Listening to the voices

Charles Bertille, the Executive Secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei gives a synopsis of the recently concluded Malaysia Pre-Synod Assembly held in Penang on July 11.

Jul 15, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a period of vulnerability for everyone. But it has also proven to be a providential period. It has helped us to see the inequalities in our societies, the need to accompany the vulnerable towards broader social inclusion, to strengthen safety nets and build back together. We realised the need to ‘walk together’ as we had been relying so much on the ordinary daily life heroes – the front-liners, educators and those in the service industry – to make it through.

Every diocese spoke of the challenges of reaching out to the people and going to the peripheries as part of the synod consultation during the pandemic and MCOs. Yet for the pastors who reached out, the synod process has opened up various opportunities, and stimulated the need to rethink pastoral activities and plans. People have never been consulted in this manner before — for many it was the first time they were being asked their opinions. And now they wish to see some fruition from all their contributions. For others, the Synod exercise offers an opportunity to discover and articulate through all the consultations, the identity or uniqueness of the Malaysian Church.

The reports from the nine arch/dioceses, represents the voices of tens of thousands of people across a wide cross-section from Sabah, Sarawak and Semenanjung, and which included:

-- Geographical frontiers – urban cities to rural interiors without adequate infrastructure or internet access.

-- Existential peripheries – young people, women, children, Orang Asli, differently-abled, LGBT, the rural poor and others.

-- Language and Cultural groups – with different ways of perceiving the world and Church and in expressing their needs.

-- Diverse vocations and ministries – single, married or separated, clergy and religious engaged in various ministries.
The motivation encountered varied from enthusiasm and surprise – that they were being asked to share their opinions by Mother Church – to ignorance of the synodal process, indifference – if the exercise would make any difference – and resistance to any form of change. Like a photograph, these reports reflect “They joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of God.” (cf. GS#1) – as such we do not need to fear nor edit them.

As part of bringing together the various feedback and recommendations, a three-part framework was used for the preliminary synthesis as follows:

1. Leadership and institutional frameworks
Across all dioceses, it was reported that fear of authority, clergy and hierarchy was inhibiting and preventing persons from speaking up – a fear that they will be judged and put aside if they do so. Feeding on this was the phenomenon of favouritism or exclusivism – those with wealth and status were said to have a greater influence on decision making than others. The call was to go beyond current models of leadership and governance that are corporate, seniority-VIP based, centralised, over-dependent on clergy, to a decentralised, collaborative and empowering model based on the person of Jesus.

Some dioceses reported that the existing structures of governance do not allow for charisms and talents of the people to bloom or it is no longer coherent with the diocese’ vision-mission – thus the pastoral plans of the diocese remain unachieved.

2. Empowering communities and inculturating our way of being Church
Malaysia is rich with different ethnic groups, cultures and religions. There was a call from many dioceses to appreciate this multi-cultural presence even within the Church and to tap into the traditional resources and wisdom of the people, e.g. the traditional longhouse culture of dialogue for decision-making and resolving conflicts and difficulties. This will be our contribution to nationhood. There is a need to listen and to be listened to, to build genuine relationships and community, to be inclusive, courageous in expressing our views, have well-prepared and relevant homilies. A sign of hope and resource is that some of these methods and approaches are being lived out in some small groups, ecclesial movements and BECs.

3. Christ-centred outreach and compassion for those in the margins
Christian discipleship invites us to set out as missionary-disciples to all the peripheries of our society. A number of dioceses used the term ‘to be a compassionate Church’. This will require formation programmes, cross-ministry efforts as opposed to working in silos, and dialogue which has to go beyond Church to include ‘pastoral work’ with other communities.

In summary, for Participation to grow, we need to review our practice of leadership and institutional structures. Communion invites us to empower local communities to take the lead for mission and service, and inculturate our way of being Church locally. Mission requires us to build up missionary disciples with a compassionate heart for those in the peripheries. All three converge on a conversion of hearts.

We are invited to inhabit this space of vulnerability, that is — to know the truth of our lives and the life of the Church today, to be listening to the cries of our brothers, sisters and creation, and to the promptings of the Spirit. We are invited to learn-grow-trust and go beyond. Faith without such vulnerability can become rigid and extreme. We journey together, bishops-priests-religious-laity, as one people of God towards becoming a synodal Church

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