As families struggle, universal Church seeks views from the ground up

Last weekend, I caught up with my old Standard Six classmate over drinks of limau ais at a local nasi kandar restaurant. As we reminisced, he shared with me some of the pressures he faced in raising two teenagers.

Mar 05, 2015

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
Last weekend, I caught up with my old Standard Six classmate over drinks of limau ais at a local nasi kandar restaurant. As we reminisced, he shared with me some of the pressures he faced in raising two teenagers.

His children, he said, were caught up in a materialistic world. They often felt they were behind their classmates in buying the latest gadgets, especially smartphones. He had passed them a couple of hand-me-down phones, but the boys would complain that the phones were ‘laggy.’

Now that they are approaching the end of secondary school, the prospect of paying for college or university education looms. “I told my boys, no private colleges for them, whether foreign or local. I just can’t afford it. They will have to be satisfied with the public universities.” Many of the next generation parents are worrying about sending their children to national schools, even at the primary level, given the declining standards — which the government, of course, denies. Another couple I spoke to complained that some of the national schools increasingly resemble religious schools.

Consequently, fewer parents of minority faiths are sending their children to these schools. Instead, they are sending them to expensive private schools, following either the Malaysian syllabus or international curricula My friend said that he had checked out one new international school opening in mainland Penang and was told that the package cost of education from primary to secondary level would come up to a cool RM500,000. He didn’t bother enquiring further.

The rising costs of living under our neoliberal model — education, health care, and now even food — has placed tremendous pressure on the family. The drain on public funds as a result of rampant corruption, rent-seeking, new GST along with lower taxes for the super- rich, means there is little money left for subsidies on essential services and welfare spending for the majority.

All this puts a tremendous strain on the family unit. Worse, in our highly individualised, self-centred, acquisitive society, the extended family has shrunk as family members increasingly fend for themselves. This comes precisely at a time when people have to pay more and more for essential services such as education, health care and housing. Many, in their 20s and 30s, are no longer able to afford housing.

Even marriage and the related ceremonies have become expensive, what more the cost of raising a family. This is happening at a time when the real wages of workers have remained relatively flat despite increases in productivity.

It was against a similar backdrop in many countries that the Bishop of Rome convened an extraordinary Synod of Bishops last year on The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelisation. Francis encouraged the bishops to be frank and open in discussing the challenges facing the family, and heated debates ensued.

The carefully worded concluding document of the Synod, the Relatio Synodi, reflects the tough debates that took place on contentious issues such as how to deal with remarried divorcees, homosexuals, and divorce and remarriage within the Church, cohabitation, mixed marriages and fragile families. How should Church ministries support families faced with all kinds of difficulties? Is the Church out of touch with the concerns of ordinary families?

One ground-breaking approach adopted was to expand the synodal process by soliciting the views of ordinary people in the universal Church. To this end, the Synod Secretariat came up with a list of 46 questions, based on the Relatio Synodi, for the universal Church to reflect on and provide their views.

The Relatio Synodi and the 46 questions is known as the Lineamenta (the Latin term for the preparatory document) for the General Synod of Bishops on the Family from October 4-25, 2015. The full theme of the Synod is The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and Contemporary World.

So now, we are in between the two Synods on the family, and we Christians are expected to provide our views on the outcome of the extraordinary Synod last year. For this, we are to use the 46 questions based on the Relatio Synodi as our guide.

Unfortunately, the language and sheer length of the 46 questions makes it a daunting challenge to wade through. It doesn’t help that the language is carefully worded, presumably to strike a balance between the conservatives and the progressives among the bishops. The language is also quite theological, in some cases long-winded, thus hardly accessible to the average reader. (Perhaps the drafters could benefit from attending a few writers workshops!)

If these questions were to be sent out to the parishes for ordinary people to respond to, it is doubtful that the Malaysian Church would be able to provide much of a meaningful response from the ground.

Thankfully, a small group of Christians in Penang have done a tremendous service to the local Church. They came together recently, over a couple of days, to expertly summarise the 46 questions in simpler language. The full text of the Lineamenta (the daunting version!) and the more accessible summaries of the key questions can be viewed and downloaded at www.pgdiocese.org (look under Lineamenta).

Both, the summarised version and the full text have been sent to parishes in the Penang diocese to be disseminated widely to various groups such as BECs, religious congregations, lay movements and other Church organisations.

The hope is that all these groups will reflect on, and respond to, the questions. They can send their views by March 31, 2015, either by email to goodshepherdcs@gmail.com or, by post to Penang Diocesan Family Life Centre c/o Assumption Church, 3 Lebuh Farquhar, 10200 Penang. Responses should include the name of the respondents or groups and their complete addresses.

Those who do not belong to any groups are not forgotten. They may attend two open forums which would allow individuals to present their views. The first forum is on March 8 from 3.00pm to 6.00pm at the Church of St Michael in Ipoh. A second one will be held on March 15 from 2.00pm to 5.00pm at the Penang Diocesan Family Life Centre in Assumption Church, Penang.

This is a ground-breaking move by the Bishop of Rome to solicit the views of ordinary Christians to give more meaning to the synodial process and reflect the concerns of the universal Church. So make sure you participate and share your concerns about the family and the Church. This is your chance.

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