Basic Ecclesial Communities in the Philippines:A Reception and Realization of the Vatican II Vision of a Renewed Church (Picardal)

Report Presented during the Asian BEC Conference in Taipei on Sept. 3, 2011 by Rev. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, SThD


Historical Overview  of Emergence and Development of BECs in the Philippines

 One of the most significant development in the Church in the Philippines for over the last forty years is the proliferation of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) all over the Philippines.

            In the late 1960s, immediately after Vatican II, foreign missionaries in the frontier mission areas in Mindanao and Negros formed the first BECs. The Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) which was first held in 1971 and since then meets every 3 years was instrumental in propagating these BECs all over Mindanao with the local clergy and lay pastoral workers continuing what the foreign missionaries started. Some dioceses and parishes in Visayas and Luzon would soon adopt the formation of BECs as their pastoral thrust. The first wave of BECs that emerged were formed under the martial law regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The military and some bishops suspected many BECs of  being influenced or infiltrated by the Left. Consequently, there were BECs that were harassed by the military and some their leaders and members arrested and even murdered. Many of those that were affected were communities organized by the BCC-CO (Basic Christian Community-Community Organizing) program which was suspected of supporting and promoting the ideological and political agenda of the NDF and the CPP.  There were bishops who would not allow the BECs to be formed in their dioceses. But some of the more progressive bishops continued to support the BECs, but they were a minority. The formation of BECs depended mostly on the initiative and support of the local parish priest with the aid of some groups/institution like the BCC-CO, BEC-Service Office, Redemptorist Mission Teams, DC team and Bukal ng Tipan.  Some of the BECs, to play safe, would limit their activities to prayer meeting and bible-sharing and tone down or abandon the social action/prophetic component.

            After the fall of the Marcos regime and the restoration of democracy, it became easier to build up BECs and to engage in social action. There were BECs in San Fernando, Bukidnon that  successfully waged a campaign against logging that led to the imposition of a total log ban in the province by President Corazon Aquino in 1989. Other BECs in Zamboanga were involved in anti-logging, anti-mining and anti-dam campaigns. Around this period there were BECs in North Cotabato and Negros affected by the armed conflict between government forces and the New People’s Army (NPA) guerillas declared zones of peace. There were also some BECs that revived or initiated livelihood projects, cooperatives and sustainable agriculture.

            In 1991, the second Plenary Council was held and the vigorous promotion and formation of BECs all over the Philippines was adopted as a pastoral priority. The plenary council came up with this decree:

Basic Ecclesial Communities under various names and forms – BCCs, small Christian communities, covenant communities – must be vigorously promoted for the full living of the Christian vocation in both urban and rural areas.[1]

 The council directed the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) to

issue an official statement on BECs, on their nature and functions as recognized by the Church, making it clear that they are not simply another organization. This official statement of the CBCP shall be, among others things, for the proper orienting of priests and seminarians. Training for work with BECs shall be made part of seminary formation.[2]

Thus, after the plenary council the second wave of the emergence of BECs took place. As part of the implementation of the PCP II thrust, many dioceses in Visayas and Luzon started their BEC program while for others it was a matter of renewing their efforts. There has been a phenomenal growth of BECs in these regions since then. In Mindanao where the BECs first emerged, the task was for revitalizing the BECs that have either been weakened due to military harassment or that have stagnated.

            Various shapes and forms of BECs  have emerged in the country. There are chapel-centered communities. These are communities with 30 to 200 families, mostly in the rural areas and also urban areas in Mindanao that made use of the barrio/barangay chapel structures and organizations. Most of the BEC gathering and activities are held in the chapel which is considered as the social space or center of the community.

There are also BECs which are chapel-centered but subdivided into neighborhood cells and family groupings (8-15 families per grouping). The BEC in the barangay or village is a network of neighborhood cells. The members of each cell gather in the homes during weekdays, while all the cells in a BEC gather in the chapel for their regular assembly and Eucharistic celebration (monthly or bi-monthly).

In the urban centers, there are neighborhood cells or family groupings without a chapel. These are found mostly in big cities. Most, if not all, of the activities are done in the homes of the members of the cells. The gathering of the wider community for assembly and the Eucharist is often done in public places – covered basketball court, side-streets, barangay hall or school-houses. There has been a tendency to regard the neighborhood cell consisting of 8-15 members as the BEC itself rather than a BEC-cell which is part of a wider community.

