Five Takeaways from the Asian Bishops’ Jubilee Conference
ANALYSIS: More than 200 delegates, including 130 bishops, representing 27 member countries, together with 40 cardinals, assembled for 19 days in October for the meeting of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.
BANGKOK — On the outskirts of a more than 10-million person metropolis, just east of a 20-story golden Buddha and across the street from an elephant park, is a Catholic oasis: Baan Phu Waan Pastoral Training Center of the Bangkok Archdiocese.
It’s a five-star venue replete with winding streams filled with speckled orange, white and black koi; a hotel, chapel, dining room, café, and conference facilities surrounding a man-made lake with illuminated fountains; and housing for retired priests within sight of a cemetery — the sobering memento mori. Basketball courts suggest students from the Catholic high school and seminary nearby are welcome.
On this remote property, more than 200 delegates, including 130 bishops, representing 27 member countries, together with 40 cardinals, assembled for 19 days in October. Yes, 19 days, the same length of time the Episcopal Conference of Latin America (CELAM) met in Aparecida, Brazil in 2007, an event organizers referred to, often, as a model for their reflection.
It was the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) first general assembly in 52 years — a half century removed from its founding in Manila, Philippines, when Pope St. Paul VI made the first papal trip to Asia and the region’s bishops gathered to greet him. (Pandemic restrictions prevented the meeting from being held in 2020, the 50th anniversary, as originally planned.)
What a privilege it was to attend portions of the conference especially because no coverage of FABC statements could convey the meeting’s intense spirit of discernment. An important caveat: “Sensitive matters” to use a bishop’s words, were discussed in closed sessions, off limits to journalists. These included religious discrimination, human rights violations, the “climate emergency,” poverty, violence against women, and even “politics … driven by a neoliberal economic system,” as outlined in a preparatory guide document. Following are five “take aways” I drew from the periphery of the celebration.
1. Synodal Consultation is Real.
Plenty of jokes about the bureaucratic sounding “synod of synods” circulate in Catholic circles, but now, I’m a believer: I saw it in action.
“Walking together” means real time consultation. In his video message to the FABC delegates, Pope Francis confided, “The fundamental question is: What is the Spirit saying to the Churches in Asia? And that is what you must answer.” Rather than entering the meeting with a pre-formulated plan, the bishops engaged with experts, laity and each other, highlighting one country each day, even conducting a “Virtual Talk Show with the Peoples of Asia” and virtual visits with parishes.
For example, in a video message from Pakistan, a priest at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in the Diocese of Lahore, Pakistan, showed the precarious poverty of brick kiln workers. We see him visiting families who live on their worksite, encouraging a father to let his children attend a parish school where Christians and Muslims learn side-by-side.
In contrast, a big parish in Pathein, Myanmar, appears far better endowed than the church in Pakistan but images of chapels under flood waters drives home the environmental dangers facing the Ayeyarwady region on the Bay of Bengal.
In Mongolia, a Salesian priest proudly describes how his parish went from “zero” to more than 300 parishioners since 2005. We watch children praying the Rosary on a bus and families in prayer at home, but the priest worries that attendance is higher for festivals than for Sunday Mass.
Kyrgyzstan’s apostolic administrator, Jesuit Father Anthony Corcoran (one of the few American-born attendees) described conference sessions as full of “beautiful humility and openness,” adding “from the roots up, people of faith are doing so many amazing things. Jesus Christ shines through the Church” in Asia.
A Thai seminarian helping with media confirmed, “The conference is successful because a lot of people are making a lot of contributions. They work very hard, even the elders. One thing I appreciate is how intensely they pray together. Every morning, the bishops ask the Holy Spirit to lead and guide.”
Commitment to the process — and to the lengthy conference itself — was genuine. I ran into Archbishop Peter Chung of Seoul, South Korea, wheeling a suitcase toward the front doors late one Friday afternoon. When I said goodbye, he assured me he’d be back in 48 hours. “We are still talking and discussing and hearing!” he exclaimed.
2. ‘Unity is Not Uniformity.’
Archbishop Chung’s local Church is well respected and demographically significant, comprising over 11% of the country’s population. The country’s last president was a practicing Catholic, with strong lines to the Holy See. The current president is baptized Catholic, too, according to Archbishop Chung. In recent decades, South Korea had so many vocations, it could send missionaries abroad.
It’s hard, at first, to see what the well-heeled Korean Church has in common with, say, the impoverished and beleaguered Church in Pakistan or in Cambodia, where just .14% of the nation is Catholic. (Under the genocidal dictator Pol Pot, in the 1970s, clergy and Church property were wiped out.)
Add to differences in wealth and size, the variation in religious context: India and Nepal are majority Hindu. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the “stans” of Central Asia (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) are majority Muslim. Many Asian nations are predominantly Buddhist: Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
Only in the Philippines and Timor-Leste are most people Catholic.
Even though Indonesians speak more than 700 languages and in India, there are more than 450, language doesn’t appear to be a force of division.
