Some Missiological Perspectives to the Experiences of BECs in the Philippines (Gabriel)

Some Missiological Perspectives to the Experiences of

Basic Ecclesial Communities in the Philippines

By:  Msgr. Manny Gabriel

 

I.                    Introduction

 

In his pastoral visit to the Philippines during the World Youth Day 1995, John Paul II enunciated a very significant conceptual framework that links our understanding of Christ, the Church and Mission.  He enjoined the youth to love the Church for “the Church is active participation in the Mission of Christ”.  They need not be afraid to confront the shadows and darkness prevailing in the world as long as the mission of Christ serves as the light that guides them from within.

John Paul II’s intergration of ChristChurch and Mission brings to the fore the following missiological principles: first, the primacy and centrality of the mission of Christ; second, the focus on how this very mission of Christ precedes and shapes the raison d’ etre and nature of being Church; and third, the necessity of amissiological perspective  to the theological reflections on our faith-experiences.

This paper aims to highlight precisely this missiological perspective stressed by John Paul II.  It tries to apply this  framework to the concrete experiences of becoming the Church at the very grassroots, the promotion of Basic Ecclesial  Communities in the Philippines

In particular, Evangelization as the main mission and identity of the Church serves as the underlying point of consideration. Comprehending  whatEvangelization is all about, its various components and stages provides the key that unlocks the missiological dimensions  of  Basic Filipino Ecclesial Communities.

II.                 Evangelization as Faith-Experience

There are crucial questions that BECs have to ask themselves apropos of Evangelization as faith-experience.  First of all, have the BECs  experienced deep conversion in Christ? Have they been evangelized? In what way? At the same time, are the BECs sustained in being evangelized, in their experience of discipleship in and through Jesus? Again, are the means and processes effective enough to keep them going? And last, have the BECs been evangelizing the bigger communities and local churches? How is this evangelizing thrust achieved?

The experience of conversion in BECs

A look into the data regarding the initiation and development of BECs in the country indicates that most have been organized from the  pastoral concerns and initiatives of Church agencies and institutions.  The organization of BECs is externally induced, so to say, through the call for renewal of the Parish and Diocesan leadership (thanks to the PCP II’s stress on  renewed, integral Evangelization).  Other agencies have used the BECs as formative tools in confronting socio-political issues affecting the communities (the BCC-CO approach of NASSA reflects this thrust). Of late, some dioceses have contextualized their economic development programs in and through BECs among farmers (the promotion of organic farming in rural  communities is a case in  point.)

Whatever the rationale for the introduction of the BEC process, there clearly an attempt to initiate some kind of “conversion” among the communities.  This“conversion” can be better described as a “paradigm shift”, a change in the way the grassroots experience faith in Jesus, in the manner they cope with and act on social issues affecting their lives, and in their way of sustaining their economic development. “Conversion” thus described is not so much an exclusively “religious experience”but a process that effects significant changes in the way the communities manage their self-development. It comprehends the acquisition of a world view and perspective to faith and the human person,  the adoption of the attitudes and skills needed to a fuller, more dignifying quality of life, beyond the survival and even oppressive level of human living.

“Faith experience” among BECs is, therefore, a comprehensive and inclusive phrase.  It brings to mind the image of Jesus unconfined to the altar or pedestal of a worshipping community.  Rather, it unveils the Jesus who commands his disciples “to love each other” as He has loved them or who enjoins them to use their talents to the full for whatever is done to the least of his brothers and sisters is done to him.

Sustaining the  Process of  Conversion

 

To ensure the continuing participation of the Laity in the life and mission

of the   local Church, many parishes have evolved, developed and

promoted lay ministries in the BECs.  Some of the ministries deemed

essential in sustaining the BECs includes  the roles of BEC Coordinators and

Organizers, Gospel Study Facilitator, Lay Eucharistic Minister, Family Life

Educator, Community-based Catechists, Youth Coordinators, Social Service Worker. In many parishes, recruitment and screening programs, preliminary orientation and training seminars precede the actual assumption into office of the ministers themselves.  They are formally installed in the Parishes.  While performing their given tasks, regular on-going formation and trainings are provided  for.  They also undergo yearly renewal of commitment to serve the communities.  In this way, the ministers realize that their ministry is not for themselves but for and on behalf of the Christian communities, that whatever service they render has to redound to the building of the local  Churches, specifically the BECs, and that their participation in the mission of Evangelization is primarily  a  gift of the Spirit.

