By Gemma Cruz & Christine Burke
In a historic attempt at making Asian Catholic women seen and heard, women theologians from all over Asia gathered at the WE-Train International House, Bangkok, Thailand, for a five-day conference (24th-29th November 2002) entitled “Ecclesia of Women in Asia: Gathering the Voices of the Silenced”.
This first-ever meeting of Catholic Asian Women theologians met to see if they could find an identity and a voice under the theme “Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA): Voices of the Silenced”. The nearly sixty participants came from East Asia (mainland China, Hong Kong, Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan); from Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Timor Lorosae, Thailand and Myanmar/Burma); and from South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Australia). Ecumenical participants were sent by the Christian Conference of Asia and the Asian Women’s Resource Centre.
The dream to hold the EWA conference was born twelve months earlier, at a theological conference in India, called to reflect on the post-Asian Synodal document “Ecclesia in Asia.” At this conference in India, women were a very (in)conspicuous minority. Were there women theologians in Asia? What would they say about the Asian reality? About the Church? Through networks and email, the word went out. Financial support was gained. Applications were forwarded. Papers were requested.
Sr. Dr. Evelyn Monteiro from Pune, India, gave the Keynote Address, outlining the background to the conference, the objectives, and the hopes of the planning committee. She underlined that the aims of the conference were to i) bring together Catholic women doing theology in Asia including academic theologians as well as women promoting theology in grassroots situations; ii) provide space for Catholic women to have their voices heard and their thoughts and reflections articulated; iii) invite Catholic women theologians - in their power and potential - to evolve a theology from the perspective of Catholic Asian women; iv) encourage Asian Catholic women to engage in theological research, reflection and writing; v) create networks with different Asian feminist grassroots/theological movements and global feminist grassroots/theological movements which are Catholic, ecumenical and inter-faith.
The first day was given shape and colour by the striking morning and evening worship prepared by the Malaysian group. These dramatised through ethnic music and dance the travails of Asian women in contemporary times and how transformation could be achieved. During the opening worship, as the participants sang and uttered prayers in their own languages, a beautiful collage in the form of a flower in bloom was created out of pieces of indigenous cloth from each one’s homeland. The evening liturgy touched us all the more. We wrote on paper flowers our dreams for Asian women. These we folded and then floated in pools of water. As they floated so the flowers unfolded and bloomed before our very eyes.
In keeping with feminist awareness, this conference was shaped around a wide definition of “theologian”. Included were women in academia and women who work with grassroots groups. Interests ranged from battered women to inter-faith dialogue, from biblical hermeneutics to globalization and environmental concerns. Liturgies had been allotted to regional groups, so that even before the conference began, sharing had started on how to combine approaches and cultures in prayer.
Prior to the conference, 30 papers had been posted on the web. Most participants had read at least those papers belonging to their sub-group. These six sub-groups were: Women and Violence, Women and Spirituality, Women and Church Structures, Eco-feminism and Theological Method, Women and the Bible and Women and World Religions. On the second day, these groups began to study these papers in earnest, hearing a short synopsis from the authors, discerning common and divergent themes and underlying theological issues, and then looking at current responses and the implications for this emerging Ecclesia of Women in Asia. Already the diversity of issues, priorities and approaches became apparent. Participants came from quite different backgrounds. Some were activists from the grassroots, others came from academic institutions. However, there was no competition or confrontation. All engaged in an open process which led to creative tensions within a deep sense of respect for difference and a readiness to listen in a spirit of mutual regard. The conviction grew that women doing theology at the grassroots and in the academia need to collaborate closely.
The third day was led by Dr. Lieve Troch, professor of systematic theology in Nijmegen, The Netherlands who came as listener and responder. Dr. Lieve has experience in Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia as well as in Brazil. She looked behind the individual themes and issues to the broader context: how do Catholic Asian women doing theology wish to identify themselves as part of minority communities among largely Buddhist, Muslim, Confucian and Hindu majority communities? How can the voice of silenced women be heard not only “in church” but with regard to pressing social, political and economic concerns? Dr. Lieve called the group to accountability for the silence of women in church life. She invited the participants to accept their multiple identities as women, as Asians from particular cultures, as Catholics in minority churches. She pointed out the danger of concentrating on the aspect of “victim” rather than also emphasising aspects of survival and struggle. Lieve distinguished between approaches that simply describe the situation and those that aim to transform it.
The fourth day saw the question of “where do we go from here?” being addressed. Suggestions abounded as to future possibilities. Networking and mutual support were high on the list, but also the importance of increasing the visibility of EWA, of making contact with major theological associations in the area, of developing the women’s perspective of Asian contextual theology, and perhaps even offering short theological courses for ordinary women and men in areas cut off from such possibilities.
The meeting concluded with a eucharist which was celebrated within the larger dinner event. It was at once a truly innovative and inculturated liturgy as was participative. Participants left the conference committed to keeping the networks alive and to helping multiply the effects of EWA. A continuation committee was identified to ensure that EWA lives on for many more years and generations to come.