Journeying Towards a New Way of Being Church (Picardal)

Journeying Towards a New Way of Being Church

Fr. Amado Picardal, CSsR, STD

Almost  four decades after the  Second Vatican Council and more than ten years after the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, we are continuing our journey towards a new way of being Church.  As we go on this journey it is important to reflect on three things:  (1) what we are leaving behind, (2) where we are going , and (3) what is required of us to undertake this journey.

What we are leaving behind?

We are leaving behind an image of the Church that is massive, highly institutionalized and impersonal. It is a Church where the members live in anonymity and do not feel a sense of belonging.

We are leaving behind an image of the Church that is highly clericalized.  This image of the Church identifies that Church with the hierarchy – with the bishops, priests and religious — and ignores the laity. The lay people are invisible, passive and silent. They do not have any active role in the life and mission of the Church.

We are leaving behind an image of the Church that is exclusively liturgical and sacramental, an image of a Church that is not concerned about the concrete situation of poverty, injustice, violence and environmental destruction — a Church that remains silent and does nothing to transform society.

We are leaving behind an image of the Church that is associated with the rich and powerful, a Church where the poor are abandoned and marginalized.

These are the images of the Church that we are leaving behind.

Where are we going?

We say that we are journeying towards a new way of being Church. What is this new way of being Church that we have chosen as our destination?

Actually, it is an ancient way of being Church – the way of living that is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Let us listen to Luke’s portrait of the early Church in Jerusalem:

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying the favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved…

…The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power, the apostles witnessed to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

What we have here is the image of the Church as a community of believers, a community of disciples of Jesus who live in koinonia, in communion. They live as a community of friends, sharing the word of God, sharing the bread of life, and sharing their material possessions, so that no one was in need – there was no needy person among them!

For many centuries, this image of the Church was not given emphasis. It was a lifestyle that many thought was exclusively for Religious.

The Second Vatican Council retrieved this image of the Church when it viewed the Church as a community and communion – a community of faith, hope and love and a communion of life, love and truth. It further emphasized that the Church is the People of God participating in Christ’s prophetic, priestly and pastoral mission. Thus, lay people were given impetus to participate in the Church’s life and mission.

The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) has adopted the image of the early Christian community in Acts and the ecclesiology of Vatican II as the basis for its vision of a renewed Church. It views the Church as a

Community of Disciples

living in Communion

participating in the mission of Christ

as a priestly, prophetic and kingly people

and as the Church of the poor.

The PCP II further declares that this vision of a renewed Church finds expression in the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs).  The BECs therefore are considered as a new way of being Church at the grassroots level.

Thus, when we speak about a new way of being Church we are referring to the PCP II vision of a renewed Church which finds its expression in the BECs. What can be said about the Church in general can be said about the BECs in particular. The BECs are the microcosm of the Church – it is a new way of being Church. The BECs are therefore the most local expression of the Church. They are the Church at the grassroots, the Church in the neighborhood, the Church in the barangay. Through the BECs the Church is truly experienced as a community. Through the BECs, the lay faithful experience ecclesial communion. Through the BECs, the lay faithful experience what it means to be a people of God that participates in Christ prophetic, priestly and pastoral mission. Through the BECs, the Church becomes truly the Church of the Poor.

For PCP II, a renewed Church which finds expression in the BECs has several important characteristics:

1. Communion (koinonia)

2. Participation in the Mission of Christ

as a prophetic community (kerygma)

as  a priestly community (leitorgia)

as  a kingly/servant community (diakonia)

3. Church of the Poor

Let us consider each of these and see how these can be concretely experienced in the BECs.

The BECs as Locus of Ecclesial Communion

The model of the Church that has become dominant since Vatican II is that of communion. To envision of the Church as communion is to emphasize the inter-personal and communitarian dimension of the Church. What is given importance is the sense of unity, solidarity and belonging among the members. The model and source of ecclesial communion is the Holy Trinity – the perfect and eternal communion of the three Divine Persons.

This ecclesial communion can be lived out in various levels – universal level (the Church as communion of local Churches), local level (the local Church as communion of dioceses within a national territory or the diocese as a communion of parish communities), the parish level (the parish as network of BECs ), and the BEC level (the BEC as communion of individual members and families). The Church is, therefore, viewed as a web of relationships. All the members of the Church are interconnected. Although they may be diverse, they are all one – they are all members of the one body of Christ.

Thus, the BECs can be considered as locus of communion. John Paul II regards the BECs as “true expression of communion and a means towards the construction of a more profound communion.”

It is in the BECs that the members can truly experience a sense of community and communion. As PCP II states: “in the BECs the members know each other by name … and have a strong sense of belongingness and responsibility for one another.” In the BECs, the members experience the bond of unity which is based on shared faith, which is celebrated in the breaking of the bread, and concretely expressed in the sharing of material goods.

