Friday, January 03, 2014

Basic Ecclesial Communities make a comeback

Members of a Latin American BECThey 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 development.” 

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. 

In 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 periphery. 

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 rural areas. 

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 ecclesiality. 

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 once more. 

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. 

“It will 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.

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