Fifty years is a unique occasion to rejoice and thank God for what Federation Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC) has achieved with God's grace and the guidance of the Spirit. They have been incredible years to be etched in golden letters in the history of Asian Christianity. The celebrations were inaugurated at the shrine of Blessed Nicholas Bunkerd at Kitamrung, Thailand on 20 August, 2022. Asian Christians will see a large number of bishops in Bangkok gathering for more than two weeks during 12 – 30 October, 2022. Is not the jubilee a great occasion to take stock of the past and reorientate this institution toward the future?
As someone who delivered the keynote address at FABC Plenary Assemblies in Tokyo (1986) and Bandung (1990), and who served as secretary of the FABC Office of Theological concerns for over a decade, it is for me a happy occasion to recall what has been and turn my gaze toward the future.
What have been some of the significant achievements of this transnational ecclesial body? They are too many to enumerate. But I would like to highlight just three -- the most striking ones with enduring impact.
First, FABC has helped in the maturation process of the Asian local Churches, each in its own way, by creating bonds of communion and exchange among them, breaking the isolation of these Churches of the past missionary era. As a result, there has been a sharp consciousness of the distinct Asian identity of the Churches in the region and a growing awareness of shared history and culture that go back millennia. There is now a common resolve to foster Christian life, mission and engagement in the Asian multi-religious and multi-cultural situation and in the evolving socio-political contexts of the Asian continent. The growing self-confidence of Asian bishops, thanks to FABC, could be sensed in the preparation and deliberations of the Asian Synod, Rome, in 1998.
Second, FABC has contributed to the development of a theology of religion and theology of dialogue in a distinct way and rooted in Asian experience and history. Most forms of the theology of religion developed in the West in conceptual terms and their comparative religious approach fell far short of what Asians practice and understand by religion. It called for a fresh rethinking on revelation and the vocation of other religions in the divine economy of salvation. It meant the development of a different framework. The very first document of the FABC Office of Theological Concerns was the formulation of "Theses on Inter-religious Dialogue", which captured the spirit and mood of FABC and formulated an Asian theological approach to the task of inter-religious dialogue. Highlighting the global significance of FABC's effort, I would say it has set a different paradigm in the theology of religion and dialogue, whose significance, I think, is now slowly being realised in the West and in other parts of the world.
This was achieved despite unfortunate events which cast a long shadow on the Asian continent. I cannot refrain from referring to the excommunication of an Asian activist – Tissa Balasuriya -- for his theological statements, which hardly anybody took note of, and the process against Fr Jacques Dupuis S.J. In hindsight, they look like shadow-boxing. The other unfortunate incident is the remarks by the highest authorities in the Church on Buddhism, which were perceived as derogatory and unenlightened. That reminds me of the memorable words of Karl Rahner, who said that we know from history and experience that even the highest authority in the Church is not free from error.
Despite such shadows, FABC has made its mark as a transnational ecclesial body with a decisive and singular contribution on the inter-religious front. It has led the universal Church to rethink its traditional theology of religion and dialogue. FABC’s theological perspectives have slowly seeped into even the magisterial documents of Rome. We are beginning to see its impact today.
Third, the Asian understanding of the Church and its mission in the light of the Kingdom of God served as a bridge for collaboration to transform the world with people of other religions and people of goodwill. The fact that the Kingdom of God is larger than the Church, and cannot be equated with it, allows ample spaces for dialogue and cooperation with peoples of other faiths and other bodies involved in the transformation of society and the world. As a result, there has come about a refreshing and contextual understanding of the Christian mission, despite efforts to impose on Asia an understanding of the mission of a colonial vintage. Asia, being a pot-pourri of both religions and cultures, forms a unique lab for an ‘evangelization with’ rather than an ‘evangelization to’.
As if responding to such impositions, the Japanese bishops said in their report for the Asian Synod, “Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but in Asia, before stressing that Jesus Christ is the Truth, we must search much more deeply into how he is the Way and the Life. If we stress too much that ‘Jesus Christ is the One and Only Saviour’, we can have no dialogue, common living, or solidarity with other religions. The Church learning from the kenosis – self-emptying -- of Jesus Christ should be humble and open its heart to other religions to deepen its understanding of the Mystery of Christ”.
I think kenosis is a crucial concept for understanding dialogue and mission in Asia, and the Japanese bishops hit the nail on the head.
Speaking of mission, I learn, in the context of FABC jubilee celebrations, one speaks of the need to pass on from a "mission Church" and become a “missionary Church”. To my mind, it is a well-intentioned but flawed distinction. It operates from the binary thinking of colonial and post-colonial. If I interpret this distinction rightly, we in Asia were "mission Churches" in colonial times.
Now that we have grown, we have become a Church that sends missionaries to other parts of the world, and hence, a "missionary Church". Such a distinction is relatively marginal. It is also off the mark from the principal trajectory of mission and its reconception in Asia in the light of the differentiation of the Church from the Kingdom of God. Mission in Asia will be pursued in the spirit of the ultimate meaning of the presence of the Church in the world, in society, and among people. Documents such as Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II on Church in the Modern World, Evangelii Nuntiandi of Pope Paul VI and Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis are to be read and assimilated for the practice of mission in Asia, and the 50th anniversary of FABC is a beautiful occasion for that.