The new way of being Church means looking at the parish as a network of BECs – a communion of communions. The members of each BEC experience communion among each other, while each BEC is linked with other BECs in a bond of communion. At the same time the BECs, although ministered to by lay leaders, maintain a bond of communion with their pastors – their parish priests and bishop. This communion is a guarantee that the BECs are an integral part of the local Church and the universal Church.

The Church as the People of God – A Prophetic, Priestly and Kingly People

An image of the Church that has been popularized by Vatican II and PCP II is that of the Church as a people of God that is by nature and mission a prophetic, priestly and kingly people.

This image which is actually an ancient image of the Church subverts the image of the Church that is highly clericalized and that looks down on the laity. This image emphasizes that all the baptized – and this includes the laity – are members of the church and share in the life and mission of the Church. Thus, the laity have the right and responsibility to actively participate in the mission of the Church – the prophetic, priestly and pastoral mission.

The image of the Church as a people of God also provides us with a holistic view of the Church. It negates the image of the Church as an exclusively liturgical/sacramental assembly whose mission is purely spiritual. The Church is not only a priestly/worshipping community. It is also a prophetic and servant community. The mission of the Church is not just the sanctification of people, it is also called to be a prophetic community – a community that announces the Good News of salvation and liberation and that denounces all forms of sin and evil in society. The church is also a servant community – a community at the service of God and humanity — that works for justice, peace and social transformation.

The image of the Church as a prophetic, priestly and kingly people can be experienced by the ordinary lay people at the BECs. The BECs are prophetic, priestly and servant communities.

The BECs as Prophetic Communities

The Church, according to Vatican II and PCP II is a prophetic people. The Church has the mission of proclaiming the Good News – a mission of evangelization and catechesis. It is also called to be the conscience of society – a mission of denouncing evil and all its manifestation – injustice, oppression, violence, the culture of death, etc. While it is the primary responsibility of the hierarchical leadership of the Church to carry out this mission, the lay faithful are called to participate in this mission.

It is in and through the BECs that lay people can do this. The BECs  are prophetic communities. They come together to listen to the Word, to proclaim it and to give witness to it. They are evangelized and evangelizing communities. They are witnessing communities. Our Holy Father, John Paul II, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio recognizes the role of theBECs as means of formation and evangelization.

The task of evangelizing and catechizing families, neighborhood communities and the barangays can be carried out by the BECs that are imbued with missionary dynamism. Whenever they come together in their homes and chapels for their Bible-Service to reflect on the word of God and their concrete situation, the BECs carry out their prophetic and evangelizing mission. The evangelization seminars and catechetical sessions can be conducted at the BEC level.

The BECs as Priestly Communities

Vatican II and PCP II view the Church as a priestly people – a priestly community. The Church is therefore a worshipping and celebrating community. The priesthood of the faithful is expressed in their full and active participation in the liturgical celebration. The lay faithful can fully experience this not only in the parish church but also in their BECs. It may not be possible to celebrate the Eucharist once a week in the BECs (for many it is often once a month or once every two months) but whenever it is celebrated it is truly a communal festive celebration where the people actively take part. The BECs also have their own weekly bible-service or Liturgy of the Word led by their respective lay liturgical leaders. They have communal liturgies or rituals for various occasions (birthdays, planting and harvesting, sickness, funerals and wakes, etc).

The BECs as Servant Communities

The Church as a kingly people is called to be a servant church. This means that the mission of the Church is not purely and exclusively spiritual. The Church is called to be attentive to the situation of people –  a situation of poverty, injustice, armed conflict, human rights violation, ecological degradation, etc. PCP II calls for a renewed social apostolate and for the Church to actively participate in the work for justice, peace, development and the integrity of creation. The mission of the Church is not just to call people to conversion but also to effect social transformation. This mission is not just the work of the bishop, clergy and religious. It is also the main responsibility of the lay faithful.

The ordinary lay faithful can actively participate in the process of social transformation in and through the BECs. The BECs are not only worshipping and evangelizing communities. They are also servant communities. In response to the problem of poverty, the BECs can set up socio-economic development projects (livelihood program, cooperatives, sustainable agriculture, appropriate technology, etc). In response to the problem of armed conflict, the BECs can establish Peace Zones and be part of the peace constituency that will pressure the Government and the Revolutionary forces to continue the peace process. Whenever there are violations of human rights, the BECs can be tapped to monitor and report such violations. To ensure clean and honest elections the BECs can be mobilized to help the PPCRV or the NAMFREL. The BECs can also help in defending the environment. Whenever there are provincial or national issues that the diocese or the CBCP would like to make a stand on, the BECs can be mobilized to participate in province-wide or nationwide activities (e.g. prayer rallies and vigils).