The number of dioceses that have adopted the formation of BECs as a pastoral priority has increased through the years. In 2002, there were 51 dioceses that participated in the BEC national assembly in Cebu. In 2005, there were 65 dioceses that sent delegates to the BEC national assembly. In 2008, there were 67 participating dioceses out of a total of 85 dioceses.

            The 2005 BEC National Assembly was the first CBCP-sponsored assembly. The proposal of the 2002 National Assembly for a CBCP national office was approved by the CBCP. The Episcopal Committee on Basic Ecclesial Communities of the CBCP was finally set up in 2007. The setting up of this committee is an expression of the acceptance and support by the CBCP of the BECs as a pastoral priority. The chairmen of the major episcopal commissions (such as biblical apostolate, social action, liturgy, education & catechetics, family & life, youth, laity, and canon law) are members of the BEC committee. This expresses the view that all these commissions can contribute to the growth of BECs and that these areas are constitutive dimensions in the life of the BECs.

            After going over a brief historical overview of the emergence and development of BECs in the Philippines for over 40 years, the question is what has influenced their growth. Some authors point to the Latin American Church and liberation theology as the inspiration. This is inaccurate. The growth of BECs in the Philippines as well as in Latin America and elsewhere is the fruit of renewal started by Vatican II. It is part of the reception of the council. The statement of the CBCP-sponsored BEC national assembly in 2005 recognizes the inspiration of Vatican II:

The birth and growth of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) in the Philippines has opened the forty years (40) of the Second Vatican Council’s efforts to share humanity’s joys and hopes, pains and anxieties. Inspired by the Council Fathers’ call for Aggiornamento, BECs mushroomed in different parts  of the country, seeking to make the Universal Church truly local, veering away from a Church popularly conceived as a physical or hierarchical structure, to one that is incarnated in the concrete life – settings of grassroots communities. BECs could not but thank  Vatican II’s grace of inner renewal. They are indeed children of the Spirit’s workings of rebirth in our land.

The Vision of the Church in Vatican II

          The Second Vatican Council or Vatican II which was held in 1962-1965 was primarily an ecclesiological council. It was a council of the Church on the Church. Vatican II came out with a vision of a renewed Church. The vision of the Church in Vatican II is found mainly in Lumen Gentium, the “dogmatic constitution on the Church.” The Gaudium et Spes¸ “the Church in the Modern World,” provides us with a vision of the Church’s relationship with the contemporary world and its responsibility vis-a-vis culture, politics, economics and other fields of secular life.

            Lumen Gentium provides us with a holistic vision of the Church. The Church is a community and people of God, whose members live in communion and participate in Christ’s mission as priestly, prophetic and kingly people. The hierarchy is at the service of the people of God and enables the laity to actively participate in the life and mission of the Church.

            We find in the ecclesiological vision of Vatican II the integration of the various models of the Church. The Church is community and communion (communion model), the Church is the people of God actively participating in Christ’s mission as priestly (sacramental model), prophetic (herald) and kingly (servant) people. The people of God is led and served by the hierarchy (institution).

            Thus, the dominant institutional/sacramental model has been broadened by a more holistic vision of the Church. The Church is not just an institution, it is also a community whose members are in communion with God and with one another. It is not just a worshipping community, it is also a prophetic and servant community. Its mission is not only spiritual, it is also temporal. The Church is not only concerned about heaven, it is also concerned about the earth and all its problems.

Post-Vatican II Reception and Development

In the Philippines, one of the first ecclesial body that adopted the Vatican II ecclesiological vision was the first Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) held in 1971. The theme of the conference was: The Church in Mindanao-Sulu – Worshipping, Teaching and Serving Community. This vision was first applied to the local Churches in Southern Philippines.

