Lay People in the Asian Church

A Critical Study of the Theology of the Laity in the Documents of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences with Special Reference to John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation «Ecclesia in Asia» and the Pastoral Letters of the Vietnamese Episcopal Conf

by Peter Nguyen Van Hai (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 290 Pages


This book investigates the role of the laity in the Asian Church. Lay people have three responsibilities: proclaiming the Gospel, be a witness of life, and the triple dialogue with the cultures, the religions, and the poor. Focusing on the triple dialogue, the bishops of Asia have offered fresh ideas to address three global trends in society: the revolution in communications technologies which blurs the cultures; the conflicts between followers of different religions; and the advance of globalisation which leaves in its aftermath the poverty of the masses.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1 Rediscovering the Importance of Lay People in the Asian Church
  • Chapter 2 The Laity in Historical Context
  • Chapter 3 Fides Quaerens Dialogum: Theological Methodologies of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences
  • Chapter 4 Features of the FABC’s Theology of the Laity
  • Chapter 5 Evaluation of the FABC’s Theology of the Laity
  • Chapter 6 Models of the Asian Church
  • Chapter 7 Church as Context for Lay Mission in Asia
  • Chapter 8 John Paul II’s Theology of the Laity and the Teachings of the Asian Bishops
  • Chapter 9 The Mission of Lay People in the Pastoral Letters of the Vietnamese Bishops with Reference to the Teachings of John Paul II and the Bishops of Asia
  • Chapter 10 The Future of the FABC’s Theology of the Laity
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index

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Special thanks are due to the editorial committees of the following journals for giving me permission to edit and update several of my articles: Chapters 2, 4, 5, and 10 previously published in the East Asian Pastoral Review 46:4 (2009) 334–356, 47:1 (2010) 7–37, 47:3 (2010) 234–262, and 49:2 (2012) 107–132 respectively; Chapters 3, 6, and 8 in the Australian E-Journal of Theology 8 (October 2006) 1–26, 18 (April 2011) 61–73, and 10 (May 2007) 1–22; Chapter 7 in Compass: A Review to Topical Theology 46:2 (2012) 13–20; Chapter 9, a combination of two papers appeared in the East Asian Pastoral Review 48:4 (2011) 313–344 and The Australasian Catholic Record 89:3 (2012) 333–348. I also thank Ms Ute Winkelkötter, Mrs Andrea Kolb, Ms Lotte Kosthorst, and Mr Richard Breitenbach of Peter Lang International Academic Publishers for their interest and assistance in publishing this work.

Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to my former Jesuit professors at my alma mater, St Pius X Pontifical College, Da Lat, Vietnam, for initiating me into the sacred science of theology and scholastic philosophy. To them and all alumni I dedicate this book.

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Chapter 1 Rediscovering the Importance of Lay People in the Asian Church

As one of the main preoccupations of the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) the vocation and mission of the laity was the subject of an entire conciliar Decree and several sections of two Constitutions on the Church.1 In the first Constitution, Lumen Gentium,2 the Council emphasised the basic equality of all the baptised,3 and the common priesthood of all the faithful in the Church as the people of God.4 ← 1 | 2 → Thereby, it provided the dogmatic foundation for the development of a practical theology of the laity in Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.5 At the heart of this Decree is a revolutionary claim that Christ himself calls every faithful to serve the mission of the Church.6 In the second Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, the Council highlighted the special responsibility of lay people in the modern world.7

With these teachings, Vatican II, following the twin strategy of ressourcement (returning to Christian sources in Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy, and philosophy) and aggiornamento (renewal or updating the Church), effectively ← 2 | 3 → renewed the hierarchical and institutionalised ecclesiology,8 and signalled a shift in the Church’s understanding of the identity and role of lay people.9 First, it abandoned an attitude that was prevalent for centuries, which took for granted a passive role for the laity. Second, it advocated the active participation of lay people in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly mission of Christ,10 considering it as a duty incumbent on all recipients of the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.11 Consequently, Vatican II has often been hailed as “the Council of the Laity.”12 This Copernican revolution in the conciliar theology of the laity generated in turn a rediscovery of the importance of lay people in the Asian Churches,13 which, like ← 3 | 4 → other Catholic ecclesial communities throughout the world, experienced Vatican II as a theological event and a catalyst for change.14 One of the notable changes was the establishment of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC),15 an ← 4 | 5 → ecclesial body that received its official status in 1972,16 two years after 180 “Asian bishops” met for the first time around Paul VI in Manila.17 Another change lies in ← 5 | 6 → the fact that, in their efforts over forty years–from the historic meeting in 1970–to apply the conciliar teachings in the Asian Sitz-im-Leben, the bishops of Asia have developed their own local theologies, including a contextual theology of the laity, which is the topic of this work.

