Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part interview with Cardinal-designate Sebastian Francis of Penang. Part one can be found here.
ROME – Malaysia’s new cardinal, Sebastian Francis of Penang, has said the upcoming Synod of Bishops on Synodality ought to be an open process in which all issues are discussed without fear, and warned against using labels that cause division.
Speaking to Crux, Francis said of the synod, “as long as we don’t get into labels, and we don’t get into trying to divide,” things will be fine.
He pointed to labels such as “traditional, conservative, liberal, modern and contemporary,” urging Church members, “don’t get caught up in labels, and remember that the whole world is present, symbolically, and the whole world is listening.”
“The whole world is engaged in this process. So, to expect ready-made answers might be a bit naïve,” he said.
Noting that there has been controversy over topics such as women’s ordination and efforts to engage the LGBTQ+ community, including the approval of same-sex blessings, Francis said, “We should just let the Spirit lead and not avoid any issues that are burning, whatever those issues may be, and to allow everyone to speak and to wait for the outcome.”
“We are not looking for easy, simple solutions to whatever issues might be out there in the Church, but we are looking for a way of being Church itself…a Church that is open to welcome anyone, everyone, and deal with all the issues without feeling threatened by any issues,” he said.
Set to take place Oct. 4-29, the synod will reflect on the topic of “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” and is focused on how to transform Church life and structures to make it a more welcoming place for all of its members.
It is the culmination of a multi-year process that began with a broad consultation and the diocesan level in October 2021 and continued with discussion at the continental stage, and it marks the first of two universal gatherings based in Rome to conclude the process. The final discussion will take place next year, in October 2024, following a year of reflection and discussion on the results of this year’s meeting.
Francis was among the 21 new cardinals who will get a red hat from Pope Francis Sept. 30, days before the synod is set to begin. Though he is not a delegate to the synod, another prelate from his area, Cardinal William Goh of Singapore, will represent the region.
Francis studied at Rome’s Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, for two years in the early 1980s, as well as at the Maryknoll School of Theology in New York for an additional year, from 1990 to 1991.
Francis was named bishop of Penang in August 2012, and he currently serves as a member of the Central Committee for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC) and chairman of FABC’s office of social communication.
In his conversation with Crux, Francis discussed the October synod as well as the Church in Malaysia, Pope Francis’s attention to the continent, the upcoming World Youth Day in Seoul, and a potential papal visit to India next year.
Please read below for part two of Crux’s interview with Cardinal-designate Sebastian Francis.
Crux: I would like to ask you about the current Synod of Bishops. Can you explain what the process has been like in Malaysia? What has the discussion been like, and what has it focused on in Malaysia?
Francis: We had a process of what we call aggiornamento, or renewal, about ten years after Vatican II. Vatican II ended in 1965, we had our renewal of the church of Peninsula Malaysia in ’76, and from 1976 until now, we have actually been going very systematically into a very synodal Church of clergy, religious and laity. So, for us to engage in this process at the universal level I think was not a very difficult, because our Church has been a very synodal Church journeying together as clergy and religious and laity, involved at all levels of church life, not just liturgical. So, I think we must, without boasting, say the level of participation in this synodal journey up until now has been very fruitful, very good numbers, and we are kind of at ease this journey. It seems to come quite naturally to us.
What are some of the main issues you would like to see discussed, issues of regional concern, etc., during the synod?
As the pope has said several times, and we are in agreement, we are not looking for easy, simple solutions to whatever issues might be out there in the Church, but we are looking for a way of being Church itself; a way of living Church, a way of being Church…a Church that is open to welcome anyone, everyone, and deal with all issues without feeling threatened by any issues. Really, it is the Church itself and how are we really going to live Church and be Church, and not just come out with a document at the end of the day.
It is interesting how the synod process is – in a way for some it might appear to be being dragged on, but it’s another way of saying, well, this is the way we are going to live Church and be Church, and be constantly open to engaging and growing together, and making decisions as they are necessary. The dialogical process is really what we want to get to [in] this synod, and not to be afraid of that, and to engage with one another and to engage with the world, and not to withdraw. I think that is more important than any specific issue that we have to deal with. We must believe that the Holy Spirit is the underlying motive, the underlying force, energy, that is driving this synodal process of the Church.
There’s been controversy about some of the issues that will be part of the discussion – the ordination of women, and blessings for same-sex couples, for example. Would you share some of those concerns, or would you say they are a distraction from what the discussion should be about?
I think that as long as we don’t get into labels, and we don’t get into trying to divide…Labels of traditional, conservative, liberal, modern and contemporary, and fundamentalist. I think as long as we don’t get caught up in labels, and remember that the whole world is present, symbolically, and the whole world is listening, the whole world is engaged in this process. So, to expect ready-made answers might be a bit naïve.
Therefore, I think we should just let the Spirit lead and not avoid any issues that are burning, whatever those issues may be, and to allow everyone to speak and to wait for the outcome. The spiritual conversations, which was Asia’s contribution to this synod, and it has come out in the Instrumentum Laboris – the Instrumentum Laboris is more about the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what.’ I guess it is very difficult for many people to accept the fact that it is not going to come out with a ready-made statement, but it is going to give us a modus operandi, it is going to tell us, how do you engage in this process and in the whole world?
It is unprecedented, the level of consultation, the level of participation, it’s unprecedented for a universal organization like the Catholic Church, at these levels of intensity. So, I feel that the spiritual conversations must happen and will happen, and out of these spiritual conversations will come the fruits of the synod, whether they be for the Church as a whole, or whether they be dealing with any particular burning issues of the day that the press is focusing on, or whoever is focusing on. But I don’t think the Church is afraid of any agendas on the part of anyone.
During the consistory, if you have the chance to say something to the pope, what would it be?
I would like to remind him that the successors of apostles are the college of bishops universal, and not the college of cardinals. We have a special role to play with him, together with him, and also to be responsible for voting, when the time comes, for his successor. That’s fine, someone has to do it, and we are chosen, so let us do it on behalf of the universal Church. I think he understands all this, and he has communicated all of this to us.
I’d just like to tell him that I affirm the three things he mentioned to me in (his) letter: That universality is not uniformity, and uniformity is a temptation, it’s a weakness and may even be a sin; and telling us what he would want from us, from me, is both the enculturation of faith of the universal Church and the evangelization of cultures. I am one with him, one with the Holy Spirit who has inspired him to remind us of these essentials. For the rest, well, come what may.
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