Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, STD
One of the significant developments in the Church after Vatican II is the emergence of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) in various parts of the world including the Philippines. In his encyclical Redemptoris Missio 51, John Paul II considered BECs as “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 the civilization of love.”
The promotion and formation of BECs is one of the means of renewing the Church which was aim of Vatican II. The communitarian vision of the Church as Communion and as People of God – a priestly, prophetic kingly people – has made it possible for BECs to emerge. The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines, echoing the Vatican II vision of a renewed Church, recognized this when it declared:
“Our vision of the Church as communion, participation and mission, the Church as priestly, prophetic and kingly people, and as the Church of the Poor – a church that is renewed – is today finding expression in one ecclesial movement. This is the movement to foster Basic Ecclesial Communities.” (PCP II, 137)
PCP II has further decreed that the formation of BECs be “vigorously promoted in urban and rural areas in the Philippines for the full living of the Christian life.” (PCP II, acts and decrees). PCP II views the ordained ministry in relation to the Christian community – a ministry of presiding over a community that is priestly, prophetic and kingly (serving) in nature. PCP II also recommended that training and formation of those preparing for the ordained ministry should be oriented to the formation of BECs.
The presence and vitality of BECs in the dioceses and parishes may be one of the indicators for evaluating how ecclesial renewal promoted by Vatican II and PCP II is being implemented.
For some dioceses the BECs as envisioned by PCP II is already a reality. For others it remains a dream. In the course of promoting and forming BECs, a lot of problems and concerns have emerged that need to be addressed.
Problems and Concerns
- Sustainability. Many BECs that have been formed could not be sustained, especially when the parish priests who initiated them were transferred and those who took their place were not supportive. This was also the case, when external pastoral agents who helped form BECs were gone. Some BECs have a ningas cogon mentality. The members were very enthusiastic at the start but they lost interest after a while.
- Attendance and participation. There are BECs, where only a few actively participate in the ongoing activities (e.g. the weekly bible-service and bible-sharing). Most of those who attend are women. The men and young people are seldom seen. Attendance and participation may increase during community masses and during fiesta, Christmas and Holy Week.
- Policies and Sanctions. In order to ensure maximum attendance and participation, some dioceses especially in some parts of Mindanao, have resorted to policies and sanctions. Only active members of BECs can avail of the sacraments (baptism, confirmation, matrimony). Communities without active BECs or those who fail to pay their monthly dues cannot have fiesta masses. So, many participate due to coercion. But this has also driven others away and some have transferred to other Christian denominations.
- Leadership. Some BECs have leaders who are incompetent and lacking in commitment. Others have leaders who are very authoritarian and dictatorial. Some are acting like “pari-pari” or little-priests, falling into a new form of clericalism of lay leaders. The leaders lack team-work. Many don’t go out of their way to reach out to the members and to encourage them. Others resort to policies and sanctions to assert their authority.
- Relations with Lay Organizations, Movements and Associations (LOMAS). In many cases the relationship between BECs and lay organizations, movements and associations (LOMAs) tend to be problematic. Some members of LOMAs regard BECs as just another organizations and because of this there is no need to participate in the BECs since they already belong to an organization. Others claim that their organizations can be considered as BECs — so again there is no need to be members of the BECs in their neighborhood or village. In some cases, members of BECs who become members of LOMAs stop participating in their BECs. Consequently, a spirit of antagonism and competition prevails between BECs and LOMAs.
- Responding to Social Concerns and Issues. Many BECs remain inward-looking communities that lack social concern. Their activities revolve around bible-sharing and liturgical celebrations. They do not respond to social problems and issues that they face – e.g. poverty, hunger, criminality, injustice, armed conflict, the destruction of the environment, etc. These BECs feel helpless in the midst of poverty and armed conflict. They are either incapable of addressing these concerns or they think that BECs should only focus on spiritual concerns.
- Understanding the vision and nature of BECs. Many practitioners and members of BECs do not have an adequate understanding of the vision and nature of BECs. There are many who associate BECs exclusively with the small group or cell, composed of six to ten members, who gather weekly to reflect on the word of God. The BEC becomes just an activity (bible-reflection) or that small exclusive group. With this understanding of BECs, any small group can be considered as BECs – the small cells in the neighborhood, inside the classrooms, within the seminary, a small prayer group (SPG) or the CFC household unit. The focus is on the smallness, rather than community dynamics and ecclesiality.
Most of these problems and concerns are interrelated. The problems of sustainability and poor participation in BECs may be the result of problematic leadership, the use of coercive policies and sanctions, problematic relationship with LOMAs, failure to respond to social concerns and inadequate understanding of the vision and nature of BECs.