The theme of “the Vocation and Mission of the Laity in the Church and in the World of Asia” was discussed in detail at the Fourth Plenary Assembly of the FABC held in September 1986.18 While accepting Vatican II teachings,19 the Asian bishops were acutely aware that “the signs of the times” in their region pointed in directions different from what was assumed at the time of the Council.20 They also ← 6 | 7 → realised that, after more than 400 years of active evangelisation, Christians still remain a pusillus grex in the vast continent of Asia.21 This region is home to 60% of the world population,22 most of which lives in abject poverty. It is also blessed with a plurality of ancient cultures and religious traditions that have shaped the “minds and hearts and lives” of Asian people down through a long history.23 Therefore, the Asian bishops had to reconsider the mission of the Church to such a world, and the role of the laity within it.

For the Asian bishops, the Church’s evangelising mission in Asia experiences the greatest urgency while at the same time needing to find a distinctive form.24 This mission—“a continuation in the Spirit of the mission of Christ”25—will mean a triple dialogue with the cultures, the religions, and the poor.26 This “dialogue of life,”27 or “dialogue of salvation,”28 is “intrinsic to the very life of the ← 7 | 8 → church, and the essential mode of all evangelisation.”29 At their seventh Plenary Assembly held in January 2000, after years of addressing individual issues confronting the Asian Church, the bishops of Asia finally adopted an inclusive view of the evangelising mission,30 a term now encompassing inculturation, dialogue, justice, and the option for the poor, not as separate topics but aspects of an integrated understanding of the Church’s mission of love and service.31

The Significance of this Study

To fulfil the evangelising mission in Asia, the Asian bishops have turned to the lay faithful. They conceded that the lay apostolate still remained basically “parish-oriented, inward-looking and priest-directed.”32 Therefore, they have deepened their theology of the laity and used it as a foundation to develop a lay ministry more oriented to the world. This theology, deeply anchored in a contextual ecclesiology that was developed at the Third Plenary Assembly held in 1982, interprets anew the identity, vocation, and role of lay people, and places emphasis on their co-responsibility in the mission of the Church, in collaboration with bishops, priests, and religious.

For the bishops of Asia, the success of the evangelising mission in Asia will very much depend on how vigorously lay people, agents of evangelisation par excellence, have come to understand and implement their dual responsibility in the Church and in the world.33 Yves Congar, often considered to be the most important Catholic ecclesiologist of the twentieth century,34 underscores this point by predicting that “if the Church, secure on her foundations, boldly ← 8 | 9 → throws herself open to lay activity, she will experience such a spring time as we cannot imagine.”35

Yet, so far, despite its prominence in the FABC’s thought, and its enormous implications for the mission and the future of the Asian Church, the role of the laity in the documents of the FABC has been examined mainly in isolation or only as related to other concerns. By focusing on one aspect of the question of the laity, studies conducted so far have not treated the FABC’s theology of the laity in a full and critical fashion. Therefore, to remedy this gap in research, we intend to investigate the FABC’s theology of the laity in a more comprehensive fashion by discussing its historical context, its methodologies, its contents and development, and its ecclesiological underpinnings. To bring out the richness and dynamics of the FABC’s contextual theology of the laity, we will also compare it with the theologies developed by John Paul II and the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference.

This book, then, will investigate the theology of the laity as proposed by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. It will situate this theology in the context of post-Vatican II magisterial documents, in particular Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia,36 and the pastoral letters of the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference. The book will ascertain whether there has been a development in the FABC’s theology of the laity, and to what extent this teaching represents an integration of, and a step beyond, other postconciliar theologies of the laity.

