In Asia and the Amazon, the synod gives voice to Catholics on the margins
You have probably heard a lot about the synodal process in Germany, where, depending on whom you ask, everything is proceeding as planned or the Catholic world is about to implode, and you may be following the process in the United States or just in your home diocese.
It is likely, however, that you have heard a great deal less about what the “synod on synodality” has so far meant in other parts of the world. As the diocesan phase of the synod ended on Aug. 15, America touched base with some well-informed sources for insight into how the synod has gone so far in the Amazon region and Asia.
‘Speaking candidly’: a remarkable consultation in Asia
Christina Kheng, a consultant for the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific, described the synodal experience in Asian states as “pretty positive on the whole,” adding that the significance of such a process being convened in Asia in the first place should not be overlooked.
The frank dialogue that is at the heart of the synod as envisioned in Rome, a challenge anywhere, is particularly difficult, she said, in a “culture notorious for not speaking candidly, especially when it comes to negative news or saying, ‘No.’”
As the diocesan phase of the synod ended on Aug. 15, America touched base with some well-informed sources for insight into how the synod has gone so far in the Amazon region and Asia.
A native of Singapore, Ms. Kheng teaches pastoral leadership at the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila and served on the Commission on Methodology for the synod at the Vatican.
In an Asian context, she said, “the lack of synodality is not just ecclesial; it’s in the family, it’s cultural, it’s societal…. It’s definitely political,” she added, “especially with the [authoritarian] political trends that are happening now.
“To me, it’s quite remarkable that [synod participants] were able to name the issues that were important and that would have been otherwise difficult to say,” she said. In dioceses across Asia, lay people called for greater transparency in church structures and improvements in governance and leadership—even better homilies from their priests.
“The unique thing about this synod is the process itself,” Ms. Kheng said. “It’s really engaging with the topic by doing the topic, so becoming the church that we want to be by starting to take these actions.
In an Asian context, “the lack of synodality is not just ecclesial; it’s in the family, it’s cultural, it’s societal…. It’s definitely political.”
“For some countries or some dioceses, it is really baby steps. I would say that for Asia, what’s been happening is really very fledgling, very fragile, and it’s not perfect, maybe in some cases, even far from perfect, but it’s good that it started, and we need to help nurture this and keep it going.”
A synodal headstart for the Amazon
Theologian Adelson Araújo dos Santos, S.J., lives in Rome but maintains strong contacts with “my hometown,” the Archdiocese of Manaus in Brazil. He is an advisor to R.E.P.A.M.—Rede Eclesial Pan-Amazônia—and C.L.A.R.—Confederation of Latin American and Caribbean Religious.
The dioceses of the Amazon region, he told America by email, had a significant head start in preparing for the synod on synodality over other Catholic communities, “having already lived the experience of preparation for the special Synod on the Amazon in October 2019.” That process involved thousands of Catholics from different dioceses and geographical regions, “a whole movement of consultation and listening to the people of God, so that the current synodal process…already has its methodology known and assimilated [in the Amazon region], both by bishops and other ecclesial leaders, as well as by Catholics in general.”
“Synodality naturally enters several important moments in the life of these particular churches, not reduced to just one or another assembly convened specifically to discuss it.”
Now “synodality naturally enters several important moments in the life of these particular churches, not reduced to just one or another assembly convened specifically to discuss it,” he said.
A recent example, he said, was an annual river procession in Manaus to honor St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, a very popular observance in a region full of riverbank communities. The leaders of the procession took advantage of the celebration this year to promote the synod and its themes “in a simple and catechetical language.”
Getting out of comfort zones
As in other parts of the Catholic world, in Asia, only a small percentage of Catholics actually participated in the listening sessions and other opportunities for dialogue sponsored by various dioceses, Ms. Kheng said. Still, she remains encouraged by the responses she witnessed and read about in synthesis documents. She described the process across states that included the Philippines, Southeast Asian nations and India as widespread and systematic.
As in Europe and the United States, enthusiasm for the synodal process was mixed—well-attended in some dioceses, a token process in others or ignored altogether in others. Some bishops and clergy were on board with the synod from the beginning; others were hesitant or resisted the process.
“For Asia and maybe many other parts of the world, that whole hierarchical system, it’s something that is quite entrenched; it’s orderly and neat.” It was hard for many to step out of their comfort zones, she said.
“People are afraid of chaos…disequilibrium. Pope Francis talks about the Holy Spirit disturbing the status quo, and naturally, there was some hesitation to get into that process.”
“People are afraid of chaos…. Pope Francis talks about the Holy Spirit disturbing the status quo, and naturally, there was some hesitation to get into that process.”
In dioceses where the process was observed well, Ms. Kheng described a “cascading network” of support for the synod that included training of parish-based facilitators who were sent out at the grassroots level to make sure a good representation of voices and experiences was achieved.
But other dioceses “took a long time to take action,” some took none at all or “they might have conducted it in a token way.”