With the emergence of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) – which were then referred to as Basic Christian Communities (BCCs) — this vision of the Church was appropriated for these communities. Karl Gaspar, the then executive-secretary of MSPC,  affirms the influence of Vatican II ecclesiology on the vision of the Mindanao-Sulu Church and the Basic Christian Communities:

 With the Church being understood as People of God, sharing in Christ’s prophetic, priestly and kingly offices, there developed a new consciousness of what constitutes conversion and membership in the Church. This thrust was very clear at MSPC I where the sub-themes dealt with the worshipping, teaching and serving community following Christ’s office … It is through the basic Christian communities that this thrust can be greatly realized.[3]

In the Diocese of Tagum, where the earliest BECs emerged, we find the vision of the Church as priestly, prophetic and kingly people applied to these communities:

 The Christian Community is a prophetic, celebrating and serving community. These characteristics follow the sense of “being together.” Therefore each BCC has three sets of ministries corresponding to the three characteristics of the Christian Community.[4]

The influence of Vatican II and MSPC I can be detected in the account of the early efforts to build BECs in the Archdiocese of Cotabato in 1972:

  Each barrio convened a chapel assembly to make the people aware of the importance of one’s involvement and participation in establishing a real Christian Community. The objective of trying to develop in each barrio a worshipping, serving, and witnessing Christian Community was outlined to the people and discussed in open guided dialogues.[5]   

The Archdiocese of Davao in 1976 officially adopted the ecclesiological trilogy in its vision of the Small Christian Communities: “By virtue of the baptism and confirmation received by all the members, the small Christian communities are called and sent in the name of Jesus Christ as prophets, servants and priests.”[6]

In the prelature of Isabela (Basilan), the triplex munus was not only applied to the BECs  but to the functions and ministries of the leaders of these communities as well:

 According to their gifts and considering that ministries develop according to the felt-needs of the community, leaders will function in any ministry arising from the three-fold mission of the Christian Community (worshipping, teaching, service): whatever their ministry, they are open to becoming agents of change.[7]

            It was not only in Mindanao that the Vatican II vision of the Church as people of God  was received and applied to BECs. There were dioceses in Visayas and Luzon that also did this.  This was enshrined in the vision of the archdiocese of Cebu:

BEC is a ministry in the Archdiocese of Cebu which aims for the renewal of the local Church in the light of Vatican II. The vision of the Archdiocese of Cebu looks forward to the renewal of the local Church as a firmly believing, generously serving, sincerely worshipping, prophetically witnessing, and joyfully radiating community of persons inspired by the Gospel message as interpreted  by the magisterium of the Church.[8]

 In the diocese of Bacolod the following vision of the BCC was adopted during the Pastoral Congress of Priests in 1985:[9]

 We envision a BCC which is a faith community whose components/elements revolve around the fulfillment of the three-fold function of Christ:

Worshipping – where the centrality of the Word and Eucharist is highlighted in communitarian liturgical celebrations, flowing from a spirituality patterned after that of Christ and Mary.

Teaching – where there is a reflection on the concrete situation vis-à-vis Gospel values, education program and seminars, continuing formation.

Serving – where sharing, livelihood projects, community organizing and mobilization have their proper place.

The ecclesiological trilogy  was also the framework adopted by the prelature of Infanta:

 In the course of their evaluation, the participants of the pastoral conferences realized that the prelature had in fact progressed through the three phases of the Church’s evangelizing mission: the prophetic, the kingly and the priestly. .. The Church of Infanta had in fact been exercising the three-fold mission and the charisma corresponding to them through twenty-six years. Guided by this insight and reflection, the  Pastoral Conference decided to integrate the three previous thrust of the prelature’s pastoral program, i.e. catechetics, social action, and liturgy into one program, which they identified as the building up of Basic Christian Communities. The threefold mission of the evangelizing Church, i.e. prophetic, kingly and priestly, were henceforth to be fulfilled by the building up of Christian Communities, the Sambayanang Kristiano[10]

This was also the case in the diocese  of Lucena:

 A Pastoral Plan which hewed closely to the pastoral plan of the diocese of Lucena emerged from the general assembly. The main thrust of the plan was the establishment of the Basic Ecclesial Communities or Munting Sambayanang Kristiano (MSK). The building of MSKs is a thrust of the whole diocese of Lucena. This pastoral imperative brings into sharp focus the vision of the Church which must be felt in the smalles cells in the Church structure. According to the diocesan vision, “The MSK is a community which is part of the bigger community of the parish which has the capacity to carry out the role of the Christian as prophet, priest and pastor which Christ shares with all baptized and which has full communion with the parish in its entirety.” This community acts, prays, worships and lives the Word of God. Here the members of the community care, help, feel for each other in the manner of Christ, as expressed in the Gospel.[11]