The State of the Question

To date, the documents of the FABC have been the object of over thirty doctoral dissertations and several licentiate or masters theses.37 They treat a variety of ← 9 | 10 → theological and pastoral themes such as the evangelising mission,38 the kingdom of God,39 the Catholic social teachings,40 ecclesiology,41 Christology,42 inculturation,43 ← 10 | 11 → liberation,44 inter-religious dialogue,45 prayer,46 priestly formation,47 ordained ministry,48 and the Asian family.49 Besides a doctoral thesis discussing the spirituality of lay people in a particular diocese,50 and one that explores “the Participatory Communion” of the laity in a local church,51 both with reference to the FABC statements, three other doctoral studies deal with the mission and ministry of the laity in a wider context of Asia.52 ← 11 | 12 →

Marta Nam Ki Ok and Petrus Maria Handoko discuss the evangelising role of the lay faithful and lay ministries respectively, using the FABC documents published up to 1991 including the statements of the first five Plenary Assemblies of the FABC (1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, and 1990). Nam Ki Ok’s study focuses on the mission of the laity in the social and religious context of Korea, devoting only one of the work’s eight chapters to examine the statements of the FABC that deal with the role of lay people. The author’s approach to the subject in this chapter is predominantly pastoral, emphasising the importance of the formation for the laity,53 and containing numerous references to the social and ecclesial situations in Korea.54 Her analysis of the texts consists of a number of direct quotations taken mainly from the statements of the FABC’s Fourth Plenary Assembly on the laity and the Bishops’ Institutes for the Lay Apostolate, often sandwiched between general introductory and summary remarks, and arranged under the headings of the role of the laity in the family, in the field of education, in the world of work, and in the local Church of East Asia.55

Handoko’s thesis provides a more extensive investigation of the FABC’s theology of lay ministries in the light of the “paradigm of Kingdom.”56 He situates his treatment of lay ministries “within what is termed a total ecclesiology,”57 and considers “communion as a mode of mission.”58 However, the author does not discuss the contextual approach of the FABC’s theology of the laity, and ← 12 | 13 → its emphasis on the triple dialogue as the mode of the evangelising mission in Asia.59 His study could be complemented by a discussion of the theological methodologies employed by the bishops of Asia including the “Asian Integral Pastoral Approach.”60 It could also be strengthened by an examination of the common priesthood of the faithful as “a real priesthood of life” and the basis for lay identity and secularity,61 an investigation of the ecclesial construct of basic ecclesial communities,62 and an exploration of the linkage between the mission of the laity and the orientation of the FABC’s triple dialogue, namely, inculturation, interreligious dialogue, and liberation or human development. In this way, the richness of the FABC’s theology of the laity could better be revealed, and shown to be more encompassing, relevant, and useful to Asian Christians.

Nguyen Van Am’s dissertation is the third study on the mission of lay people in Asia, based on the documents of the Asian bishops issued up to 2001. The author investigates the subject under three aspects, in three successive chapters.63 Chapter 2 “deals with inculturation in a close relationship to the laity.”64 In Chapter 3, which purportedly “points out an Asian lay spirituality implied in the mission of inculturation,”65 Nguyen Van Am argues that “this is the way in which lay people in Asia develop their lay identity by listening to the Spirit and by working for the Kingdom with the heart detached from wealth and power.”66 Finally, ← 13 | 14 → in Chapter 4, which “singles out some emphases in the Asian Synod,”67 he suggests that “through these emphases, the Synod encourages lay people to involve in the mission of inculturation.”68 Throughout his study, the author pays little attention to the dynamic integration between inculturation and the other two pillars of the FABC’s threefold dialogical approach, namely the dialogue with other religions and the engagement with the poor.69 His treatment of the spirituality of the Asian laity could be enriched by an exploration of the FABC’s teaching on the spirituality of discipleship and the spirituality of harmony. His discussion on the emphases of the Asian Synod and their impact on the mission of lay people in Asia, could also be broadened by an elaboration on the concept of witness of life, a leitmotif of the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, a discussion of the identity, vocation, and mission of lay people in the context of the Church as a witnessing community of faith built on the two pillars of communion and mission, and some remarks on the continuing debate on the primacy between proclamation and triple dialogue. In general, Nguyen Van Am’s examination of the thesis topic tends to be cursory, and some of the sweeping statements that his study contains will not likely go unchallenged. For instance, in the introduction to his dissertation, the author avers that “it is true that Asian lay people are very devout and zealous. The FABC knows this. Consequently, the Asian bishops charge the laity with a challenging mission, the mission of inculturation.”70 In the final conclusion, he summarises his study in four assertions, the last of which reads: “more than ever before, the laity in Asia acknowledges that there is no ← 14 | 15 → opposition between being Christian and being Asian. More strongly speaking, Asian Christians are called to bring to light this truth that to be Christian is the best way of being Asian.”71 These assertions do not seem to have clear warrants from the texts of the Asian bishops.

