REPORT FROM THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF JAPAN ON THE “WORKING DOCUMENT FOR THE CONTINENTAL […]
REPORT FROM THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF JAPAN ON THE “WORKING DOCUMENT FOR THE CONTINENTAL STAGE”
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan
This is a report on the sharing and exchange of views conducted by the dioceses of Japan on the “Enlarge the space of your tent” Working Document for the Continental Stage released by the General Secretariat of the Synod on October 24, 2022.
Although the period was short, many diocesan representatives read, prayed, meditated, shared, and exchanged ideas on the Working Document. To avoid the spread of COVID large gatherings were not possible but some places held online meetings with the diocesan Synod team. In other places small group meetings were held. Exchanges of views by bishops and priests’ councils also took place.
People who read the Working Document for the continental stage for the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the World Synod of Bishops said that it was abstract and difficult to understand at first, but as they read further, they discovered many things that resonated with them. They realized that Churches around the world face a similar reality. Reading the Working Document gave ordinary believers a connection to Churches in each region and fostered a sense of solidarity and security.
The document has generally been well received and has provided good material for thinking about the realities we face. It succeeded in being not merely a document to be read, critiqued, or criticized, but something to inspire prayerful reflection.
In this report, we will not limit ourselves to the three questions listed in the Working Document (106) but will explain thematically the sharing and exchange of opinions received from each diocese in Japan.
About the title
The title from the prophet Isaiah (54:2), “Enlarge the space of your tent,” is a good starting point to approach the Working Document. Some dioceses used this Word of God as a source of Lectio Divina and learned more about the background of the age from which it comes. Common ground with our current era became clear. Participants found themselves being asked how many people are invited into the tent. As a result, the title inspired and enriched group sharing and exchange of ideas.
The experience of gatherings and meetings guided by these words gave participants a new experience of the dynamism of life. Some participants added a new image of a digital tent and talked about the need to journey with young people. This arose from wondering if the opinions of younger generations were not reflected in the Working Document.
The experience of being guided solely by the words of the title led to the understanding that every single believer is blessed with a sense of faith (sensus fidei). Participants became deeply aware that as indicated in the Working Document (8, 9) it is possible to share the experience of living synodality. As a result, in every diocese sharing and exchanging ideas guided by the Working Document, whether in person or online, became not merely a worldly gathering, but a spiritual experience guided by the Holy Spirit. It was an experience of a community of faith in the Church.
Aiming to be an Open Church
Some understood the Working Document to be aimed at encouraging an “open Church.” The Catholic Church in Japan has been aiming to be open to society, walking together with the people of society, since the 1980s. We read the Working Document from this perspective and realize that now in the 2020s the Church in some respects has become closed.
The Church must be open to society, especially to those who suffer, sorrow, are poor, are unjustly oppressed, or are discriminated against. There were many who shared the vision that the Church should be a place of security for these “little ones.”
Shared responsibility and shared identity
The understanding that the Synod calls us to be such a Church was generally shared in the exchange of views by the people of each diocese. For this purpose, shared responsibility and shared identity are indispensable. It is necessary for a Church community to think together and fulfill its responsibilities together.
However, it was pointed out that in reality there are too many one-way streets, such as from the diocese to parishes or priest to laity, even if structures of communication are in place. There was stress on the need to change to a multi-directional organization where opinions can be mutually communicated, on the model, so to speak, of a catchball game.
In addition, Japan’s Church faces a shortage of priests. However, there is also a perception that it is the laity themselves who protect the community and evangelize, and that the shortage of priests is an opportunity to revitalize the laity.
There was also an opinion that from now on priests should devote themselves exclusively to sacramental ministry. Sparked by the Working Document (19, 58, 59), there were claims that the clergy are indifferent to the way the Church “journeys together” and do not seek to be actively involved. The statement that in becoming a synodal Church, “there is a difference between entrusting responsibility and simply throwing it aside,” questions the way priests act.
Already in 2021, the Preparatory Document asked about shared responsibility and shared identity. There seems to have been little understanding of this point in the Japanese Church. However, over the past year, as each diocese or parish has taken its own steps towards being a synodal Church, the necessity and importance of shared responsibility and identity have been understood.
