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KOTA KINABALU – In his interview with Catholic Sabah on 5 Nov 2015, Archbishop John Wong spoke candidly on his experience at the just- concluded Synod of Bishops on the Family. The Vatican’s synod on the family was opened by Pope Francis Oct 4 and closed on Oct 25. The theme of the synod was “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and the modern world.” It followed the 2014 extraordinary synod on the family, which focused on pastoral challenges involved in family life. Archbishop Wong represented the Catholic Bishops Conference (CBC) for Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. He heads the episcopal commission for Family Life.
When asked what struck him at the synod, the prelate said that the synod fathers had “no qualms” in acknowledging that many families are trying to live up faithfully to the vocation of the family in the face of struggles and “diminishing values” as laid down by the Church. He said he was struck by the openness of the synod fathers right from the beginning. The pope had encouraged the participants to speak freely and they did. Open discussions were fostered on many topics regarding families around the world.
The prelate shared that he found the present methodology a good one as it facilitated more dialogue among the participants. It was based on the “See-Judge-Act.” The synod was divided into three phases (1) listening to the current challenges facing the family; (2) discerning the vocation of the Christian family; and (3) exploring the mission of the family today. The results of the small group discussions (by language) were collected and presented to the plenary assembly.
The archbishop said that the synod went beyond his expectation. He had hoped that the synod would resolve many of the region’s tribunal hitches and that the Church would look more into strengthening the vocation of the family. Prior to the Synod, there was a lot of talk, argument, taking of sides for the traditionalists, moderates, and progressives, talks of conspiracy, etc. He was surprised by the peaceful atmosphere during the proceedings.
When asked on what he hoped the synod would help in the pastoring of families in the archdiocese, he said what came out strongly for his was the word “accompaniment.” The 94-paragraph report highlighted the role of pastors in helping the couples and families to understand church teaching, to grow in faith and take responsibility for sharing the Gospel by “accompanying” them. What it means is that the pastor has to be “close to the family as a travelling companion by assuming wisely differentiated attitudes, sometimes by staying close by their side and listening in silence in difficult times, at other times by indicating the path to follow, and the opportune time to follow, support and encourage.”
He acknowledged that greater efforts must be made in the archdiocese to be with struggling families, children who are affected by family problems and worldly values, singles who are afraid to get married or fears of those who are preparing for marriage, those who have lost the theological values of marriage because of the struggle to make ends meet, those who are not looking at marriage as a vocation, those within the first five years of marriage, the elderly who have been rejected by society and considered as useless to society but whom the church should treasure, and the migrants who are struggling with family members left behind as well as the integration of family in the country of destination.
On the expected changes that are to come, the prelate admitted that the local Church has still a long way to go in helping the families under its care. However, plans are being finalised to redesign the pre-marriage course. For those who are married, a counselling centre has been set up at the cathedral parish. As for the ‘motu propio’ recently approved by Pope Francis to make the annulment process more accessible and less time consuming, its English translation is not yet ready. He expressed the hope that the bishops’ conference would discuss it further.
Regarding his intervention at the synod, Abp Wong said that he presented the proposal that the bishops’ conference be given the autonomy to deal with cases of mixed marriages in Malaysia, between Catholics and those of other faiths; in cases of failed marriages where the abandoning partner is a Muslim, and the non-Muslim spouse is legally prevented from reverting to her original faith even after the divorce. (Full transcript of the interview is published in the Nov 22 edition of Catholic Sabah).