Consequently, the proper performance of lay ministries creates enabling structures that sustain concrete, on-going conversion among the ministers. “Conversion” does not become a one–shot deal but an experience that inheres in the day-in and day-out service that lay ministers perform.  It is a protracted struggle that builds on  theministers’ quest for spiritual enrichment and faith-experience in Christ, our Lord.

The Sustainability of Faith-Experiences

 

Sustaining the “faith-experiences” or “paradigm shifts” among the BECs

needs regularity of opportunities and stability of structures where the BECS

can integrate and deepen the process of conversion.  The most commonly-

used strategy centers around the proclamation of God’s Word.  Through

Gospel study, reflection and sharing, the community gathers to be shaped and nourished by Jesus’ words. They meet weekly to be enlivened by the Word and to give life to it,; at the same time, in a dialogical manner. Conversion becomes a life long process where the communities rediscover in the Word the framework and inspiration for the re-direction  of their faith and the enrichment of they daily living.

The celebration of the Eucharist has also provided a continuing  source of renewal in the BECs’ life of faith.  Some parishes have  institutionalized “street masses” that enabled the BECS not only to have easy access to the celebration of the Eucharist.  More importantly, they experience the Eucharist at the core of their life-setting. The Eucharistic celebration serves as a regular venue that shapes their neighborhoods’ faith-life and deepen their relationship and  culture as a  people.

Other strategies that have been adopted to maintain the process of conversion refer to the use of personal renewal programs as the Parish Renewal Experience (PREX), the Life in the Spirit Seminar (LSS), the various types of Marriage Encounter (ME) or  the different retreats and recollections conducted in the Parish.

Personal Conversion

 

Some of the renewal programs have assisted the BEC leaders and members in their spiritual growth and personal maturity.  At times, the impact tends to be short-lived, emotionally-laden and dramatic, particularly if the seminars or retreats are directed to issues relating to family life or financial and work setting. But when the family or financial problems linger their  participation in the BECs gets  affected.  Some lie low and take off from their community involvement.  Others continue to be active in their ministry in the BECs, and in due time, are able to resolve their domestic conflicts.

The BECs face internal tension among  their members when conflicting orientations  crop up.  Some renewal movements have used the BECs to  recruit members to their organizations and communities.  They introduce a different view or model of the Church,  instill an almost blind loyalty to their own organization  and institute a rigid follow-up system of the prospective members lest they fall away from their group.  These conflicting ecclesiological orientations and divided loyalties have affected the BEC’s growth in number.  In other circumstances, the BECs have been marginalized since the prime movers of these movements are also with the centers of power in the Parish or Diocese.

Consequently, sustaining the process of conversion or paradigm shift

among the BECs necessitates not only renewing the faith experience as a community but also their faith-life as individuals or persons and even as a family or families. It also requires a keen sense  of  discernment on how to address the formation needs of the BECs leaders and members and to develop spiritual programs that are not confined to the regular, packaged programs of existing organizations and movements. Extra caution has, likewise, to be given to the underlying theological orientation of these religious organizations and faith-communities.  Potential conflicts with the BEC’s inherent assumptions on the Church and its mission could jeopardize the future of the BECs themselves.

III.               The Evangelizing  Thrust of BECs

 

Faith-life among the BECs is not self-contained.  It is directed outward, to realize their participation in Christ’s mission in the world.  It is aimed at the evangelization and transformation of the bigger society, taking into account the dialogue of the BECs with the task of modernization and globalization, with interfaith and ecumenical concerns, and the urgent call for organization and education for justice and peace.  BECs must be able to evangelize  both the Church  from within and society as a whole.