The BECs as Church of the Poor

The most popular image of the Church promoted by PCP II is that of the Church of the Poor. This is a very apt image in a society where the poor are the majority. For so many centuries, the Church has often been identified with the rich and powerful. The poor has often been marginalized. Evangelical poverty was a vow reserved for those called to religious life.

A month before the convening of Vatican II, Pope John XXIII exhorted the Church to be a Church of the Poor. Thus, Lumen Gentium adopted this theme when it called for the Church to follow the way of her founder in poverty and suffering.

To be a Church of the Poor requires that the leaders and members of the Church embrace evangelical poverty. This implies living a simple lifestyle and sharing our resources with the poor. It also requires that all, especially those who are not poor, should make a preferential option for the poor. This is expressed in the love of the poor, not discriminating against them, shifting the Church’s center of gravity towards them, expressing our solidarity with them and doing all we can to alleviate their conditions. To be a Church of the Poor also requires empowering the poor and enabling them to actively participate in the life and mission of the Church.

One of the ways of realizing this vision of the Church of the Poor is in and through the BECs. Since most of the members of the BECs are poor, the BECs enable the poor embrace evangelical poverty and to actively participate in  the Church’s prophetic, priestly and pastoral mission. The poor are not only evangelized, they also become evangelizers. Through theBECs, the poor are not just passive recipients of aid but active participants in the process of social transformation. In the BECs, the poor which make up the majority of the Church’s membership, can truly feel at home and realize that they are truly the people of God. The growth and proliferation of BECs represents the shift of the Church’s center of gravity towards the poor.

What is required  in this journey towards a new way of being Church?

Thus, far we have addressed the question of what we are leaving behind and where we are going. The final question we need to answer: what is required of us in this journey towards a new way of being Church?

For the  diocese – a commitment to this vision of a new way of being Church

The journey towards a new way of being Church must be undertaken by all those who belong to the particular Church – the bishop, the clergy, religious and lay faithful. Everyone must own this vision of a new way of being Church and everyone must commit themselves to undertake this journey towards making this vision a reality. This means making the BECs part of the structure of the diocese – the most basic ecclesial unit in every parish. Every diocesan commission (especially the liturgy, formation and social action) must be geared towards supporting the growth of BECs.

For lay faithful — active participation

Vatican II and PCP II reminds us that the lay faithful by virtue of their baptism share in the life and mission of the Church. One of the essential characteristic of the Church is that it is a participatory Church. It is time for the lay faithful to take an active role and participate in the building up of the Church. The formation of the BECs depend on the active participation of the lay faithful. The BECs are made up of lay people and led by lay leaders.

The lay organizations, movements and associations are gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church and they help in renewing the Church. There are members of these movements and organizations who think that there is no need for them to belong to BECs since they are already active in their own organizations. However, the BECs are not organizations but communities that include members of different organizations. Thus, those who belong to these movements and organizations can actively participate in life and activities of the BECs in their neighborhood and barangay. Their participation can help build up the BECs. By doing so they express their communion with their neighbors and others who belong to other organizations.

There is also a need for the participation of lay pastoral workers at the diocesan and parish levels who will assist in the formation of BECs and in the training of leaders. Some of them will have to work full time while others can work as volunteer-part time workers. These are the people that the parish priests will depend on in the initial stages of building up theBECs.  Without a parish formation team, it will be very difficult to form the BECs.

For the Clergy – a new way of understanding and exercising their ministry

The journey towards a new way of being Church requires a new way of understanding and exercising the priestly ministry.

For so many centuries the understanding of priestly ministry was narrowed down to the cultic/liturgical ministry. There are still many who think that the only role of the priest is to say mass, hear confession, anoint the sick, and administer the other sacraments. However, Vatican II and PCP II have broadened our understanding of the ordained ministry.

The ordained ministry is at the service of the Christian community. It is a ministry of pastoral leadership over the Christian community – the parish community and the network of small Christian communities (BECs) within the parish. It is a ministry of building up the unity and communion of the Christian community.

In his letter, Pastores Dabo Vobis, John Paul II refers to the priest as servant of the Church as communion: “the ecclesiology of communion becomes decisive for understanding the identity of the priest, his essential dignity, and his vocation and mission among the people of God … a servant of the Church as communion because – in union with the Bishop and closely related to the presbyterate – he builds up the unity of the Church community in the harmony of diverse vocations, charisms and services.” (PDV 12, 16).

The priest is a builder not only of the church made of marble, but of the living Church, the Christian community. He builds the unity of the Church community and promotes communion (unity and solidarity) in the Christian community.  The image of the priest here is that of the Good Shepherd, like Jesus, who knows his sheep and who gathers them together as one flock. He not only builds the community, but presides over the community and leads it. This also means that the priest has to become close to his flock.

