The Church is on the move ... slowly, but surely

The recently concluded Asian Continental Assembly on Synodality held at Baan Phu Waan Pastoral Training Centre near Bangkok, Thailand, was attended by more than 80 participants and delegates representing 29 Asian countries.

Mar 17, 2023

The Universal Church is bustling these days. Ever since Pope Francis announced the two-year Synodal Process beginning October 10, 2021 to October 2023 (later extended to Oct 2024), the Catholic Church throughout the world had been busy organising its Synodal Assemblies and dialogue sessions with all stakeholders in the Church; namely, clergy, religious and laity.

The 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, commonly referred to as the Synod on Synodality, which will conclude in October 2024, with its theme For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission is truly creating a buzz in every corner of the Catholic world. This level of participation by so many people has probably never been seen since Vatican Council II in 1962-1965.

The recently concluded Asian Continental Assembly on Synodality held at Baan Phu Waan Pastoral Training Centre near Bangkok, Thailand, was attended by more than 80 participants and delegates representing 29 Asian countries. According to Vatican’s estimates, as at Dec 31, 2019, the number of Catholics in Asia stands at 149.1 million, making up just 3.31 per cent of the total Catholic population worldwide. Evidently the 80 participants, representing these 149 million, carried a heavy responsibility in bringing forward the concerns of such a vast diverse array of Catholics in the continent.

Reading from the news reports and testimonies from participants at the Asian Assembly, I feel a great sense of awe.

They are participants of a Church event that will go down in church history, and the responsibility of carrying forward their experiences to be collated into an Asian response itself is awesome. It brings to reality what we have been taught — that the Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. That people of 29 nationalities, different cultures and backgrounds, can be united as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, in ‘mutual listening, in which each one has something to learn,’ as how Cardinal Mario Grech, Secretary General of the Synod put it, when he addressed the Asian Continental Assembly.

Back home in Malaysia, the synodal process is not something new. In 1975, the Catholic Church in Peninsular Malaysia began our journey with Aggiornamento, called in Aug 1976, where 126 priests participated in a month-long process to map out the renewal process of the local Church in response to the Call of Vatican Council II. Every 10 years since, the Church in Peninsular Malaysia has had its Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Conventions (PMPC), where several representatives from the laity and religious, together with the clergy, gathered to discern, listen and sometimes engage in constructive deliberations. At PMPC I held in 1986, a total of 171 people participated. PMPC II in 1996 had 390 participants, PMPC III in 2006 had 530 participants, and PMPC IV was in 2016 with 610 participants. In total, counting the clergy, more than 1,700 Catholics took part in our local version of the synodal process, with hundreds more who had participated in preparatory sessions at parish and diocese levels.

For this Synod on Synodality process, according to The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei (CBCMSB)’s Synod Synthesis Report dated Aug 15, 2022, an estimated 66,329 people from the three archdioceses and six dioceses in Malaysia responded to the 10-point thematic questionnaire given out in 2021/2022. Counting the number of participants at the local level parish pastoral assemblies, the parish study days, at the various Pre-Synodal Assemblies, the number of Catholic laity involved in this Synod of Synodality process has indeed set a historic record of sorts in the journey of the Church in Malaysia.

Of course, like most things in life, so it is with the Church, there are plentiful remarks either spoken in whispers or sometimes voiced out loudly, that all these assemblies or dialogue are not effective. I beg to differ here, as I too thought the same after being involved actively in PMPC III and Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Assembly III (in 2001). Compared with the fast paced corporate and commercial world, the changes in the Church are glacial, slow and, at times, cannot be felt.

But for those of us in the know, there are certainly changes. For one, the participation and involvement of laity today is more prominent. The laity are now taking on more responsibilities in the life of the Church. The laity are now more knowledgeable and better formed in biblical, liturgical, pastoral and administrative matters of the Church.

If anyone were to analyse the 66,329 participants in this Synodal process, my guess is that more than 50 per cent (perhaps as many as 75 per cent) are people who are voicing out their concern for the Church for the first time. Surely anyone who has no interest in matters of the Church will not participate in the survey, and may not even be aware of these goings-on in the Church.

Returning to the Asian Continental Assembly on Synodality, I noted two disconnects in the process.

Firstly, as reported in Vatican News, February 23, there were more than 80 participants coming from 29 nationalities at the Asian Assembly, of which 57 (71 per cent) were clergy (cardinals, bishops and priests), four (five per cent) were religious and 19 (24 per cent) were laity. It would have been better if more laity were invited to experience and participate in such an important event of the Church’s history.

Secondly, the laity representatives from Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and Malaysia, each brought forward their country’s experience. As highlighted in the Asian Continental Assembly, it was noted that “the assembly deliberated on key questions that had not been sufficiently discussed in lower-level gatherings”. By this, I understand it means that at grassroot levels (at the various Parish Pastoral Assemblies and Parish Study Day), deliberations were mostly at localised level. Gauging from the type of issues reported in the HERALD in the past one year, deliberations at parish assemblies were mostly concerning the sense of belonging, leadership in church, more formation, lack of resources, conflicts and misunderstandings among church leaders, etc. Are the grassroots Catholics expected to deliberate on issues like poverty, political and military oppression, social injustices, human rights violations, climate change, aging population, and more of the macro global concerns?

As I look at the journey of the Church in Malaysia, no doubt the local issues, concerns and challenges raised at the grassroots level remain the same, but the people involved and participating are not. More laity are now aware and adding to the thinking process. More laity are now contributing to the dialogue, listening and discernment processes. More laity are now stepping forward to take on many of these challenges. Changes are not visible, but it is surely there if we care to look.

In 2026, the Church in Malaysia will be having its first Pan Malaysian Pastoral Convention where all the three archdioceses and six dioceses in East and Peninsular Malaysia will be participating. No doubt there will be an abundance of issues, concerns and challenges to be deliberated. No doubt there will be many more hundreds or thousands getting involved for the first time. The feeling of empowerment and sense of ownership will surely be felt by those actively involved in the Church. Church is no longer the domain reserved for the clergy and religious. To be able to voice our concerns, offer our suggestions and deliberate on the issues are really what Pope Francis meant when he said, “Synodality indicates walking together and listening to one another but above all, to the Holy Spirit. It starts with, and involves all the faithful at local churches across the world, promising to listen to all, especially to laypeople”.

(Richard Chia has been actively involved in church since young. He held full-time corporate jobs while serving in ministries and groups at various church levels for the past four decades.)

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