Evangelizing the Immediate Environment

 

The  BECs immediate impact can be discerned through and in the

neighborhood  system.  The presence of BEC units, with the weekly prayer meeting and street  evangelization program has influenced  neighbors’ relationship with one  another.  New modalities of interaction and regular communication bring in new  dynamics and patterns of dealing with each other.  The use of Gospel reflection and  Bible guides has given them a faith-based framework for responding to the social  realities and issues that affect them as a community.

Evangelizing the Parish as a Local Church

BECs are described as the most fundamental unit of the local Church. It is the Church at the very roots, interlinked with the Parish and diocesan communities. They relate to the Parish  leadership and organizational structure, to its thrust and priorities.

The presence of BECs in the Parish has impacted,  first of all, to the personal and ministerial life  of the Parish Priests.  Many of  the pastors have recognized the changes in their outlook and motivation, in their management system and style, in their personal approaches and pastoral dealings with the parishioners.  The challenge alone of initiating the organization of BECs and sustaining their growth and expansion already puts them in situations where there they have to muster a lot of creativity, zeal  and commitment.  BECs pose profound challenges to the priests’ own mission and ministry, to their personal and spiritual maturity.

Others who have not been supportive of BECs reveal  a different kind of theological and ecclesiological orientation and, sometimes, conflicting pastoral priorities. Parishes where BECs are conspicuously absent or where they have a low level of survival attribute their  difficulty to these unsupportive pastors.

Likewise, similar problem areas exist in the BECs’  relationship with the Parish lay leadership.  In most instances the Parish Councils are managed by lay leaders coming from either the mandated organizations or faith-renewal communities.  The disparity of orientations and loyalties between or among them contribute to the non-implementation or slow progress of BECs.  They even tend to regard BECs as actual competitors and potential  threats to their positions of authority and system of control in the Parish.  In these cases, BECs hardly make a dent in the evangelization of the center-based Parish organizations.

Evangelizing the bigger Communities

The phenomenon of BECs in the Philippines has reached nationwide attention in the late seventies and early eighties of the past century.  They landed  in the headlines of the dailies when the organizers of what used to be called Basic Christian  Communites (BCC) were accused by the military as “communists”. The BCC units were then tagged “communist fronts”.  They were looked upon as threats to national security and the military had simply to make sure that they did not increase in number and their influence curtailed.  Many BCC leaders were hunted and persecuted; some were imprisoned and others summarily executed.  This was BCC’s season of  martyrdom,  when being a Church at the very roots was a sign of contradiction.

Many bishops and priests, leaders of religious  and mandated organizations were carried away by this propaganda against BCCs.  They were wary of their presence and some had to withdraw their support from what Karl Rahner called “the shape of the Church to come.” The  BCCs that persevered and those that were organized without wholehearted support from the leadership of the parish and diocese veered to becoming “parallel churches”.  They started to be  independent from the parishes. Without rootedness in the local Church and the  life-giving nourishment it provides these BCCs sooner or later withered and disappeared.

After the “EDSA revolution” in 1986, the bishops felt that BCCs could and should be able to direct the power unleashed by the people at EDSA.  But they felt some changes needed to be done.  The firsts the change of name, from Basic Christian Communities to Basic Ecclesial Communities.  To avoid the misconception attached to BCC, the Church would have to  stress the ecclesiality of the Christian Communities.  BECs had to renew their mission and identity in the context of Church-life, and from there, expand outward.

Upon the prompting of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II), BECs were seen as the sign  of a renewed, intergrated and inculturatedEvangelization.  BECs are to be the way for the re-evangelization of the Philippine Church.

Ten years later, the Philippine Church evaluated the nature and extent of renewal brought about by PCP II.  It convened the National Consultation  on Pastoral Renewal (NCPR), and after a week of deliberation identified the promotion of BECs as one of the Church’s pastoral priorities.  BECs remains as a way of renewing the Church from within through lay empowerment and a way of becoming a “Church of the Poor”.