To become a Church of shared responsibility and shared identity, the Working Document (11.1) stresses that the Church must make “listening” a priority. Many people expressed their opinions on this point, stressing that “listening” is done in two dimensions. One is listening to the voices of those outside the Church. In today’s increasingly complex Japanese society that seems “stuck,” there are many people who face and are tormented by sorrow and suffering. We must encounter them and listen to them.
The other dimension is listening to the voices of those in the Church.
Traditionally Japanese society is male-centric. However, the community of faith includes many women. Even so, things are decided from a male point of view. We need to listen to the opinions of women.
This attitude of “listening” to these two dimensions leads to hearing the voices of young people, sexual minorities, and foreign workers. In this way, “unity in diversity” is born in the Church.
Awareness of the existence of “the other”
It was pointed out that even before listening it is necessary to become aware of various ways of living. Since the 2000s, Japanese society has become self-centered. Interest in others is waning. In addition, the COVID pandemic in the past few years has severed connections between people. Everyone is afraid of infection; everyone is in isolation. In such a situation, it was the opinion that it is most important to “notice” what kind of lives people have, their struggles, and the difficulties they face.
Faith formation that encourages awareness is needed because Jesus of Nazareth was attentive to the joys and sorrows of people. There was a constructive opinion that social activities such as volunteer work carried out by communities of faith as works of love must be reorganized. The scope of social activities is limited, and it is necessary that we better “notice” people in society who are suffering from poverty. In this way, the Church can be transformed into a community that goes out into society.
Above all, there are many foreign workers in Japan. Parish communities are made up of large numbers of foreign congregants in contrast to a very small number of Japanese members. To live with them, we need to be “aware” of their existence.
Many people building the Church
We must build a Church for Japan together with the migrants.
When we think of a synodal Church we ask, “with whom shall we walk” and “to whom shall we draw close.” However, it is important not for us to choose the other, but to walk together with and draw close to the person in front of us. The people we face in the Church are gifts from God.
Many people have become tired of relationships in the community of faith; sometimes they have been hurt. It is necessary to be close to these brothers and sisters.
Many have commented that the Church’s approach to environmental issues represents a synodal Church that “walks together.”
We must not overlook the possibility of walking together with people of other Christian communities and other religions. There is shock that, “In some contexts, the witness of the faith is lived to the point of martyrdom” (Working Document, 52). The sentence, “walking together with people of other faiths … requires the courage of prophecy,” was a catalyst for prayer and meditation.
The missionary potential of care
Some priests’ councils shared opinions regarding the possibility of a specific mission called “care” in the Working Document (11.2). It is true that evangelization is the proclamation of the Gospel, but the practical question remains when and in what form to proclaim the Good News.
In modern society there is “care” that in the pursuit of profit treats people like objects. In a modern society that pursues only profit, this indicates the possibility of a new mission, “transforming human actions of care into authentically spiritual experiences that proclaim the face of a God who cares to the point of giving his own life so that we may have it in abundance” (WD 11.2).
The opinion of the Working Document that transforming “care” into a truly spiritual experience linked to evangelization should be further deepened and put into practice.
Dialogue and sharing
It has become clear that “listening,” “noticing,” “being close,” and “caring” are necessary to build an open and synodal Church. Many people are also aware that “dialogue” and “sharing” are the most important methodologies to implement these goals.
But on the other hand, there are also fears. First, there is the fact that there is no custom of sharing within the community of faith. Catholics are not accustomed to sharing their beliefs and experiences. Also, in Japanese society where there are many elderly people, there may be surprisingly many people who impose their own opinions. This may be related the loneliness and isolation common to the elderly. In addition, when a community of faith starts something new, negative opinions dominate, making it difficult for the younger generation and women to put proposals into practice.
The synodal Church that walks together will be born of the spiritual maturity of the faith community. It is unfortunate that there has been no sharing and exchange of views on the importance of spiritual formation and liturgy pointed out in the Working Document, (11.4,5). But these, like joint responsibility and joint discernment, will gradually be clarified in the journey of the synodal Church.
This has been a brief summary of the sharing and exchange of views on the Working Document for the Continental Stage made in each of Japan’s dioceses. Although there were no specific proposals to present to the plenary session of the Synod in October 2023, efforts are being made in Japan’s dioceses to reconsider the nature of the Church from the perspective of synodality.
The Church in Japan started by missionaries from abroad 200 years ago will be transformed into a Church that lives in society today. The Synod journey has just begun. Let us walk with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.