The Triple Engine of FABC
The dynamism of FABC comes from its various offices. This body's health and growth depend very much on how effectively it functions. Each of its multiple offices has contributed significantly to the organisation's overall growth. If I were to single out for special commendation, I would think of three offices:
First and foremost is the Office of Human Development, whose contribution has been remarkable, thanks to great thinkers like Bishop Julio Labayan and Bishop Francis Claver of the Philippines, and Cardinal Soter Fernandes of Malaysia, inspiring this office. Another most active and creative office has been the Office of Inter-religious Dialogue and Ecumenism which relentlessly pursued a vigorous Asian trajectory for inter-religious understanding, thanks to its long-time secretary Fr Poulet-Mathis S.J. and the chairperson, the brilliant Archbishop Angelo Fernandes, and later Archbishop Felix Machado. To this, we must add a most productive body -- the Office of Theological Concerns -- with some landmark documents such as the one on dialogue, local Church, Church and politics, Asian theological methodology, etc. The vision, insights, and initiative generated by these three engines of FABC percolated to other offices and contributed to their flourishing. Finally, it should be acknowledged that some of the most innovative initiatives took place through the hard work and encouragement of Archbishop Henry D'Souza of Kolkata, who served quite a long time as the secretary of FABC.
The heritage of the first three decades of FABC has served as a sure point of reference for it. But unfortunately, the last two decades have turned FABC into a part of the maintenance Church with few creative impulses, ideas, and initiatives. The generation of tall Asian bishops with far-sighted vision has given way to a lethargic, mediocre and pallid status quo leadership. It is careful to maintain its power-hold and consequently fearful of new ideas and new impulses. These are judiciously excluded and kept out. From a source emanating continuous new energy and vision, the fountains of FABC seem to be drying up fast. How sad! And how urgently change is needed.
Looking ahead, I see at least five major challenges that FABC needs to address urgently and in a prophetic spirit.
First, there are political realities. I mean, the relationship between the Church and the State in several countries cannot but be a matter of serious concern. We think of countries such as mainland China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea. In South Asia, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka are not far from authoritarianism. And then there are several Churches in central Asia that are struggling Churches. Authoritarianism and totalitarianism of various hues are major issues which FABC needs to face in the coming years in its relationship to the state. This calls for a prophetic presence of the Asian Churches. Not Churches bending backwards to free themselves from problems and draw some small benefits for themselves and their institutions.
A strongly clerical Church, like the Asian Churches, unfortunately, will not be able to face the political issues of the continent. It requires absolutely the involvement of all the Christian faithful. Small negotiated band-aid settlements could bring about temporary relief for the Church establishment without addressing the root causes. The willingness of several church leaders to serve as acolytes of totalitarian powers for short gains does not augur well for the Church in Asia. The entire local Church needs to reflect on the political situation of their respective countries and not only the clerics who could easily get drawn into power-politics.
The second issue is the growing inequality between the poor and the rich. What an irony, the second richest man in the world today is from one of the poorest countries of Asia – India -- and that is the latest revelation of Forbes. According to an Oxfam Report, in 2017, 73% of the wealth created went to 1% of India’s population. It is a metaphor for what is happening in Asia with wealth accumulation by a few and abysmal negation of dignified life for millions of Asians. Lesser inequality in societies, as many studies show, reduces chances of violence and increases prospects of peace and wellbeing. The challenge of inequality needs to be addressed by Asian Churches in collaboration with peoples of other religions and new social movements.
A third challenge is human rights violations – of women, children, Dalits, tribals, indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees, unorganized labourers, domestic helps and others. The dignity of the human person and the pursuit of the common good is an integral part of the Gospel, and they have been the bedrock of the social teachings of the Church. Asian Churches need to get cracking on this intractable issue of human rights violation rampant in Asia, especially with growing authoritarianism.
Fourth, one of the most bio-diverse worlds is in Asia. The degradation of nature in the name of development is something pervasive. The vast network of Asian Churches, inspired by bodies such as FABC, should embark on concrete action to save the poor whose lot is inextricably tied to a sustainable environment. There is an inevitable connection between poverty and environmental degradation. Asian Churches, with their large network, could contribute to addressing this burning issue.
The fifth and final challenge, which will help address the four other issues, is to make FABC genuinely function in the spirit of synodality. There needs to be constant exchange with the people of God, their faith, aspirations, dreams for the Church, seeking actively their deliberation, and active participation. I wonder to what extent the spirit of synodality was there in preparing for the Jubilee of FABC. FABC, functioning in the spirit of synodality and with more significant role to the people of God, will be in a far better position to face the other four challenges I mentioned. The motto of the jubilee celebration reads “Journeying together as Peoples of Asia…They went a different way” (Mt 2:12). If there is no real connect with the grassroots of the Church, what will happen is – to tweak the jubilee motto a bit – the people will journey together, and the prelates will go a different way!
I think FABC has a lot to learn in this respect from other transnational ecclesial bodies such as the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SESCAM), which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary of foundation in 2019. A beautiful example of how people were involved in thinking together with the leaders is the way the conference at Aparecida, Brazil, of CELAM was conducted in which then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio played a crucial role. It was a collective effort of the entire Latin American Church. FABC has the opportunity to combine courage and creativity in fashioning a model that fully involves the laity, brings women into the heart of leadership and shifts away from a hierarchical model that will reflect the spirit of synodality.
We wish that the gathering of the bishops of Asia in early October in Bangkok does not become yet another clerical fanfare and carousel at huge expense but becomes genuinely an occasion to reflect and discern with the entire people of God the future course of the Asian Churches.
(The writer is a former secretary of the Office of Theological Concerns of FABC)