The impact of BECs, therefore, to the broader contour of the Philippine Church and society is quite ambiguous.  On the one hand, much has been said about it in media, among the military circles, in seminars and assemblies of the national and local Churches.  It has been publicly declared and officially embraced in the vision and mission statements of the diocesan and parish pastoral plans.  Yet, among BEC practitioners, it is felt that there is still so much resistance and opposition to its full implementation.  In the concrete, daily routine of Parish life,  the promotion of BECs has remained as an agenda, if not altogether, submerged in the avalanche of traditional activities and seasonal practices in the Parish.  They have attributed this malaise to the still-bemuddled concept of BEC among the leaders of the Parish and to the lack of conversion to its full import.  BECS still remain a challenge to the Church,, a direction that has to be consistently and systematically pursued.

IV.              BECs and the Components of Evangelization

 

Contemporary missiologists have identified three components in the Church’s mission of Evangelization.  They are proclamation, inculturation and social transformation.

If BECs are the most fundamental units of the Parish and Diocesan communities, they too must contain the components that make up the mission of Christ himself. They must be seen and evaluated through the prisn of proclamation, inculturation and social transformation in the task of Evangelization.

Certain questions apropos  of this can be raised.  How is the element of proclamation being realized in BECs? How do they witness to communities where other faiths are more dominant as the situation that prevails with our brother and sister Muslims in Mindanao? What are their experiences of  living with Christians belonging to other Churches? Morever, how is inculturation concretely realized in BECs? What’s new about inculturation in the context of Basic Ecclesial Communities? Lastly, is social transformation being addressed in and through BEC? How is this concretely realized?

BECS and the Dimension of Christian Witnessing

 

By their very nature, BECs are in the natural setting or locale where witnessing to faith and life and the interactive dynamics between them  can come easily come into play.  As neighbors, the BEC members cannot fake the way they live the faith in as much they know each other through and through.

It is either they help each one to grow in perfection, “as the Heavenly Father is perfect.”  Or they can push each other down and break up the community ties that  unitethem.

This dimension of witnessing remains crucial in the birth and growth of BECs.  Simple problems between neighbors can be easily magnified; ordinary spats between spouses and among siblings can flow to the neighboring families; financial woes or moral indebtedness among members of the BECs and neighborhood could escalate into misunderstandings and conflicts.  Whatever the case, the community gets affected.  The BECs’ task to proclaim the Good News through witnessing remains an uphill climb or a roller-coater ride.

From Basic Ecclesial Communities to Basic Human Communities, an Interfaith Experience.

In parts of the country where the Muslim presence is significant, Church workers have promoted what is described as basic human communities.  The shift of focus from ecclesial to human communities highlights the commonality that exists among neighbors.  It is now directed to the promotion of human dignity and Kingdom Values in our quest for total human development.  Among the strategies adopted to bring this about include the Church’s participation in the peace process of the Mindanao people, the setting up of economic projects for the poor and multi-purpose cooperatives for the communities, the introduction of organic farming and social development programs among the farmers.  Lastly, a very common strategy for Evangelization is the Church’s continuing commitment to the Christian/Catholic education among the young.  Providing quality Catholic education among the youth in an non-Christian territory is an evangelizing activity in itself.

Likewise, the question of environmental and ecological preservation has become a common agenda among practitioners of the basic human communities.  To develop, protect and nurture Mother Earth could galvanize men and women of varying faith.  It is effective in arousing  growing interfaith response.

Hence, while a number of Catholic find it a challenge to expressly proclaim their faith to their non-Christian brothers and sisters, nonetheless, their commitment to integral human development through concrete, shared understakings or projects bespeak a human, humble way of living out their faith.

BECs and Ecunemical Concerns

Another angle to the proclamation aspects of BECs concerns their dealings with other Churches and Christian denominations and sects. Witnessing to unity suffers when proseletyzing persists among the neighbors in the community.  The presence of “born again” Christian groups often triggers this off.  The attempt to convert each other creates serious conflicts among them, making any effort to organize the community futile and almost impossible.

But when the ecumenical  spirit exists as the case among some members of the World Council of Churches (Methodists, Anglicans, Presbyterans, etc.), witnessing to Christian faith creates deep trust, openness and collaboration in the community,  Ecumenism has become an effective tool in promoting a shared mission among Christians.  BECs that have experienced this have grown sturdier and more deeply rooted in Christ’s own injuction:  “Go and proclaim to Good News…. Make disciples of all nations….”

