December 13, the bishop said that soldiers from his country may have killed as many as 40,000 Vietnamese in military actions.


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