The priest has a responsibility to develop the sense of community and communion not only at the parish level but also at the level of the BECs. Thus, the development of the parish as a network of BECs – a community of communities – is a constitutive dimension of the priestly ministry. The priest has a vital role in animating and supporting the lay people in his parish to build and develop the BECs. It is his responsibility to ensure the formation of lay leaders that will lead minister to these communities.

The prophetic ministry exercised by the priest forms and builds up the Christian community and the BECs within the parish. According to PCP II, the community over which the priest presides is a “community formed by the word of God. The word of God is one of the most significant elements which go to build up the Church. For it is the word of God that summons people to conversion and to faith, By believing the word of God people receive eternal life. They are formed into a community by the word of the living God which is properly sought from the lips of the priests.”

Evangelization is an essential part in building up the BECs.  It is only through the process of evangelization that leads to conversion that people are formed and organized into BECs. The primary agent of this evangelization is the priest in collaboration with lay people and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The prophetic ministry exercised by the priest will lead to the formation and growth of the BECs as prophetic communities. As PCP II reminds us: “The community over which the priest presides is also a prophetic community. The Word is announced by the priest to the people not only so that they may themselves have life or may be built up into a community of believers,  but in order that they may in turn become witnesses to the Word that they have believed. People shall have truly grown in their faith when they emerge as announcers of the Word. Through the servant-leadership of the priest, the people of God are inspired and formed into an evangelizing and prophetic community.”

Thus, the priest enables the lay faithful in the BECs to actively participate in Christ’s prophetic mission. In this way, the nature of the BECs as prophetic communities is actualized.

Vatican II and PCP II reminds us that the ministerial priesthood enables the people of God to actualize its common priesthood. The task of the priest as leaders of the priestly community is to foster full and active participation in the liturgical celebration. He forms the community into a truly worshipping and celebrating community.

Thus, the exercise of the sacramental/liturgical ministry must be done in the context of the community. The priest has to make sure that the liturgy is celebrated not among strangers but by a genuine community whose members know each other, care for each other and are in communion with each other. This can  be concretized by forming BECs that are truly worshipping, priestly communities.

In exercising his sacramental/liturgical ministry, it is not enough that the priest administer the sacraments at the parish church. He has to go out more often to the barrios and neighborhood communities and celebrate the Eucharist with the BECs more frequently (at least once a month or once every two months if there are so many BECs). He must also train lay liturgical leaders for each BEC so that these communities can continue to worship and celebrate even in the absence of the priest.

The priest cannot remain indifferent to the situation of the people he is called to serve. His pastoral ministry involves animating his parish community and the BECs to address the problems that they face – especially poverty, underdevelopment, armed conflict and the destruction of the environment. He should encourage and support the BECs to work for justice, peace, development and the integrity of creation and thus help transform society.

The priest is called to live a simple lifestyle and make a preferential option for the poor. Like Christ, he must bring the good news to the poor and help empower them so that the Church can truly become the Church of the Poor.

The Church according to Vatican II and PCP II is called to be a participatory Church. The BECs are an expression of this participative nature of the church. Thus, the priest must enable the lay faithful in the parish and BECs to actively participate in the life and mission of the church. He must also learn to listen to them and encourage them to participate in the planning and decision-making. According to John Paul II in Ecclesia in Asia“there is need for greater involvement of the laity and religious men and women in pastoral planning and decision making through such participatory structures as pastoral councils and parish assemblies.”

Thus, the journey toward a new way of being Church requires the priest to view himself not as the king or Lord of his parish but the servant-leader of the parish community and theBECs.

For the Bishop – to lead, inspire and support the clergy, religious and lay faithful

What is required of the bishop in this journey towards a new way of being Church? The bishop has to lead and guide the whole flock in the journey. He must make sure that everyone – the clergy, religious and lay faithful will journey together to make their dream and vision a reality. At times he will have to challenge and inspire those who are lukewarm or complacent. Like the Good Shepherd, he knows his sheep and he is close to them. He unites them and leads them to their destination – a new way of being Church.

Finally, we should remember that we are not making this journey alone. The whole Church in the Philippines is moving towards this new way of being Church. I was reminded of this during the BEC National Assembly held in Cebu in November 2002 where 51 dioceses were represented. The PCP II regards the BECs as a concrete expression of the vision of a renewed Church and has decreed that BECs must be vigorously promoted in all the dioceses and parishes of the Philippines. This is not only a journey of the Philippine Church, it is a journey that the local Churches in Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America and Europe are making. I became more aware of this after collaborating with an international research group studying the BEC phenomenon all over the world. In Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II, affirms that the BECs are signs of vitality in the Church, a cause of great hope for the Church, and a solid starting point for a new society based on a civilization of love.