Conference president reflects on his new role, responsibility

In July, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei (CBCMSB) met for their bi-annual plenary assembly during which they elected a new president — Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim of the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, succeeding the outgoing president, Cardinalelect Sebastian Franci

Aug 18, 2023

By Patricia Pereira

In July, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei (CBCMSB) met for their bi-annual plenary assembly during which they elected a new president — Archbishop Julian Leow Beng Kim of the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, succeeding the outgoing president, Cardinalelect Sebastian Francis, Bishop of Penang.

As he prepares to commence his tenure as president of the Conference in September, Archbishop Julian sees one of his key tasks as ensuring there is collaboration between the bishops and the respective commissions.

In an interview with HERALD, the archbishop made some refreshingly straightforward, and helpfully clarifying, statements about his role as president and the role of the conference.

The archbishop emphasised that it’s important for people to understand that though it’s true that the Conference president can shape (though not dictate) the work and priorities of the Conference, all decisions will be made collectively by the Conference members.

“I can give suggestions and propose ideas, but at the end of the day, it still requires the ‘buy-in’ and approval of my brother bishops,” said Archbishop Julian, who previously headed the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia.

The prelate explained that from the very beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has, in various ways, emphasised and elevated the role of national and regional episcopal conferences (the CBCMSB is a regional episcopal conference).

First, and most importantly, the Second Vatican Council, particularly in Lumen Gentium and Christus Dominus, focuses on the ministry of bishops and the principle of collegiality. Bishops are not branch managers within Catholicism’s corporate structure, nor are they mere deputies of papal authority. Bishops possess legitimate authority of their own.

“Part of the misconception might be to think that we have ultimate authority over everything about the Church. A bishops’ conference is a convening, it’s an assembly of the bishops who come together in unity to work as a college, a collegial authority, under the Pope and in union with the Pope, to address the signs of the times. That’s really the key message.

“I think sometimes when people write in or contact us, they might wish we had more immediate, local authority, that we could make this or that particular thing happen in a diocese or a parish — that’s really not the function of the Conference. A case in point would be the guidelines and dispensation during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Conference provided resources, materials and pastoral messages that the bishops then made their own and applied them locally within their respective dioceses. In essence, the Conference does not replace the work of the local bishop; rather it enhances and assists.”

Reiterating his emphasis on collaboration, the archbishop said that through the years, they have enjoyed peace and stability as a Conference because of their common goals and vision.

“This does not mean that we do not have our individual differences. As a body, we recognise diversities of opinions but we respect and abide by collective decisions. The Catholic Church is present and active in this small conference of three countries and each diocese has its own characteristics and history, and its own unique challenges and opportunities, all underpinned by our common faith. There is really unity in diversity among the bishops. One of the most important aspects of the Conference is our readiness to listen to and learn from each other’s experience. Every part of the Church in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei has something to offer the wider Church,” said the archbishop.

On whether the Conference will follow in the footsteps of Pope Francis’ Praedicate Evangelium (PE), which was on the restructuring of the Roman Curia, Archbishop Julian said that this is a great opportunity for the Conference to also move forward in the restructuring momentum of PE as they too have been discussing about restructuring for quite some time now.

“As we have embarked on this introspection of our own CBCMSB Commissions, I hope we can discover ways to improve and develop lines of communication and collaboration among ourselves. Too long have we worked in silos and I hope to prom o t e more participation among us bishops as well as our relationship with Asia through the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) and beyond. I envisage CBCMSB will contribute to the Church in Asia in particular with active bishop participation in various commissions.”

By virtue of his appointme n t a s President of the CBCMSB, Archbishop Julian is now a member of the FABC central committee. Currently, there are three bishops from the Conference who hold positions of office in the FABC ? Cardinalelect Sebastian Francis (Office of Social Communications), Archbishop Julian (Office of Education and Faith Formation) and Archbishop Simon Poh (Office of Ecumenical & Interreligious Affairs).

The archbishop went on to explain that the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur had embarked on a restructuring exercise two years ago, and has now completed its proposed streamlining of the various ministries into 10 commissions, after several discussions with “back and forth” counter proposals by the clergy.

“The first attempt at restructuring will be implemented in experimentum for the next two years, and evaluated. Structures are important to give a framework of how decisions are made and carried out and I hope to share the process and outcome of the archdiocese’s restructuring exercise with the CBCMSB in the coming year,” he added.

The prelate expressed hope that the CBCMSB will continue to play its role on the universal stage as well as pay detailed attention to the needs of the vulnerable among us. “Being a small conference, we must also look out for the little ones in our midst. Safeguarding minors and the vulnerable are high on our list of concerns. I have seen the deep desire in so many people for the Church to be authentic and faithful. The horrors of the sexual abuse crisis, and the extent of the suffering inflicted on the young and the vulnerable, will be a permanent scar on the Church. All of us, clergy and laity, must ensure we, the Church, is what it is called to be– a living and effective sign of the Lord’s presence and action in our world. “The Holy Father has stressed, and we the CBCMSB agree, that there can be no compromise on ensuring a safe environment for our children. Safeguarding is a priority for us as Church. We are trying to improve on our protocols, updating with local legislation as well as Vatican best practices,” said the archbishop.

When asked to share his personal thoughts on one of the concerns raised at the local synod discussions, i.e. ministering to the LGBTQ+ community, Archbishop Julian who will mark the ninth anniversary of his episcopal ordination in October, believes that there are times when we need to keep going back to the basics when dealing with such pastoral matters.

“The letters of St Paul, for example, with their very practical advice about how to treat each other in our communities of faith with respect, with kindness, with gentleness and with compassion, need to be taken seriously. The way in which Jesus interacts with various people in His encounters with them needs to be seen as the model of our own interactions with people. In other words, we need to be people grounded in the Scriptures.

“I live by the axiom, ‘Hate the sin but love the sinner’. We all struggle with the lure of sin. We fall so very often but we do not remain in sin. Jesus reminds us as He reminded the woman caught in adultery, “Go but sin no more”. We must know the right from wrong. We must journey with the sinner and bring back the lost — to leave the 99 in search of the one.

“In the end, we are disciples of Jesus and everything in our life, in the Church, needs to reflect this. We, as bishops, are also guardians of the deposit of Faith. We are successors of the Apostles,” said the archbishop, who concluded the interview by quoting Eph 4: 3-5 “The Church is one: She acknowledges one Lord, confesses one Faith, is born of one Baptism, forms only one Body, is given life by the one Spirit, for the sake of the one Hope.”

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