BECs and the Task of Inculturation

The Church’s mission of Evangelization gets deeper as it is able to express and realize itself in the cultural modalities of the people, and from within, transform them to affect change in the wider or bigger culture.

This task entails a process, that of Inculturation, which in turn involves three stages.  The first is translation of  the Word of God into the language of the communities. The Gospel is communicated using the people’s worldview (the way people perceive, explain, describe and integrate the reality within and around them), so that  they are able to respond in faith to the cost of discipleship that Christ offers.  Listening to and acting on the Word is a dynamic process that unites the BEC members along a shared perspective, where they make their own tangible contribution to the enfleshment of the Gospel in their lives.

The second stage refers to the assimilation of the Gospel into the culture of the community, the bigger neighborhood.  The regular prayer meetings where the Gospel shapes the BEC members into a community provide them opportunities to relate to each other based on the Gospel framework.   Conversion as a community gradually evolves.  The evangelization of culture as it is expressed in the neighborhood communities slowly provides norms of conduct and behavior, ideals and principles where the communities can critique themselves and embrace the necessary changes.

The third stage is the transformation of the bigger culture where the BECs are embedded.  The transformation occurs as the communities act and interact to the pressures and problems, the forces and conflicts that society impinges on them.  The Word-inspired and faith-motivated communities direct their efforts to purify or alter all that do not promote quality human Christian life and to reinforce the cultural trait that dignifies and upholds their self-respect as members of society.

These three stages are life-long processes that BECs embark on.  The stability and continuity of the BECs’ evangelizing efforts depends, to a large extent, on their ability to inculturate the Church into their very culture and setting as a people.  The presence or absence of an inculturated. Church lies in the way the BECs translate and assimilate Christ’s Word and message and make it the basis of their transforming task in society,

BECs in the country have succeded in leaps and bounds in their inculturation efforts.  Depending on significant variables (the setting and context of the BECs, the number of years that they have been organized, the regularity and degree of the formation and training of the leaders and members, the consistency of prayer meetings, etc), the BECs show varying levels of responding to the task of  inculturation.  More  serious studies and research are needed to find out the extent of suchinculturation process.

BECS and Social Transformation

This is the third component of Evangelization.  It is not enough that BECs are able to proclaim the Good News through the witnessing to faith-life or to evangelize culture and the cultures of communities.  The Evangelization process must bring about the transformation of structures in society, particularly those that do not enhance social equality among people.

The Church involvement in the social question is multi-faceted and multi-layared.  But one of the  major strategies identified that could  facilitate the Church’s effective response to the issues of justice and poverty lies in the mobilization and development of basic human/Christian/ecclesial communities.

BECs focus on grassroots’ participation not only in the Church through lay enpowerment and ministries, but more particularly, in the bigger society where they belong.  The organization and education for justice that  justice in the World has stressed must be directed to the plight of the poor and the marginalized, the victims of oppression and discrimination in society.  And most often, they are the grassroots of the Parish communities.  This is where BECs as a key strategy to development and social transformation could find a natural habitat.  BECs starting off point are the people themselves most of whom are unevangelized, deprived and oppressed.  In the tasks of organization and formation, the BECs are able to go through a conscientization or consciousness-raising process, to journey together in making themselves economically self-relient and in achieving  political self-determination.

BECs in the Philippines have had ample experiences in their engagement in social transformation.  The most popularly-recognized agency that has catapultedBECs into this arena is the BCC-CO of NASSA. Many parishes in Southern Luzon and Central Visayas, in some parts of the National Capital Region and Mindanao have been assisted in their evangelization of the poor, deprived and oppressed through the BCC-CO.  It is just too bad that after some time, the Agency under NASSA has closed shop.  But the experience  lingers.  The struggles continue.  The communities are responding to the task of social transformation.

