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Bishops reflect vast and varied conditions of Church in Asia

COLOMBO (SE): The more than 140 bishops that came together for a plenary meeting around the theme of family life with officials from the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from November 28 to December 4, showed the great diversity in makeup, experience and situation of the Church in Asia.

Bishops from countries with widespread poverty, poor governance and often from a Church living within a hostile environment, met with those from much wealthier and more orderly societies, but most reflected the great difficulties currently facing the life of the Catholic family in Asia.

The newest cardinal to be added to its ranks, John Cardinal Ribat, pointed out that his Church of Papua New Guinea differs from many in Asia, as it is young, vibrant and without the long-standing cultural tradition that many countries enjoy.

This contrasted strongly with the input from Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, from the Syro-Malabar Church of India, which has roots going back to the early Church of the apostles and today, because of migration, fills many churches in Australia, northern America and Europe.

This also contrasted strongly with the newest Church in Asia, Mongolia. 

Its current history only dates back to 1991 and today it has just 1,300 Catholics, who Bishop Wenceslaus Padilla pointed out can hardly make an impact on society.

The archbishop of Port Moresby added that in his nation a sizeable percentage of the population is Christian, which makes it quite different from the minority Churches in most parts of the continent.

He also pointed to an area of dynamism in the Asian Church, as he thanked bishops from other countries for continuing to send missionaries to his homeland to share their tradition of faith and support its growing communities.

Cardinal Ribat said that Papua New Guinea does not suffer from the problem of childlessness that Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami, from Japan, mentioned, where less than 38 per cent of all households in the country have any children.

The archbishop of Nagasaki added that most Catholics are alone, especially in the cities, as the bulk of marriages are interfaith and the increase in single parent families has left one in six children classified as poor.

“However, spiritual poverty is more visible than material poverty” he said, which is breeding a rise in child violence, discrimination, hate speech and a growing suicide rate.

The prefect for the Congregation of the Evangelisation of Peoples, Fernando Cardinal Filoni, took up the theme of the family in addressing the Asian bishops saying, “I really encourage you to be close to the Asian families in order to accompany them in their mission as evangelisers, missionaries and teachers of faith.”

He continued, “Surely the Asian Catholic family has an advantage to evangelise people from the perspective of the poor and hence create an intercultural Asian Catholic community from the same context.”

He praised the bishops for choosing the family as the theme of the meeting as they play an important role in forming and shaping a merciful Church in a region characterised by widespread poverty.

He said that this creates an obvious context for the growth of a Church with an option for the poor.

In his summing up of the seven-day gathering, the president of the Asian conferences, Oswald Cardinal Gracias, encouraged his fellow bishops to instill in the families of their Churches a passion for Jesus, a passion for his people and a passion for his mission.

Another who recently became a first for his country, Patrick Cardinal D’Rozario, from Dhaka in Bangladesh, reflected that his new rank is a sign of a Church that recognises the importance of its tiny minorities, something that he has seen growing in the meetings of the Asian conferences since he first attended one in 1990.

He remarked that he has seen a greater understanding across the board, as most bishops now have a better knowledge of life in neighbouring countries and across the chopstick and hand cultural divide.

He remarked that the meetings are no longer dominated by bishops from the larger, more established Churches of Asia.

While many bishops spoke of the fragmentation of the family in modern society, Telesphore Cardinal Troppo, from the tribal area of India, said, “We find that the tribal villages across Asia are emerging as a force in the Church.”

He explained that living within their own social, cultural and traditional milieu, they can easily radiate the new life received in faith. “Sharing is the way of tribal community life,” the cardinal said.

However, the Asian Church is certainly not spared from the violence of hatred and discrimination, or persecution, and Bishop Benny Travas, from Pakistan, said that his tiny minority Church faces the violence of the blasphemy laws, poverty and drug addiction, as well as scarcity of priests, which has led to leakage to other Christian Churches, while foreign missionaries have a difficult time getting visas.

“Christians, who are mostly villagers, also suffer from poverty and powerlessness,” he said.

He added that while Christians openly seek liberation from poverty and discrimination, and yearn to own a house and have a good job, deep in their hearts they also seek closeness to God.

On the other side of poverty, Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-jong, from South Korea, spoke of the difficulties faced by the Church in an affluent society, which, like its neighbour Japan, is facing an increasingly hidden poverty with the collapse of the middle class and increasing unemployment.

He spoke of the corruption that is headline news today and the despair that this breeds in the hearts of people as it chips away at their ability to sustain a realistic hope.

He added that this leaves young couples hesitant to marry and even more hesitant to have children, because of the polarisation of wealth and severe economic inequality… (and) preferential economic policies for the rich.”

He concluded that these dynamics militate directly against the development of both religious faith and spiritual values in the family.

He also addressed another big challenge to the Church of Asia; caring for the increasing number of migrant workers being hosted in many countries, many of whom are female and continually suffer from social discrimination and inequality.

The position in the Church of women was discussed and there was general agreement that the infrastructure of the federation itself is ill-equipped to deal with this and to date, has lagged in its development.

At the conclusion of the gathering the bishops ventured to the cathedral church in Colombo to pray for the families of Asia and, reflecting the theme of their gathering, The Asian Catholic Family: Domestic Church for the poor on a mission of mercy pronounced a 159-word act of consecration, which takes the Holy Family of Nazareth as its model.

The term Holy Family refers to a liturgical celebration in honour of Jesus, Mary and Joseph as a family and considered a model for all Christian families.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you lived in Asia. We praise, glorify and thank you as the sublime family, the example of a sanctuary of love and life, a living gospel, the icon of God’s mercy and compassion,” the bishops said in their act of consecration.

They consecrated the families of Asia to the Holy Family in all the problems they face and asked the Holy Spirit to inspire them to reach out to other families, especially in the vast and varied situations of life in Asia today.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph be the companion of our Catholic families in Asia in their journey to become, in word and deed, domestic Churches of the poor on a mission of mercy and compassion. Amen,” the concluded.

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