ASIA/MALAYSIA - Cardinal Francis: “In an ‘Asian microcosm’ we experience the interaction of differences”

Saturday, 15 June 2024 local churches   evangelization   dialogue  

Penang (Agenzia Fides) - "It is the pluralism of cultures and ethnic groups that makes Malaysia a 'miniature Asia'. The coexistence of different components allows the Catholic community to experience the interaction of differences that takes place in diversity," said Cardinal Sebastian Francis, Bishop of Penang, about the profile of the Catholic community in a country, Malaysia, whose population (about 34 million inhabitants) is characterized by a wide coexistence in terms of cultures, ethnic groups, religions, traditions: "Although ethnic Malays and the Islamic religion are considered 'national', and although the Malays are called 'children of the earth' and considered 'special', I believe that there is enough diversity to keep the nation reasonably healthy," continued the Cardinal. "The Malays are protected and are only Muslims, as enshrined in the Constitution. But a democratic nation like ours cannot today choose to be completely monocultural or monoreligious. Our country is characterized by an interesting pluralism that makes it a truly Asian country, a microcosm in which one can experience the constituent dimension of Asia," said the Cardinal. In addition to the Malays (60% of the population), the Chinese (24%) and the Indians (7%) are important components of society, while the indigenous non-Malay communities (who live mainly in Malaysian Borneo) make up about 10% of the population.
"We speak Bahasa, the same language as Indonesia, but we learn English because we were a British protectorate until the middle of the last century. There is a lot of cultural diversity everywhere. In a way, it is nice that Malaysia has all these components that are also found in the Catholic Church, of course excluding the Malays (who are Muslims by law), but including the indigenous Malays," he explains.
Of course," he continues, "the fact that a Malay is compulsorily Muslim and cannot change religion is something unique: it is a remnant of British colonialism and was sanctioned when the nation had already gained independence. The idea was to preserve the ancestral cultural and religious heritage and protect it from any change or other power. Today, however, it must be noted that the Indian population - like the one I descend from - and the Chinese portion also descend from ancestors who came here centuries ago. Today we are full citizens, we have been rooted here for centuries, we are and feel fully Malaysians."
In our country, the Cardinal said, "we face the same challenges, the same problems as in other nations where there are more languages, more cultures and more religions. A beautiful expression says that the Church is made of differences, she is the interaction of differences: we see that there is a richness in this, because our communities are not divided by ethnicity or language, but they are united, they live communion between different components, they are well integrated with each other, as the Bible says, in one body, one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one Church. Synodality is a common path for us, an everyday fact. And everyone has the habit and predisposition to dialogue with people of other cultural or religious origins," he notes.
The local language is used in the Catholic liturgy, although there are four official languages: Bahasa Malay, English, Chinese and Indian Tamil.
In addition, in Malaysia, an already diverse country, there is another important phenomenon that makes the melting pot even bigger: "Although we are not such a big country, we have many immigrants who come from Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Some of them also bring Christian traditions with them, of course (like some Vietnamese or Filipinos).
Here we can say that we live in the fullness of another dimension, that of welcome and fraternity: everyone is welcome, in all the Churches, in the spirit of the Encyclical Fratelli Tutti, in which we find a particular harmony".
As for the ecclesial dimension, the Cardinal notes that "in the area of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, thank God we have the necessary resources for pastoral life, while in the religious orders of missionaries, who come mainly from France, Ireland and Italy, there is a certain decline in vocations.
By God's grace, the local congregations that have been born locally have vocations to look to the future with hope, and we already see this in the seminaries, where there are not very many students, but the Lord does not lack workers in his vineyard, the number is sufficient".
Also important is the increase in missionary vocations of lay people, both men and women: "We have given great importance to faith formation and the proclamation of the word from the beginning of the life of our Church. We care about the Christian life of the laity and after the Second Vatican Council we have placed emphasis on the formation of the laity, especially through training courses or continuing education events in the parishes".
Meanwhile, there has been a political change in the country: "Our influence in the field of education has decreased enormously because the government has taken control of education in public schools, both state and private. If we want to be present in the field of education, we must act as private actors, but the government also controls private education, decides on the curricula and pays teachers their salaries. So we own the real estate and the land on which the schools are built, but it is the government that actually controls school life. So technically we own the building but not the system. We contribute, but we cannot give concrete shape to the education system." "This," he explains, "has been the political framework since independence (which took place in 1957), and the Church has found its dimension in this situation. Today, there is a very high level of education in Malaysia. There is a wide range of education, both in state schools and in private schools, but the latter are expensive. And the health system is also very well organized and efficient by the government. In light of this, the Church has reoriented its social mission, because given the excellent work of the state, we do not need to get involved in these areas. We have shifted our resources and energies, for example, to the area of integral human development: we work mainly with migrants and refugees or in situations of poverty and need, often in collaboration with non-governmental organizations, for social development." "Of course," the Cardinal continues, "we cultivate and live the faith and the sacraments in the parishes, which are the basis of the life of the Church, I would say the heart. People are still very present and participate in parish life and the sacraments: our churches are usually full. I can say that there is a religious awakening in the nation at all levels, for Christianity, but also for Islam and other religions. Religion is still a central element in people's lives, even in a country that has modernized rapidly. This dimension creates space for the proclamation and the mission of the Church: our proclamation is to transmit the joy of the Gospel, especially the dimension of Christ, which gives people hope. It is a message that reaches the heart of man, who is always in search of happiness." The Cardinal describes the mission of the Malaysian Church (a total of 1.3 million believers) in three words: "Joy, mercy and hope, as the Pope says in 'Evangelii Gaudium'. This is the direction we have taken over the last ten years. We are preparing spiritually and with great anticipation for the grace event of the Holy Year: on this occasion we want to hold a national gathering of the faithful from the nine dioceses of the Malaysian peninsula and Borneo, the two largest parts of the country. Bishops, priests, religious, catechists, believers: it will be a historic meeting in which we will find hope, because the title of this Holy Year fits perfectly with our pastoral plan. To determine the direction for the Church in Malaysia, we will address the themes of Church, society, family and integral ecology." In conclusion, Cardinal Francis stressed that he has also "strengthened the bond with the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences and, of course, always wants to promote intensely the relationship of the community with the universal Church and the Holy See, in the certainty that the Holy Spirit guides us on our journey as a small diverse community, open, capable of dialogue and welcoming". (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 15/6/2024)