Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Synodality in the Eyes of a Columban Lay Missionary

By Jhoanna 'Jao' Resari, CLM - Taiwan 


In early October 2021, Pope Francis formally opened the synod process at the Vatican with the theme: "For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission," that calls for full participation of members of the Church and gives voice to people especially those in the margins of our society in critical discussions on issues that impact the life and mission of the Church. With the changes made with the whole process of this synod, Pope Francis invites us to seriously reflect on what the path of synodality looks like for us in our own communities. Following is my personal reflection on synodality, shared during a workshop on synodality among fellow Columban missionaries.

    When I joined the Columban Lay Missionaries (CLM) in 2005, I was 24 years old. My first mission assignment was in Taiwan, and my ministry was in the field of HIV/AIDS. I journeyed for six years with people living with and affected by this illness, who were residing in shelters run by a local non-profit organization. Afterwards, I worked in the HIV and AIDS education and outreach ministry in the Hsinchu Diocese.  I also served in leadership ministry in our mission unit and in the Columban Lay Missionaries.

    My encounters with people of different backgrounds, cultures and faiths, have deepened my understanding of what St Paul meant when he described the Christian community as "one body with many members, so it is with Christ.  We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it." These words have greatly influenced how I live and work as a missionary. My experiences on mission has truly been a blessing, because, until I met the Columbans, I had not fully understood my baptismal call to live out God's mission. Although I was raised a Catholic, which has imbued my way of life with Christian values and traditions, I grew up treating the Church as a place where I go to have my spiritual needs met, a place where I can expect people of authority, mostly priests, to provide certain services.

    At a young age, I also learned not to ask questions about the bible or religious practices or traditions. I grew up feeling it was my place to simply receive what was offered by the Church, to fulfill my obligations and not question.  These were some of the things ingrained in me that I unconsciously accepted in living out my Catholic faith. 

    In saying this, I also recognize that many of my faith experiences were necessary for my spiritual growth as a child and on into my youth. As I grew into adulthood, the comfort  of the familiar and the convenient role of a passive recipient member of the Church stagnated my spiritual  growth and limited my participation in the life of the Church.

    I believe the Holy Spirit was guiding me on my journey while I was growing up, and I am grateful God led me to discover the Columban Missionaries.  Cross-cultural mission has allowed me to grow in my faith, and own my identity as a member of the Christian community, as well as understand that the Church is much more than a place for the laity to receive spiritual services or replenishment.

    With Pope Francis' decision to move towards a synodal renewal of the Church, the message is clear that "the whole People of God is an agent of the proclamation of the Gospel...every baptized person is called to be a protagonist of mission since we are all missionary disciples." (Synodality in the life and mission of the Church, 53).

    We need to create conditions that enable people to recognize and respond to their baptismal call and allow them to own their role as "protagonists" - the principal and active participants in mission. It is important to facilitate and guide people on their journey until individuals are able to truly find their voice in the life and mission in the Church.  If we see ourselves as facilitators, we can bring people together, learn from one another and be enriched by our encounters of different cultures and experiences. This can bring about new possibilities for mission. We need to be creatively and faithfully responsive to the changes brought forth by our journey together, especially when these changes lead us closer to people on the peripheries amidst these challenging and uncertain times.

    When I arrived in Taiwan, I recognized  how structures within the Columbans invite members - lay and ordained - to live out the values that reinforce and inform their lives, that is, a full participation that fosters partnership, shared responsibility and accountability among ourselves. I had to let go of my past conditioning that influence my dynamics in dealing with the ordained and my view of my role as a lay woman in our community. It was not easy, but gradually I understood that my opinions and contributions would be received and respected by others.

    Over the years, the encouragement from fellow missionaries gave us the confidence and courage to contribute in discussions, take initiatives and accept responsibilities. With diverse cultures, personalities and personal histories, it is to be expected that we would experience resistance, tension and conflict. Although we would rather avoid all these, I believe that they are part of our reality, and overcoming them is a necessary part of our growth individually and as a community.

Jao (seated, right) with fellow Columban Missionaries in Taiwan

     With God's grace, the environments and conditions such as those I experienced can bring about an awakening in any individual, leading to a deeper understanding of one's calling and a sense of ownership of our shared responsibilities as a community.  Synodality also calls us to address clericalism and exclusion in the Church. From what I have witnessed and learned in my ministry about confronting stigma and discrimination, behavioral and attitudinal change in how we view and relate with one another is just as critical as finding a cure that would end HIV and the realities brought about by this illness.  

    This is also true for the Church. It is vital that we honestly examine negative and false narratives, religious and cultural misconceptions or taboos, and any other structural or ideological components of the Church that perpetuate clericalism or justify acts of exclusion. Only when we are aware of these attitudes and behaviors, and take steps to counteract them, can we ensure that we are not blocked from responding to and relating with people around us. Then, we can be catalysts of change for inclusion and diversity, bring healing in the Church, and truly move forward in the spirit of  communion with one another and with God.

    May our encounters with people at the margins teach us the meaning of witnessing to the truth that every person possesses an innate value and dignity and deepen our understanding of what St Paul meant when he described the Christian community as "one body with many members, so it is with Christ. We are the body of Christ, and individually members of it."

    May the Holy Spirit guide us in our ongoing commitment to welcome others to share in God's mission as disciples of Christ.


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