Remarkably, this diversity is lived as a strength by the Church in Asia. FABC’s 1970 founding message commits the organization to three priorities: the poor, youth, and to dialogue with “ancient and diverse cultures, religions, histories and traditions, a region like Joseph’s coat of many colors.”
Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich from Luxembourg, an expert on Japan who represented European bishops at the conference, told me he thinks the Church in Europe, increasingly a religious minority in a secular world, can learn from “the Church in Asia, which is doing wonderful work, is well accepted, and has influence beyond its size.”
3. “Missed” Chinese Presence.
Perhaps, in part, as a result of this breathtaking diversity — or, because limits imposed on a minority community become internalized by its members — the assembled bishops were emphatically non-political.
I noticed a practiced skill in deflection: Bishops were charming and engaging, especially regarding the least divisive topics. Thailand’s first cardinal, Archbishop Michael Kitbunchu, 93, the pastoral center’s visionary founder, lives in a small house on the grounds, where he is an avid gardener. Indifferent to my geo-strategic questions, he seized on my curiosity about his large pet fish, Plabuk, who lives in a tank on his front porch. The prelate even spelled out its formal name in my notebook: Pangasianodon gigas, an endangered catfish.
Americans might expect the status of the Church in China to be a fraught topic for the Asian bishops. When I approached Hong Kong Bishop Chow Sau Yan, he politely apologized that he was not giving interviews.
The only public mention of China was in response to a question I asked about the participation of mainland Chinese bishops.
According to Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Bombay and conference convenor, bishops from the People’s Republic of China weighed in on preliminary consultations, including the “guide document” outlining 15 “emerging realities and trends of concern in Asia” ranging from globalization and gender issues to migration and family values.
“We missed their presence here,” lamented Cardinal Gracias. He said “logistics” related to the pandemic blocked participation by mainland bishops, but he expects them to provide feedback on the draft final report. “If not for the pandemic, I’m sure they would have been here with us.”
The third takeaway is this: Higher profile participation of mainland Chinese bishops in the FABC should be expected in the future.
4. Mission Statement Gets an Update.
Although the final document won’t be issued for months, one could already hear ways the FABC might enhance its original pillars: commitment to the poor, youth and dialogue.
People in Asia already suffer the effects of weather extremes, deforestation, drought, and conflict over water usage. The food supply is directly impacted by changes in precipitation. Rising sea levels, poor waste management, and the loss of biodiversity cause suffering, especially among the poor. FABC’s guide document calls these “crimes against nature and future generations.”
Delegates together watched the recently released film The Letter: The Pope, the Environmental Crisis, and Frontline Leaders. An Indian youth activist featured in the film, Ridhima Pandey, age 15, spoke to delegates in person, impressing all.
“She was so authentic and articulate,” reported Karuna Amoraseth, a Muslim filmmaker educated in Thai Catholic schools, who was on FABC’s conference media team. “She was very well received.” Amoraseth assumed the activist was Catholic, but Pandey’s family is Hindu.
It will be natural for FABC to add the environmental crisis to its commitment to the poor.
The conference’s “action plan” also highlighted the increased risks posed by social media to youth. In the virtual parish tours, one priest detailed how overexposure to the internet during the pandemic had harmed the mental health of young parishioners — to the point of suicide.
The guide document poignantly expands this concern: “Where the youth have access to the internet, they are also vulnerable to being exposed to online gaming and pornography. Many develop internet addiction, which … contributes to depression, social anxiety and other ills. Many people fall prey to violence, abuse, risky sexual behavior, trafficking, prostitution and ideologies that devalue marriage and family.”
Finally, enhancing FABC commitment to dialogue will involve making peace — and conflict resolution — the precise objectives of ongoing dialogue.
Cardinal Bo explained to me at a press conference that religious leaders are best positioned to press for peace — a tactic the Holy Father has deployed throughout his papacy. “In interreligious dialogue, we have successfully helped each other. In peace and reconciliation, too,” explained Cardinal Bo.
The cardinal, who was a ubiquitous presence (circulating, chatting, consulting) was also eloquent regarding what he contents is a supposed superior quality the East has over the West: innate spirituality.
“Not that I’m making a comparison between Asia and the rest of the world, but Asian values could be shared with other places. I’m thinking of family, religious devotion, and respect for elders,” said the cardinal.
He continued, “The West has forgotten its sense of God. In Asia, everyone has a sense of religion. No one would say, ‘I am a free thinker. I have no need.’ This real sense of God is a presence in Asia that is something we should share, especially in the West.”
5. Fraternity Enhances a Future Conclave.
Witnessing the seriousness of Asian bishops in Bangkok — the time they spent, with patience, in a fraternal spirit, regardless of title — I have no doubt that greater collaboration will be the result, as well as friendship. FABC will become more unified.
It’s a positive reality with implications for the Catholic Church — and implications for the next conclave. Of Asia’s 31 cardinals, 21 are currently electors: It’s the second largest block after Europe.