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Rekindling the spirit of a Church of the poor among Asian bishops


During this 50th year since the opening of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the bishops of Asia will gather for their deferred meeting in Vietnam during December for the first Plenary Assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences since they met in Manila in 2009.

The anniversary of Vatican II is significant, as the council was a momentous event, not least of all for the Church in Asia.

The 15 or so years following the conclusion of the council in 1965 saw the Churches of Asian become acutely aware of their Asian identity, rather than being an adjunct or extension of Churches in the west.

When the late Valerian Cardinal Gracias, from Bombay in India, returned from Rome after Vatican II, he said he found that Asian bishops seemed to have more friends in Europe and northern America than they had in Asia, because they had studied abroad.

In 1970, five years after the conclusion of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI visited The Philippines. The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, which had been on the planning board for a few years, became a reality during the historical first visit of a head of the Catholic Church to Asia.

The more than 150 Asian bishops who gathered asserted that they formed an Asian Church, and that the Asian Church is a Church of the poor.

Since then, we have seen the Churches in Asia, mainly through national justice and peace commissions, dealing with issues affecting the poor and marginalised, and making high profile stands on issues in society ranging from religious freedom, suppression of human rights and law and order.

The Church in India, for example, came out strongly in support of the rights of the dalit (formerly called untouchables). The Church in Japan spoke out strongly against development of nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear power.

For the Church in Pakistan, justice and peace and the rights of women were crucial issues, because Christians there have felt the brunt of many injustices.

During that time, third world theologies also emerged as a response to the increasingly brutal and repressive regimes of the times. Sri Lanka, for example, which had so much freedom in the 1960s, suffered a brutal change. Malaysia also came under quite dictatorial regimes.

A milestone was reached in 1979, when the Office of Human Development first met in Tokyo, Japan. It decided there was a need for a mechanism to address injustices throughout Asia in a manner that went beyond making statements.

This saw the birth of Hotline Asia, which the newly-formed Centre for the Progress of Peoples was contracted to operate. It was, and still is, based in Hong Kong. 

It provides a hotline service, documenting injustice and excesses against human rights committed throughout Asia.

It gathers information, mainly from national justice and peace bodies, and sends out information through its network on Churches and Church institutions, as well as individuals, appealing for action on the issues it documents.

It suggests active ways of responding. A mainstay has been letter-writing campaigns. The centre provides addresses of government ministers, embassies and offices to write to, gives information on relevant government bodies, ambassadors and foreign offices, and tips on how to address them and suggests ways of appealing to them for action on certain issues.

But all the time the bottom line is that issues must be well researched and documented.

The mood in Asia during the first 15 years following Vatican II was one of a strong desire and urgency to take the council’s ideas and ideals forward, because these represented the voice of the universal Church.

Then a pope with a personality that had massive public appeal arrived on the scene in 1978 in the person of Pope John Paul II. He had a slightly different focus.

His Polish background gave him a strong solidarity with working people. The more conservative voices in the Church started to become extremely nervous and began pushing their own agenda. Now, we have a mix of different voices within the Church.

But the dynamism of those years is certainly not around anymore. In the last two decades, dynamic Asian bishops have become fewer and fewer. The Philippines is a good example of this, probably because the bishops have had far fewer opportunities.

After Vatican II, there was a tremendous number of formation programmes organised for Asian bishops and other Church leaders.

Between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, seven Bishops’ Institutes for Social Action were held. The eighth did not come for another 25 years—last January in Bangkok, Thailand.

This malaise has led some people, such as the late Japanese bishop, Stephen Fumio Cardinal Hamao, to say there should be a Vatican III, so that the bishops themselves could again make a strong stand.

There is a certain dynamism when all the bishops gather together.

Today, bishops have to be shepherds in a vastly different environment.

Recently there have been changes in the English liturgy. When the priest says, “The Lord be with you,” we are to respond, “And with your spirit,” instead of, “And also with you.”

The Japanese, in particular, find this extremely difficult and have asked to be allowed to keep using the old formula. There are forces in the Church in favour of what many people call these small, insignificant changes in the liturgy, while others maintain there are more important basic human issues that are not being addressed.

This is where there is a need for a new dynamism. The Asian bishops’ upcoming plenary assembly could well be an opportunity to recover the former dynamism of the Church in Asia.

Having Oswald Cardinal Gracias, from Bombay, as the secretary general to the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences will give it more strength.

Each office should prepare and come up with good documentation on issues affecting the poor and marginalised, and basic rights of the people in their countries.

People have to see there is a solid stand that is in line with Vatican II and the teaching of the Church.

There is hope. I feel something more dynamic will emerge in this plenary assembly. Currently, we have many new bishops in Asia who have not yet met each other. There is a certain dynamism present when they come together.

The upcoming plenary in Vietnam should be a much anticipated event (UCAN).


Father Bonnie Mendes