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Building bridges and making connections with the vulnerable

Mary Yuen
In late July, I participated in the International Conference on Catholic Theological Ethics in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than 400 participants from about 80 countries around the world gathered together to reflect on the current ethical challenges facing the world, with focus on political crisis and lack of governance, as well as ecological and environmental issues, and responding from the perspective of Catholic moral theology.
The theme of the conference was Building Bridges for the Future. We heard analysis of some urgent issues and ethical responses from various perspectives. The importance of establishing ties and building bridges was emphasised recurrently. 
In addition to plenary presentations and intercontinental group discussions, seminars on different topics, poster exhibitions, conversations during meals and breaks, and so on, allowed participants from different places to communicate and establish connections inside and outside the venue. We also explored the possibility of future cooperation and taking action to respond to different issues. 
Pope Francis also sent a letter to the conference, encouraging participants “to recognise every sign and mobilise all our energy in order to remove the walls of division and build bridges of fraternity everywhere in the world.”
The conference took place in Sarajevo, a city of bridges, which fit well the theme of the conference. The river location and city design makes it necessary for residents and tourists to walk across bridges. Geographically, it is also the intersection of central and western Europe, as well as Europe and Asia. 
In the past, various religions, cultures and ethnic groups have lived in harmony and cooperated with each other to build the city. I visited several temples and museums which bear witness such harmony.
However, in the early 1990s, when Yugoslavia disintegrated and Bosnia sought independence, Sarajevo became the target of siege and a horrific battlefield. When I walked through the city, I saw the dents left on the exterior walls of buildings as a result of shooting and the red roses painted near the cathedral. These are the traces of conflict. 
There are also many museums, memorials and ruins in Sarajevo, recording the painful memory of this civil war. All these urge us to reflect on why human beings commit to such atrocities and how we can prevent similar incidents from happening again. The spirit of solidarity and care that was emphasised in the conference echoed these issues.
On the first day of the conference, scholars from five continents were invited to share the importance of establishing a network of relationships. 
One of the speakers, who teaches theology at the University of Sarajevo and is the first female professor in the Theology Department, pointed out that bridges are more important than houses, because the former serves equally for all and is where humans have the most demand. She believes that sincere dialogue is not just a way of thinking, but also a way of being.
In addition, a session which was considered by many participants to be the most touching and unforgettable sharing was that of four young women from the local group, Youth for Peace. 
They come from different ethnic (Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia) and religious backgrounds (Islam, Catholicism, Orthodox), but their parents or relatives experienced civil war in the 1990s and have been killed. They suffered from losing loved ones when they were young. However, they finally decided to take a step forward and participate in the Youth for Peace activities. 
They met others from different religions and ethnicities but who share similar experiences. They have established friendships with other members, trying to promote peace and encouraging people from different backgrounds to unite and no longer live in hatred. This group demonstrates that people of different religions and ethnic groups can live in peace and friendship, embodying what the pope called a path from destruction and division to reconciliation.
During the meeting, participants analysed and discussed the tensions, social divisions and ecological crises in different places. These issues are interrelated and inseparable, and they need to look for insights in the Catholic tradition. 
Many speakers, including myself, are based on the analysis of local issues and offered relevant ethical themes for further reflection in the universal Church. For example, a theology of hope calls everyone to make conversion, persist in courage, and take action in the face of crisis.  
It was suggested that moral theology is not merely a kind of knowledge or theory, but we must also try to establish connections with suffering and disadvantaged communities, no matter how small the power is. It is necessary to take moral actions courageously in a concrete way.
On the last day of the conference, a number of speakers shared their views on how to create social impact through networking and to share their opinions on establishing a social order from a prophetic perspective. 
A theologian from Uganda, who is teaching in the United States, pointed out that besides criticism, the roles of prophets like Jeremiah, include the proclamation of a new order, a new covenant and a new future, enabling the city to reconstruct and allowing people who have been despised in the past to regain respect, as well as making urban and rural life more abundant. 
An Irish theologian called for the development of ethics of vulnerability in the face of a growing lack of tolerance and the dissemination of a politics of fear. On the one hand, communities for the vulnerable should be set up. On the other, resistance must be based on the protection of human rights.
The Preparatory Committee also arranged  Mass and prayer time, especially praying for peace, as well as memorial time for the theologians who died in recent years, including Jesuit Father Lucas Chan Yiu-shing from Hong Kong, expressing gratitude for their contributions to moral theology.
Dr. Mary Yuen is a professor of Social Ethics
at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Theology and Philosophy.