Church of Asia: ‘Taking off our shoes’ expresses synodal journey
The Churches in Asia find their voice and publish their response to the Continental Stage of the Synod, which is characterized through an ancient traditional Asian custom.
The Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) released the Final Document of the Asian Continental Assembly on Synodality on 16 March.
The document is the fruit of a synthesis of the responses of the 17 Episcopal Conferences and two Synods of Oriental Churches, as well as the input of Episcopal Conference presidents and delegates in the Continental Assembly that took place in Bangkok from 24-26 February.
Asia responds to the Continental Document
Home to 4.6 billion people and the majority of the world’s billionaires, Asia also hosts a sizeable Catholic population estimated to be around 150 million people, or 3.31% of the total population.
Although a minority, the Final Document states at the outset that the Catholic Church “contributes greatly to the fields of education, healthcare, social welfare and reaching out to the poor and marginalised groups in society.”
The synodal process in Asia coincided “providentially” with the FABC 50 General Conference held in October 2022. Some of the countries were able to “involve many people from different walks of life while others were only able to gather smaller groups of people,” the document notes.
One limitation contributing to this was “the inability to translate the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) into the many vernacular languages” spoken in Asia.
Asian resonances to the DCS
A “deep love for the Church” expressed through “varied emotions like joy, sadness, vulnerability, and woundedness” is presented as the first resonance with the DCS.
The synodal process also allowed the local Churches in Asia to become more aware of “their unique contexts and rich cultures,” as well as the fact that many Christians in Asia “suffer from various threats because of keeping their faith” to the point of suffering “new forms of ‘martyrdom.’"
Among the wounds resonating with the Church in Asia are: “abuses related to finance, jurisdiction, conscience, authority, and sex,” “lack of sufficient inclusion of women in governance and decision-making,” “lack of understanding and failure in providing sufficient pastoral care to some groups of people who are part of the Church but are often struggling to feel welcomed,” “the infiltration of ideologies such as individualism, consumerism and materialism,” and the silencing of the Church’s voice by “oppressive regimes.”
It is these very “joys and wounds” that can become “opportunities” toward a “new vision in the pastoral vision of a…synodal Church,” the Final Document continues.
“The Church must begin in a spirit of inclusion where everyone feels both welcomed and a sense of belonging inside the tent. As a people of God, no one should be excluded; even if they are frail and weak, inclusivism within the Church is a must for the synodal Church.”
Several Asian realities, such as the diversity of religions, “compels” the Church to engage in dialogue, peace building, reconciliation and harmony. In fact, the document notes that “in some places, this push for dialogue has been the initiative only of the Catholic Church and there are times when reciprocity is not forthcoming.”
The Document also notes some reservation expressed in the Churches in Asia regarding dialogue. Nonetheless, there is a “strong sense” than the “inward-looking Church” in Asia needs to move toward a “mission ad-extra” through a “more missionary, communitarian and integrated approach.”
Common tensions in Asia
The Final Document notes that there is a “divide” among the various realities making up the Church often fostered by “leadership styles that prevent (sometimes even exclude) others from living out their baptismal call to be authentic disciples.”
This can be overcome through “expanding spaces for possible lay ministry,” implementing the ministry of Catechist, requiring accountability and transparency with the exercise of power, re-evaluating such phenomena such as the lack of priestly vocations and the absence of youth in the Church and incorporating people experiencing various “poverties” into the life and mission of the Church. Other tensions the Final Document touches deal with religious conflicts and clericalism.
Asia’s contribution to the new evangelization
While acknowledging the large numbers of Asians experience migration, are refugees or displaced persons, the Document acknowledges that many of them have thus “become missionaries of the gospel as they bring not only their lived experiences but also their faith.”
Thus, one way the Church can include them is by “integrating and accompanying them on this journey as new evangelizers.”
Six priorities have been identified in the Final Document presented to the Synod for the continent of Asia: Formation, Inclusivity and Hospitality, Missionary Disciples, Accountability and Transparency, Prayer and Worship and the Environment.
Each of these areas identify a facet necessary for a synodal Church that “seeks to renew the face of the earth” in imitation of Jesus who “came to redeem and reconcile all things.”
Taking off your shoes
In summing up the synodal process in Asia, the Final Document alludes to the cultural practice in Asia of removing footwear prior to entering a house or temple. It is a “sign of respect,” and an awareness of “the others whose lives we are entering into.”
Deeply evocative of the theophany Moses experienced, it reminds us that we “stand on holy ground,” thus making us “aware of the earth” that “we are called to protect and care for.” For Asia, this is a “beautiful symbol” of the synodal journey they are experiencing. It reminds them of the respect necessary to listen without prejudice, of the need to remove status symbols that create division rather than unity. Thus, for the Church in Asia:
“‘Taking off your shoes’…articulates our experience of the Church as relational, contextual and missional, journeying together in humility and hope.”
Sr Bernadette Mary Reis