My wife Carmen and I were invited to represent Australia at the 7th Asian Continental Christian Family Conference held at Marriage Encounter House in Singapore, from 16-18 June. Other representatives came from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Macau, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Australia.
The Conference, with its theme "The challenge of being a Family in Asia is a Joyful Mission", focused on the strength of Asian families with Christian attributes and values, as they face the increasing challenges posed by globalisation.
Each day at the conference began with Mass while the talks covered such topics as "The Strength of Asian Families and their Christian Values," "Social/Economic Developments and Changes and their Impact on the Christian Family," "Family Spirituality" and "Rights of the Family and Meeting Major Societal Changes."
These were followed by workshops with well-prepared questions that stimulated thinking and produced animated discussions.
The keynote speaker was Archbishop Nicholas Chia of Singapore, who spoke about "The Asian Christian Family in a Changing World." He began his address with a description of the long history of Asia's civilised social living, noting that most Asians still live and practise their old distinctive traditions and cultures as "Asians", different from Americans, Europeans and Africans.
In Singapore and some other Asian countries, the institution of the family has not changed to the extent that it has in other parts of the world. The extended family remains very common and much appreciated, and receives recognition and support from both society and government.
In fact, when we attended Sunday Mass we were very impressed that the church was packed with families, young and old, who followed the Mass with great attention and devotion.
The Archbishop during his talk warned us not to be complacent about the present position of the family since its rights had to be fought for, defended and institutionalised. Because of modern communications, the world is rapidly shrinking into a "global village" and thus impacting on societies and families economically, socially, culturally and even technologically, the Archbishop said.
Everything in the institution of the family, as we know and understand it, is being assailed from all sides. Its hard won rights are under threat, hence we must be actively engaged to keep abreast of developments, respond to these and be ready to defend the family's rights.
We have to educate parents to avoid what is happening in many European countries, formerly strongholds of Catholicism and strong defenders of the family, which today are almost facing extinction.
In China, because of the one-child policy, the family as we know it is disappearing from society with the result that most children have no uncles, brothers, sisters or cousins.
The movement of people from rural areas into cities, across national boundaries and even across oceans has been detrimental to the structure of the family in such countries as the Philippines.
The following are some of the conclusions arising from the many workshop discussions:
* Society and the world need us. As parents we have to be able to see the developments early, review them in the light of our faith and then respond as parents and citizens.
* Parental education and training in Gospel values and the social teachings of the Church are essential, so that parents will be armed with the tools to be a strong steadying influence in the upbringing of their children before they enter the larger society.
* We all lamented the failure of Catholic schools to pass on the faith to our children. This is even the case in missionary countries like Pakistan and India. Parents cannot do more. Bishops must help.
* We need to be less preoccupied with material goods and focus more on the intellectual and spiritual. Many Catholics in their pursuit of more creature comforts forget other families in dire need of help because of poverty, unemployment and other family disruptions brought about by the excesses of the capitalist market system.
* The gap between the haves and the have-nots is a grave injustice and a failure in our duty of Christian stewardship of our talents, resources and goods, all of them gifts of God.
* Preoccupation with acquiring more comfort, luxuries, possessions and consumption does not bring inner peace and can contribute to the breakdown of the family and other relationships. Education and spirituality are very important in helping us resist the materialist pressures and keep the family healthy.
* The only sure way to free ourselves from these pressures is not by trying to change the system (an impossibility), nor by withdrawing into isolation, but by living out our Christian values in the world. Participating as Christ's speaking citizens in our society, we must never forget that our Christian outlook makes the difference. Christ is not only our teacher, He is our strength.
For us it was a really joyful experience. We learnt a lot in our meetings with many young couples from the other participating countries, sharing and discussing experiences with each other. We felt part of a wider international family with common aims, problems, worries, difficulties, good times and bad times.