10 Prescriptions for Forming Sustainable BECs
In view of the problems and concerns, the following prescriptions may be helpful in the more effective promotion and formation of BECs. These are based on the lessons learned from the setbacks as well as the successes of BECs for the last four decades. These may be helpful for those who are just starting to form BECs and also those who want to revitalize BECs that have become stagnant or dormant.
- The promotion and formation of BECs should be adopted as the thrust of the local church, the diocese and the parish. It has to be regarded as a means of renewing the local Church in the spirit of Vatican II and PCP II. Thus, the formation of BECs is not merely optional. It is the obligation of the bishop, the clergy, religious and lay faithful in every diocese to promote and form these communities. The diocesan commissions (especially worship, education, social action, youth) should be oriented in implementing the BEC thrust.
- A leveling off regarding the vision and nature of BECs needs to be done. The PCP II provides a holistic vision of BECs – community of disciples, living in communion, participating in the mission of Christ as a prophetic (evangelizing), priestly (woshipping), and kingly (serving) communities and the Church of the Poor. The BEC must be understood as a way of life or culture – a communitarian way of living the Christian life where there is communion (a sense of belonging, participation and sharing) among the members, where they come together regularly to reflect on the Word of God and to celebrate their faith in the liturgy, and where they work together for social transformation – for total human development, peace, justice and the integrity of creation. The BEC should be understood as the community in a locality which may be composed of cells and family groupings that are interconnected. It has to be see as the most local expression of the Church at the grassroots, village and neighborhood.
- A BEC parish formation team has to be formed for each parish. Imbibing the BEC culture, filled with missionary dynamism and adequately trained, this team can assist the parish priest in the formation of BECs. Team-work between the priest and the members of the formation team is very important. They need to regularly come together for planning, monitoring and evaluation.
- A Pastoral/Stragic Plan for the parish must be drawn up by the parish priest, parish formation team and selected lay leaders. This pastoral plan includes the vision-mission, an external and internal analysis of the parish (SWOT analysis), goals, strategy selection, operational plans, monitoring and evaluation mechanism.
- A renewed evangelization is an essential component in the formation or revitalization of BECs. The BEC is the fruit of evangelization and corresponding personal conversion that the members need to undergo. The parish should not rely on coercive policies and sanctions to evoke the active participation of the layfaithful in the BECs. An evangelization program for communities, families, men and youth should be drawn up.
- Lay organizations, movements and associations should be given orientation on BEC and encouraged to actively participate in the formation of BECs in their village or neighborhood.
- BEC Core groups should be formed in each village or barangay. They will function as light, leaven and salt in the midst of the community. Filled with missionary dynamism they can help in the ongoing evangelization and in the expansion of the BEC. From among them will emerge the leaders of the community. A leadership formation program should be set up at the parish level. This program should promote a participatory type of servant-leadership. The commitment and competence of the leaders should be developed as well as their teamwork. They should eventually function as the council of leaders.
- In large villages or barangays, as the BECs expand and more people become active, it may be helpful to subdivide the community into cells or family groupings. This can facilitate close relationship among the members. The cells should have their own regular gatherings. The cells should be linked together and understood as part of the BEC.
- Regular/sustainable activities and structures should be introduced to facilitate the growth of BECs as witnessing, worshipping, and serving communities. This may include weekly bible-reflection in the homes for cells or family groupings, weekly bible-service or liturgy of the word in the chapel for the whole community, monthly or bi-monthly BEC mass, monthly general assembly, etc. These regular activities should help deepen the bond of unity and friendship among the members and help develop the BEC culture. The WESTY (worship, education, service/social action, temporarilites, youth) committees may be set up at the BEC/Barangay level as well as the parish level. Neighboring BECs should be linked as zones. The BEC zones should be represented in the Parish Pastoral Council.
- The BECs should eventually be mobilized to engage in renewed social apostolate. This means developing their social awareness and their capability to respond to the pressing social concerns (poverty, injustice, armed conflict, destruction of the environment, etc.). If necessary, the BECs should help develop livelihood projects that can help in poverty-alleviation, set up peace zones in areas of armed conflict, resist logging and mining operations, help in reforestation projects, participate in prayer rallies in support of the CBCP or NASSA-initiated nationwide campaigns, change the political culture at the grassroots level. In this way John Paul II’s vision of BECs become a reality: “They take root in less privileged and rural areas, and become a leaven of Christian life, of care for the poor, and of commitment to the transformation of society” (Redemptoris Missio 51).
Ultimately, BECs can only be sustained if they truly become a way of life for the layfaithful and if they can truly respond to their needs – whether material, social, spiritual. These communities can make a difference – in renewing the Church and transforming Philippines society.