They never fully went away, the spotlight just moved away from them during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Now they are
making a comeback with a meeting in Brazil, this January, where they
will announce their mission and their role in Francis’ pontificate.
Brazil is the birthplace of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) and the
place where they grew the most.
The earliest BEC communities – as they are known – emerged in 1968
and were properly recognised at a meeting in Puebla, Mexico, in 1978.
“Over the past ten years they have multiplied and matured, particularly
in some countries, so that now they are one of the causes for joy and
hope in the Church,” bishops wrote in the final document issued at the
Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate. In communion
with their bishops, and in line with Medellin's request, they have
become centres of evangelization and moving forces for liberation and
One of the recommendations the Conference made to all
other Latin American Churches was to recognise the experience of BECs as
valid and foster their development.
In the Puebla document there is a special chapter dedicated to Basic
Ecclesial Communities; it refers to them as causes for hope in the
Church and says they offer the ideal environment for faith to mature.
those years, when most of the continent was under the rule of
authoritarian regimes, the work of the BECs was focused on poor areas
such as suburbs, slums, satellite cities, shantytowns and any kind of
The movement gathered most steam in Brazil, where the
industrial revolution was in full swing, domestic immigration and
urbanization had taken off, the city was growing like mad and social
services was either poor or non existent. Basic Ecclesial Communities
sprung up around badly built churches, illegal neighbourhoods lacking in
public services, areas of land invaded by mass crowds of people from
Here the BECs took care of people’s basic needs such as
finding a home, electricity, drinking water, looking after the sewage
system and public sanitation in general. BECs in Brazil spread at a time
when the political landscape was marked by a military dictatorship
which lasted from 1964 to 1985. They took on social responsibility at a
time when political parties were unable to act.
Fifteen years later, when the Latin American Episcopate held its
fourth conference in Santo Domingo, the climate had changed
significantly. For the first time there was talk of “new apostolic
movements” and the Basic Ecclesial Communities were still mentioned but
with less optimism and more suspicion.
There was an air of caution,
suspicion, apprehension and concern in the discussions and reflections
of many authoritative figures who took part in the Conference. Many
communities fell victim to ideological and political manipulation.
Although BECs were officially recognised as valid ecclesiastical
entities at the meeting in Santo Domingo, emphasis was placed on the
risks of these communities and on the need to establish criteria of
A chapter on apostolic movements appeared in the
concluding document for the first time: “It is necessary to accompany
the movements in a more defined process of inculturation, and encourage
the formation of movements with a greater Latin American impression.”
The Aparecida conference which took place 30 years after the Puebla
conference and 15 years after the Santo Domingo one, gave the BECs a
strong missionary impulse. Parishes became communion and missionary hubs
Parishes were understood as communities within communities,
spaces for Christian initiation, education and celebration of the faith
that were open to the diversity of charismas, services and ministries.
Parishes were seen as integrators of local as well as apostolic
communities and movements. The picture being painted was one of the
Church seen from the bottom up, made up of small grassroots structures
which supported the needs of the local community.
Now that Francis is Pope, things once again seem to be looking up for
the BECs. This is partly why representatives are meeting in Juazeiro do
Norte, in the Brazilian state of Ceará from 7-11 January.
provide a chance for the BECs to reaffirm their role within the Church
and define their importance as engines of change within Brazil,”
promoters of the meeting say. The theme of the meeting is “Justice and
prophecy in the service of life: BECs pilgrims of the Kingdom, in the
countryside and in the city". 4,000 representatives from all across
Brazil are expected to attend.
The National Conference of Bishops of
Brazil (CNBB) website informs that there will be visits to parishes and
communities, stories of fights, challenges and hope, celebratory moments
and a solidarity economy and fair trade fair.