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The General Conference which the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC) has planned over a past number of years finally took place last 12-30 October. Baan Phu Waan ( House of the Sower ) in Samphran –known as the Little Vatican in Thailand – was the perfect setting for this conference that gathered more than 220 participants, majority of whom are Bishops, of course. I was so privileged to be participant as Executive Secretary of the Office of Consecrated Life ( FABC-OCL ), one of 9 FABC Offices.
The General Conference was to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the beginnings of FABC, but planning was overtaken by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Core Group established by Bishop Alwyn D’Silva worked on consultations using an online platform for meetings, and invited social scientists and theologians to offer comments on the Guide Document.
Guided by Matthew 2:1-12, the overall objective of FABC 50 was to reaffirm, renew and revitalize the whole Church in Asia.. to envision new pathways of service and journeying together as peoples of Asia.. “ they returned to their own country by a different way..” Mt. 2:12
Participants and guests from all other Asia and other continents started arriving on October 10th.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias , Archbishop of Bombay was Convenor, with Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar ( present President of FABC), and Cardinal Francis Xavier Kriengsak, Archbishop of Bangkok as co-presidents of the Conference.
The delegates were from Member Conferences, Associate members ( like Nepal with only one Bishop), Chairpersons and Executive Secretaries of the 9 FABC Offices, Fraternal delegates from Bishops’Conferences of Luxembourg, Lithuania ( who knew our Sisters), CELAM, SECAM, U.S.A. and representatives from the Vatican. Invited Guests and Partners included our own Superior General, Sr. Rekha Chennattu as Biblical Theologian . Some Sisters were invited for their involvement in “Talitha Kum “ – name of their group working against human trafficking in Asia. There were youth leaders from India, Singapore and Malaysia.
The most number of Bishop-participants came from India with 39 of the Latin and Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites. Next in number were Philippine Bishops led by Bishop Pablo David – who was called “Bishop Da(y)vid” in the beginning and later “ Bishop Ambo” as he is fondly called in the Philippines. He was moderator of the first day and often had significant interventions all throughout the conference. I would like to make special mention of another Filipino Bishop, this time of Salt Lake City, U.S. A. - Bishop Oscar A. Solis, was the representative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as a Fraternal delegate. In his message , he mentioned how Overseas workers of Asian countries make their countries known not only because of “Adobo, p’hat thai, noodles, curry ,.. ” etc. but for their faith and fidelity. They- the Overseas Workers from Asian countries- are today’s Asian missionaries.
Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, Pro-Prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization was Special Envoy of the Holy Father to the Conference. .
He told the participants that before leaving for his flight, he went to the Holy Father and asked what message he would give when he arrives. Pope Francis said, “ my closeness. Tell them how close I feel to each one of them and to the Church of Asia.” He said it in such a touching way. Cardinal Tagle spoke about Media and its influence especially on the young. He had a conference solely for Bishops.
We had a very regular schedule starting with Mass at 7 a.m. on weekdays . It was a liturgical “feast” each time with Cardinals and Bishops taking turns to preside and concelebrate. The Major seminarians and some groups of novices from different congregations led the singing.
The morning session always opened with ADSUMUS- prayer to the Holy Spirit for Synodality . This was followed by Morning Prayer on video richly and creatively prepared by a different country each day.
The Inroduction set us on a prayer mode in communion with each country. – it was a cultural Journey which included the origin and evolution of Christianity in that country, the challenges and opportunities for the proclamation of faith and a prayer dance or a traditional welcome.. Then a Gospel passage was read mostly in the language of that country followed by reflection and questions for meditation. A call to action presented with symbols was always engaging. Intercessory prayers for Asia, for the country, for FABC 50, for the universal Church, for the aspirations of the youth, the elderly, migrants ,families,etc..were capped by the OUR FATHER and a concluding hymn.
The President of the Episcopal Conference of each member country of FABC presented their realities including statistics, challenges, calls and responses, the Church’s role in the country,hopes . Challenges and calls were varied – from inter-religious dialogue, ecological concerns, indigenous peoples, discrimination, fundamentalism , extremist groups in Islamic countries, mistrust and misunderstanding, human trafficking, anti-clericalism, unChurched Catholics, use of media, technology, finances, etc. So were the responses : re-ignite faith!, rekindle thirst for God, deeper inter-religious dialogue and dialogue with creation, lay involvement, creative pastoral ministry, fraternal care, be a bridge , sharing of resources, disinterested service to all, “whispering the Gospel” to the heart ( of Mongolia ) , pray to the Holy Spirit for the miracle of Peace..
These virtual visits strengthened the desire for a synodal Church journeying together.
16 guests from 13 countries were listened to as they talked of their experience about consecrated women, politics, family, single-parenthood, climate change, youth issues, refugees and other topics.