In sum, given the focus, depth, and limited coverage of the aforementioned studies, the role of the laity in the documents of the FABC still remains a topic that merits further systematic investigation. We also note the paucity of the secondary literature on the role of lay people in the documents of the FABC, which comprise a few articles, two of which produced as position papers in preparation for the Fourth Plenary Assembly of the FABC,72 and several workshop guides.73 These authors could not deal with the theme in an exhaustive fashion because of the limitations of the genre.

With respect to the vocation and mission of the laity in John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, to date, there has not been any scholarly research devoted in a substantial way to the subject. There has also been no systematic study on the mission of the laity as proposed in the pastoral letters of ← 15 | 16 → the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference (VEC),74 except perhaps Ha Van Minh’s doctoral thesis, which aims to examine the role of lay people in the context of Vietnam.75 This work begins with a detailed account of the place and mission of lay people in the history of the Church in Vietnam from 1533 to 1975,76 drawing mainly from Vietnamese sources. It then provides an exposition rather than a critique of the mission of the laity in the pastoral letters of the VEC,77 the documents of Vatican II, the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Apostolic Exhortations Evangelii Nuntiandi and Christifideles Laici, and finally, the statements of the FABC, covering only the first five plenary assemblies, and the reports of the Asian Bishops’ Institute for the Lay Apostolate.78 Consistent with his predominantly pastoral approach, the author devotes the last part of his work to discuss the cooperation of lay people in the Church in Vietnam and their active participation in the parish.79 While his thesis contains quotations from several pastoral letters of the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference, issued between 1976 and 1999, it includes, unfortunately, only one reference to the 1980 Pastoral Letter, a watershed document in the history of the Catholic Church in Vietnam. Despite ← 16 | 17 → the current paucity of scholarly research on the role of the laity in the Church in Vietnam, numerous articles dealing with the Vietnamese laity, mostly of a popular nature and mainly in the Vietnamese language, have appeared in periodicals published by authors inside Vietnam or in the émigré communities.80

Scope and Methodology

With a view to complementing the existing studies on the role of lay people in the documents of the FABC, this book aims to offer a systematic exposition and a critical evaluation of the FABC’s theology of the laity. The work is divided into three parts.

The first part aims to scope and place the subject of the study in context, and this will be done in the first three chapters. In Chapter 1, we highlight the effort of the FABC to rediscover the dignity and status of the laity in the Asian Church. We will also review the state of the question, and explain the methodology and the importance of this research. In Chapter 2, we offer a chronological survey of the question of the laity, leading up to the particular contributions of postconciliar interpretations. In Chapter 3, we explore the theological methodologies of the FABC, and their influence on the formulation of the documents considered.

In the second part, which comprises four chapters, we provide a systematic exposition (Chapter 4) and a critical evaluation (Chapter 5) of the FABC’s theology of the laity. This investigation is conducted against the backdrop of the FABC’s contextual ecclesiology, which is presented and analysed in Chapters 6 and 7 respectively.

In the third and concluding part of this study, which consists of three chapters, we employ a critical and comparative methodology to articulate the FABC’s theological positions, their relation to the teachings of Vatican II, John Paul II, and the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference. Chapter 8, then, treats the FABC’s theology of the laity in the context of post-Vatican II magisterial documents, in particular John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (1999). In Chapter 9, we situate the FABC’s theology in the context of a local Church in Asia by examining ← 17 | 18 → in detail the theology of the laity proposed in the pastoral letters of the Vietnamese bishops. Here, we also explicate the interaction between the FABC’s theology of the laity and those of John Paul II and the bishops of Vietnam. The course of the development of these three theologies of the laity took place on three ecclesial levels, namely, the regional level of the FABC, the global level of the universal magisterium of John Paul II, and the local level of the Vietnamese Church. In Chapter 10, the final chapter, we provide a general assessment of the FABC’s theology of the laity in order to highlight its strengths, and respectfully offer suggestions for further clarification and development. We will also reflect on the future of the FABC’s theology of the laity.


X, 290
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Theological Methodologies Models of Asian Church Asian Christians
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 290 pp., 8 graphs

Biographical notes

Peter Nguyen Van Hai (Author)

Peter Nguyen Van Hai is an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University, holds a doctorate in theology, a Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in the PhD Thesis, a Master of Public Administration, and Graduate Diplomas in Computing Studies, Librarianship, and Management Sciences.


Title: Lay People in the Asian Church
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