The BEC Assembly has also disclosed the increasing number of BECs that employ poverty alleviation programs  and economic sustainability undertakings.  The experiences of the Northern Luzon BECs and those of Western and Eastern Visayas manifest serious attempts to face the basic question of poverty. Dioceses have openly pioneered this integration of economic productivity into the process of evangelization within the BECs.  More scientific researches are needed to probe the success or inadequacy of these pioneering efforts.

V.                 BECs and other Missiological Concerns

 

At this juncture, it might help to raise other missiological concerns that relate to BECS.  What are the potentials of pursuing the Church’s missionary activity throughBECs in foreign lands? On the other hand, What can BECs do to intensify the re-evangelization of the Philippine Church today? What lies ahead of BECs in thePhilippines?

BECs and the Church’s Missionary Activity

 

One of the pastoral priorities out by the NCPR is directed to the Filipinos’ responsibility to evangelize not only non-Christians (the missionary activity in the evangelization of people) but most especially the Christians who have lost their faith or have found it irrelevant to their needs, are simply indifferent to the dimensions of faith.

Many Filipinos overseas, particularly in a non-Christian context (migrants in the middle East, southeast Asia, northern Africa) naturally gravitate to form  smallsupport groups.  They meet informally for socials and mutual help, particularly to maintain  job security or simply to keep each other company.  Sometimes, these small groups have been effectively transformed into prayer groups, using the Bible, rosary devotions and other paraliturgical services.  Although these informal communities,spontaneously  organized according to the felt needs of Filipinos overseas, nonetheless, they have great potentials for becoming basic Christian communities, if and when their Spiritual Shepherds could guide them in the context of the local Church.  The link with the local Church is needed for the continuing nourishment and identity of these communities.

These groups of migrant workers have also the capacity to evangelize the non-Christian culture into which they are immersed.  Many stories abroad, chronicling the stories of Filipino migrant workers’ impact into the persons, families and communities of their employment.  How to unleash the potentials of these groups is the responsibility posed to the receiving Churches of the Filipino migrant workers.

BECs and the Challenge of Re-evangelization.

 

In Redemptoris Missio,   John Paull II reiterated the need to re-evangelize what were once Christian contries but are presently suffering from spiritual lethangy due to a highly secularized way of life.  PCP II re-echoed this in its Acts and Decrees and asserted that BECs are what it also takes to re-evangelize the Philippines today.  Re-evangelization and conversion of the country is the order of the day for the Philippine Church.

To re-evangelize, the Church has to move outward, towards the marginalized.  It has to immerse itself in people’s life-setting and from there, in a dialogue of faith of life, of Christ and culture, the communities get formed, responding to the social contexts that affect them. From these communities are born the BECs, serving us the new way of being Church.  They find the fullness of their growth in their rootedness in the bigger assembly of the Christian communities, the Parish or Diocese. The BECs that flow from this process of re-evangelization heralds the birth of the Church to come.

Whether the BECs in the Philippines are achieving this or not requires deeper inquiry.  Whether the BECs among Filipinos in the Chaplaincies in Europe orNorthern America are also able to affect the local Churches where they are part of is also something that needs to be investigated.  But one thing seems to stand out, that BECs can facilitate the re-evangelization of these local Churches.  They contain the inner force as leaven in the dough, to realize the integral evangelization of all people today.

GENERAL CONCLUSIONS

The missiological perspective that has been used to look at the Philippine experience of BEC promotion centered on Evangelization. Understanding Evangelization as faith-experience remains the  underlying missiological theme.

It runs through our analysis of BECs’ evangelized and evangelizing thrusts.  It underscores BECs’ integration of the components of proclamation, inculturationand social transformation in their organization and development.

While BECs have gone a long way in the work of Evangelization. This paper shows that they have still a long journey ahead of them to evangelize  the Church from within  and to re-evangelize the macro-level of our society.  The journey has to be seriously  pursue, , the inner force for conversion unleashed and the potentials fully realized.

This challenge is directed not only to the BECs themselves.  More urgently, the leadership in the Parish and diocesan communities have to do double time to catch up with the fast speed by which the world today has progressed.  The Church cannot afford to renege on its mission, much less to lose zest and vigor in the singular work of Evangelization.