The critical issues of four contents were discussed in a rich exchange of views. The situation in Asia was presented by Andrew Reception, a Filippino who is president of the Association of Catholic Missiologists. In a continent where 52.8% of the world’s population lives and only 13.2% are Christian, the main challenge of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel, which is unknown by the majority. This is carried out by means of cultural dialogue, which makes the local Church effectively present in the life of the people, and by means of dialogue with the great Asian religions, and work with the poor in solidarity with their struggle for a world that is more human.
A voice from another continent was heard from Martin Nizigiyimana, a Rwandan priest. He explained the current condition of the Church in Africa from a historical perspective ‘understanding even painful events as a growth crisis, which demands humility and cooperation to take responsibility in history for the kingdom of God in the world.’ In this context the Church is called to serve reconciliation, justice and peace. Africa is known for its problems, but now there is a new way of looking at the continent, suggested by Benedict XVI during the 2009 synod, which sees Africa as ‘an immense spiritual “lung” for humanity that seems to be in the midst of a crisis of faith and hope.’ In support of this there were three significant testimonies from the Focolare Movement in Africa: the work carried out as part of the new evangelization at Fontem in Cameroon, the school for inculturation at Nairobi in Kenya and the witness given by the permanent Mariapolis at Man in the Ivory Coast during the civil war.
From Latin America, linked via Skype from Buenos Aires, José Maria Poirier, the editor of the journal Criterio, offered an understanding of Cardinal Bergoglio before his election as pope: ‘He had a low media profile and was attentive to personal relationships. He was used to being in a position of responsibility and yet he constructed extremely fraternal relationships with both the clergy and laypeople. He had a culture of encounter and hence of dialogue.’ As insights into how his papacy would proceed, Poirier said, ‘Zero tolerance for abuse, clarity on the economy and Vatican finances, a change of style for the Roman Curia, inclination to build pastoral relations between the pope and the world’s bishops, concern for the poor, the people at the bottom of the pile, those who suffer as a result of social unrest.’
There were three interesting voices from European countries: Germany, Spain and Ireland each of with is going through challenging times in Church-State relations, particularly as regards the Roman Catholic Church. Christian Hennecke, head of pastoral mission in the north German diocese of Hildesheim, emphasized the economic difficulties, the need for growth in faith, the fall in numbers for all vocations. But it is precisely in this situation that new and promising ways of being Church are emerging. Hennecke said that among the ways ahead, which are a fruit of shared experience by Catholics and Protestants, there is a move to reinforce the Word of God lived in community.
But what is happening to the Church in Spain? asked Manuel Bru, a journalist and priest from Madrid. He too saw some significant points: the decrease in the Church’s public role, where laws are passed contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine; numerical decline, even among Movements; the abandoning of religious practice by young people and women; the loss of enthusiasm, and a feeling of weariness, among priests. How can the Church in Spain be better served? Bru’s reply was ‘By taking on board the new wave started by Pope Francis and focusing on the primacy of love in action.’
Bishop Brendan Leahy, the recently ordained Bishop of Limerick in Ireland, outlined some issues within the English-speaking world. Reference to the scandals of the last few years was unavoidable: ‘At times in the churches things happen that force us to take stock and move on in ways that we would never have done otherwise. In the present case there has been a discovery of the role of children and young people in the Church, not so much as the object of pastoral action but as rather as actors within the community’s life.’ In the face of a culture that is increasingly secularized there is a degree of polarization with the Roman Catholic Church: there are those who seek to follow the way of dialogue and those who seek to defend the faith from compromise. It is necessary to go beyond ideological outlooks, just a Pope Francis does. His style, the spontaneity of his actions and his freedom in expressing himself are striking even for those who do not go to Church.
These things are challenges, but they are also opportunities, where we can catch sight of ways ahead as we recognize the ‘signs of the times’. History needs to be rethought, therefore, ‘with a view that is grateful to the Holy Spirit who has led the Church throughout the ages,’ as Maria Voce affirmed as she opened the reflections of the two-day conference on 12th and 13th June. Behind the significant changes we are witnessing, the Focolare President invited people to ‘emphasize the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the continuous capacity of the Church to respond to ever fresh challenges.’