This was the time to expand our knowledge and deepen our understanding of emerging realities – role of women , “preferential option for women” , human trafficking, migrant workers ( 50 million ) bonding-communion-fraternity, harmony, solidarity..connected to each other “for better or for worse” , “fratelli tutti” , digital ministry..a digital future. Resource persons from Asia , other continents , and the Vatican gave enlightened conferences and talks.
In Workshop groups, we reacted to what we heard , discussed , reflected and submitted our report digitally which was instantly projected on the screen.
In summary : the breadth and depth of Asia is almost impossible to grasp. The Organizing Committee gave the following Big C’s as an attempt : CONSULTATION , CONVERSATION, CONVERSION, COMMUNION.
We do not learn only from one another, we support one another, one Bishop reiterated. We listen to each other, we listen to the Holy Spirit together.
Despite our being a minority, we are present everywhere. Have courage!
Every day, after each conference , plenary assembly, open forums, we were asked to pause for about 2 minutes to recall what we had heard and said, and to be in touch with the Spirit in the silence of our hearts. This “ part” of the schedule was much appreciated during the evaluation of our process.
On the eve of Mission Sunday, October 23, we gathered for a recollection and an hour-long adoration of the Blessed Sacrament together.
The next day, Mission Sunday, we were taken to virtual visits to Parishes in Asia – from Kazakhstan and Mongolia in Central Asia, to Cebu, Philippines in Southeast Asia and other parishes in the peripheries of Asia. We even interacted with the parish priest and parishioners .One man in Kazakhstan ( about 15 parishioners were in that little Church) was asked how he was converted to the Catholic faith. His answer: “Someone loved me enough to tell me about Jesus.” The wonder and blessing of Digital Technology was used to our great advantage by the FABC Media Team headed by Rev.Fr.Nigel Barrett of the Catholic Communication Centre of the Archdiocese of Mumbai, India.
The Tech Team was commended for all they did to make all the virtual encounters happen and the sessions flow without hitches and assisting workshops in submitting reports which were instantly flashed on the screen. Many elderly Bishops were encouraged to be media-savvy.
What is the Spirit saying to the Churches of Asia?
What does “Envisaging New Pathways” evoke in you?
It was now time to listen seriously to these questions. We were guided through this crucial time of the Conference by Mr. Leslie D’Souza, MIT- trained and Chairman of the PrePearl Training Development in India. Using the Theory U and the Christo Centric Way, he led us through the different phases of this process – detailed, deep. It was important to start with Presencing - connecting with the Source of who I am . Who am I ? What does God ( Life) want me to do?
Towards the end we were asked to articulate the Big D’s in relation to FABC 50 : Discovery, Dream, Design, Destiny.
The output of the Workshops were woven together and included in a Final Message addressed to the People of Asia .
Thailand, host of the FABC50 General Conference was highly commended for her hospitality and ingenuity in welcoming guests. The participants had the experience of “Loy Krathong” – Feast of Lights, celebrated in advance for the participants to enjoy one of Thailand’s beautiful cultural rituals. Visits to the nearby Diocese of Ratchaburi and a Heritage Park where Kings of Thailand once walked around. Transportation was always available after lunch for those who wish to go to Big C.
Excellent cuisine was served every day .The most popular was Thai noodles and at lunch time, Cardinals, Archbishops, Bishops, other participants joined the long queue which delighted the ones serving them. Fruits in abundance, Thai sweets .. mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks were most welcome after the conferences and the workshops. Mealtime and Tea breaks were times for encountering one another creating an atmosphere of “Fratelli tutti” as bishop remarked. A Cardinal added “..and Sorelli” .
The spectacular Opening and Welcome Program was prepared by 11 schools in different provinces of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres, again coordinated by technology . They came together only the day before the actual performance. The theme of the Conference was performed by song and dance and drama.
The Closing Mass at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Bangkok was presided by Cardinal Tagle. Sr. Rekha introduced him before the Eucharistic celebration, mentioning that people consider him “the Pope Francis of Asia”. A banquet was arranged by the “Assumption Brothers”( Brothers of St. Gabriel ) at the auditorium of their College de l’Assomption and a Closing program was prepared by the Sacred Heart Sisters of Bangkok. The performance featured the finest and best classical dances of Thailand.
Then goodbyes and photo ops and thank you’s.. We were grateful for the synodal experience.
By 3 p.m. we were on our way to Thabom. There was no flight schedule that evening to Loei, so Sr. Sol and Sr. Marie Thu met us in Bangkok with a van to take Sr. Rekha with us to Thabom.
We had taken a “.. different way “ , the road less traveled, in the darkness of night, passing not through the usual route but through winding mountain roads with fewer travelers and a few stars overhead to light our way. By 1 a.m. we were at our doorstep in Thabom . Sr. Marie and the other Sisters were there wide awake to welcome us home. //