The attitude of local bishops and clergy indeed often foretold how well the synodal process was conducted. “Some dioceses had a very good team—a mixed team of clergy, religious and laypeople—and they were able to organize themselves well,” she said.
A creative and spontaneous church
During Holy Week this year, Father Araújo dos Santos visited a remote community in Brazil’s Acre State, which borders Peru and Bolivia. “I was surprised to see that even there, at that ‘end of the world,’ the synodal process was already taking place,” he said.
At Mass on Palm Sunday, the parish priest reminded parishioners not to forget to put their suggestions for the synod in the “synodal box,” a glass box placed by the entrance of the church.
“I believe that all this is typical of a style of church marked by creativity and spontaneity, which are very much in keeping with the nature of the Brazilian people, particularly in the Amazon,” he said. This also reveals “the harmony of the episcopate and the majority of the clergy in Brazil with the vision of Pope Francis.”
“I believe that all this is typical of a style of church marked by creativity and spontaneity, which are very much in keeping with the nature of the Brazilian people, particularly in the Amazon.”
“Obviously, this does not mean that there are no resistances and places where the synodal process is not happening or is moving slowly,” he added, “but I would say that this happens more where certain groups that call themselves conservative or traditionalists are strong”—people who “most of the time oppose everything that comes from the current pontificate.”
That mixed response was true across Asia, Ms. Kheng said, but “in almost every country, at least a couple of dioceses, if not more, carried it out very well.”
In those dioceses, “people were really enthused.”
She said many were excited not so much by the content of the discussions, but that they were happening at all. The process provided a safe, neutral space to raise questions on accountability and leadership, and she said that “even the issue of clericalism was named.”
In patriarchal Asian societies, women and the young are not often asked their opinions, Ms. Kheng said. In India, women were reduced to tears during listening sessions, she said, because they were so touched to have finally been invited to participate in a dialogue about the direction of the church and to have “the experience of being given a voice.”
In India, women were reduced to tears during listening sessions because they were so touched to have finally been invited to participate in a dialogue about the direction of the church.
Thousands of lay people attended the Delhi archdiocesan consultations, a process the theologian Stanislaus Alla, S.J., described as “truly historic.” The reaction of women at the consultations was heartwarming, he said, quoting one woman who told him “unnoticed people are noticed by the synod.”
The method of dialogue for many participants, Ms. Kheng said, was also new and enlivening, “taking turns to share, listening and sharing openly.”
“The people were able to name and to stick to the difficult issues,” Ms. Kheng said, issues that “they would not otherwise have raised to their parish priests or to their bishop.”
Many of the same concerns that surfaced during consultations in other parts of the Catholic world were at the top of the list for Catholics in Asia. But in Asia, she believes, concerns about confronting poverty and promoting interreligious harmony were especially highlighted. Many Asian states experience widespread poverty and often complex and fraught ethnic and religious intercommunal relationships.
The reaction of women at the consultations was heartwarming, he said, quoting one woman who told him “unnoticed people are noticed by the synod.”
In the Philippines, lay people challenged bishops to be more forthright in addressing systemic inequality and government corruption. Rafael Cruz, who joined a dialogue in Manila in July, was pleased to have the opportunity to confront problems in the church, particularly the apathy he perceived among clergy toward issues of injustice and poverty.
“At first, I was hesitant to join the synod because I know they [clergymen] would just do whatever they want at the end of any meeting,” Mr. Cruz told UCA News. “I look up to some bishops who are fighting for the causes of the poor. I hope many of them will hear our cries.”
A way of being church
Ms. Kheng is still waiting to look at the data from diocesan reports, but she believes some traditionally marginalized groups, like L.G.B.T.Q. people, “have had conversations” as part of the process.
She believes some success was also achieved including people from low-income urban and rural communities. “I’ve seen reports of the pastoral workers really going out to the rural areas to the poor on the margins to engage them.”
She was also struck by the spontaneity and creativity shown by different dioceses and individuals in publicizing the process and explaining how Catholics could participate. Games in Mandarin were created for children; lay people posted homemade videos on sharing platforms; songs were composed and dances choreographed. The Vatican’s instructions were translated “even to some remote indigenous languages.”
“I liked how people took it upon themselves to make videos to instruct other people. It’s quite amazing. It’s really a thousand flowers blooming.” Father Araújo dos Santos was likewise impressed by the creativity shown in encouraging participation in the process. The Archdiocese of Manaus, “with the aim of attracting the interest of young people in the synod,” he said, launched a contest among the parishes to choose a hymn for the Archdiocesan Synodal Assembly, selecting an original composition by two young people of the diocese.
In the end, Ms. Kheng said, the synod itself has modeled a way of being church that lay people in Asia may be unwilling to relinquish once this “synod on synodality” ends. “People are saying that they want this to continue [after the formal end of the synod],” she said, “that they really like talking to each other, the clergy and laity, really talking and sharing.”