Japan’s bishops offer alternate plan for synod

This is the first of a series of NCR articles on the Synod for Asia, set for April 19 to May 14 in Rome. Pope John Paul II announced his intention to convene the synod in his 1994 encyclical Tertio Millenio Adveniente. The Vatican sent an initial outline of synod topics, called the lineamenta, to the bishops of the 40 Asian conferences in September 1996. This article deals with one response to the lineamenta, that of the Japanese bishops, who raised questions about the process itself.
NCR articles will report the responses of other Asian bishops’ conferences and the Vatican’s answer to them, its instrumentum laboris, the synod’s working document.
Synods grow out of the Second Vatican Council and have been envisioned as a consultative process by which the bishops work with the pope in setting the church’s agenda.

The bishops of Japan have returned to the Vatican a stinging rejection of its proposed agenda for next month’s Synod for Asia, saying the gathering cannot succeed if non-Asian, Vatican directives determine the content and process of the month-long proceedings.

Instead of answering questions asked by the Vatican’s lineamenta, or preparatory document, sent to Asian bishops in late 1996, the Japanese bishops’ conference came up with a list of its own issues and questions, proposing a synod more in tune with Asian realities.

The stark tone of the Japanese document reveals serious tensions between the Japanese bishops and Rome. It underscores serious differences with regard to issues of culture, theology and ecclesial mission.

The Asian synod, set to run from April 19 to May 14, will draw bishops from close to 40 Asian nations, areas of the world where Catholics remain a minority -- in some cases a growing minority. While many of the responses from the national conferences in Asia question the lineamenta, the Japanese response marks a radical repudiation of the Roman approach to running synods.

“Since the questions of the lineamenta were composed in the context of Western Christianity, they are not suitable,” the Japanese bishops wrote. “From the way the questions are proposed, one feels that the holding of the synod is like an occasion for the central office to evaluate the performance of the branch offices.”

The bishops warned that a synod following such a path is certain to fail.

To succeed, the issues addressed and the process by which they are addressed must stem from the minds of Asians, not Vatican officials, the Japanese bishops wrote.

“The decision concerning the global direction of the synod should not be made by the Roman secretariat, but should be left to the bishops from Asia.”

The Japanese bishops said the synod is further complicated by language barriers. Just translating the lineamenta took three months, they noted. They suggested to the Vatican in a 4,000-word document (see Official Response of the Japanese Church to the Lineamenta) that:

* all synod proceedings include Asian languages in addition to the Italian, English, French, German and Spanish normally used in synods;

* extra time be given to translating the synod’s working document, the instrumentum laboris, into Asian languages;

* provisions be made for simultaneous translation of synod speakers from English and French into Asian languages;

* activities be included to “work toward ... a new paradigm to include the varying realities and cultures of Asia” and its spiritual traditions;

* the synod’s agenda not be determined until after it has been convened and Asian bishops decide on it;

* committee chairpersons be chosen by the Asian bishops and not by Vatican bureaucrats; and

* participating bishops be permitted to consult with experts chosen by the local bishops.

The Japanese bishops’ document paid special attention to the 25-year-old Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences -- FABC -- saying its deliberations were not adequately represented in the Vatican lineamenta.

The Japanese bishops proposed that the practice of having a succession of bishops give reports be replaced with greater reliance on the conclusions of representatives of the two blocks of FABC and the Middle East Asian bishops. This, they said, would focus the scope of the synod and assure a better chance of developing a concrete plan.

The Japanese bishops further suggested that language groups be dissolved and replaced with clusters of bishops who meet around themes or religious cultures.

The Japanese bishops asked for the involvement of women, pointing out that women are frequently objects of discrimination in Asia. They called for inviting “experts in dialogue” from other religious traditions.

Admitting that Catholicism in Asia faces formidable challenges, the Japanese bishops said the synod must not be aimed at “discovering how the Asian church can be propped up by the Western church,” but rather be a meeting where the bishops of Asia “have an honest exchange and learn how they can support and encourage one another.”

The Japanese bishops said they found a “defensiveness” in the lineamenta, especially in its Christology.

“If we stress too much that ‘Jesus Christ is the one and only savior,’ we can have no dialogue, common living or solidarity with other religions,” they wrote. “The church, learning from the ‘kenosis’ of Jesus Christ, should be humble and open its heart to other religions to deepen its understanding of the mystery of Christ.”

They deplored the image of the church in the lineamenta, saying it “is not as rich or deep as that of Vatican II, especially the images of ‘the church as people of God’ and ‘the church as servant’ “ which, they said, “are not stressed.

“These two images have special meaning for the church in Asia, which in order to serve God’s kingdom lives in a minority position with and for others.”

The Japanese bishops said that the “proclamation of Christ,” stressed over and over in the lineamenta, must give way to dialogue with other religions.

In place of a spirit of triumphalism, they emphasized the need for “compassion with the suffering” if evangelization is to be successful.

The Japanese bishops reminded Rome that this association with the poor “has been the central evangelization theme” to emerge from repeated meetings of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences.

The Western mind thinks in terms of distinctions, and these are found in the lineamenta, the Japanese bishops pointed out. “In the lineamenta a great deal is made, as in traditional scholastic theology, of ‘distinctions’ and ‘differences.’ However, in the tradition of the Far East, it is characteristic to search for creative harmony rather than distinctions,” the bishops wrote.

They went on to criticize the lineamenta’s evaluation for success in missionary efforts, rejecting number-counting and stressing instead fidelity to mission.

The Japanese bishops then proposed topics they would like to see discussed at the synod:

* development of Asian theology “based not on a Christ whom we only grasp in our minds, but who speaks to us in our hearts through his living presence and activity.”

* a study of evangelization that includes a look at “the limits felt to the ‘Western-type’ of missionary activity used up to now;”

* development of Asian celebrations and liturgies;

* new commitments to living in solidarity with the poor;

* efforts to form public sentiment toward respect for human life, human rights, social justice, peace, freedom and solidarity; and

* inculturation of the gospel in dialogue with other religions.

The Japanese bishops concluded their document with a plea to Rome to reconsider its relationships with local churches, a relationship “not based on ‘centralization’ but on ‘collegiality.’ ”

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