In the Archdiocese of Manila, the triplex munus  has also been used to describe the BECs  in urban areas such as Project 4, Quezon City:

 Little by little, the participants were introduced to the concept of the BCC program by the BCC formation team. On the spiritual plan, the themes developed focused on the Christian Community as a family of God on the threefold functions of Christ, namely as prophet, as priest and as king… The structures aimed at shaping us into a truly Christian Community that fulfill these roles – an evangelizing (namamahayag) , praying (nanalangin)  and serving (naninilbihan) commmunity.[12]

Thus, in the Philippines, the reception of the Vatican II vision of the Church as people of God that is  priestly, prophetic and kingly  has taken place not only at that national level but also at the regional, diocesan, parish and even the BEC level. It is used to describe the local Church as well as the BECs which are regarded as a new way of being Church. The PCP II echoes this reception and development in its image of the renewed Church which finds expression in the BECs. The appropriation of  Triplex Munus for BECs is a unique contribution of the Philippine Church in the continuing reception and development of this ecclesial vision.

While majority of the BEC documents focused on the BECs as realization of the Vatican II vision of the Church as the people of God that participate in Christ’s three-fold mission, there was not much emphasis on vision of the Church as communion as realized in BECs  prior to PCP II. Bishop Teodoro Bacani was among the few who pointed to the various levels of realization of the Church as communion  in the Christian family, BECs, parish, diocese and universal Church:

On the second level of realization of the church are the basic ecclesial communities or basic Christian communities (BECs or BCCs). A basic ecclesial community is a communion of families who are united to each other not only by local proximity but more important by spiritual bonds (the word of God, the Eucharist, prayer, mutual help and service, common celebration, etc.)…

On the third level is the parish which is a communion of basic ecclesial communities.[13]

Bishop Francisco Claver likewise wrote about BECs as expression of ecclesial communion:

Over the years there has been a growing realization that the communion of Churches that obtains at the regional levels is that self-same kind of communion that has been building at lower levels – diocesan, vicarial and parochial, all the way down to the capilla – between bishops, priests, religious, church workers and leaders, and the laity in general. Communion and community of the same are pivotal ideas in the BCC process of development.[14]

Bacani and Claver affirm that the BECs are one of the level where communion may be experienced within the local Church. These are part of the diocesan and parochial structure of communion. The parish is thus envisioned as a communion of communions – a network of BECs.

The Vision of a Renewed Church in PCP II


The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II), took place in 1991, twenty-six years after the end of Vatican II and five years after the first EDSA people power event that ousted the Marcos dictatorial regime.  Attended by over 400 delegates – bishops, priests, religious and lay leaders – the plenary council reflected on the identity and mission of the Philippine church in the context of the changing realities in Philippine society. The preparatory phase lasted for three years. The celebration phase lasted for a month. The reception and implementation phase continues to the present. The council came out with its acts and decrees which was later approved by Rome.

            The theme that emerges from this document is RENEWAL. Vision of a Church renewed. Renewed integral evangelization. Workers of Renewal.

            It is significant that the document begins with an analysis of the Philippine society. It looks at the historical, socio-economic, political, cultural and religious dimension of society. It looks at both the lights and the shadows.

            What concerns us is part II, which provides us with the vision of a renewed Church. There are four sections under part II. Section A, part II is the Christological section. PCP II affirms that in order to understand what it means to be Catholic Christians and to be Church, we must start by retelling the story of Jesus. A narrative Christology, is therefore,  presented. This is followed by a systematic section that sums up the life and mission of Christ using the triplex munus  schema – Christ is priest, prophet and king.

            Section B, part II focuses on “following Jesus today” – discipleship. After discussing faith, PCP II uses the triplex munus schema to describe how Christians can follow Christ today: (a) by proclaiming and living the Word, (b) praying and worshipping,  (c) loving service – care for the earth and the needy, deeds of  justice and liberation.

            Section C, part II is the most important part  – “Discipleship in Community: The Church.” This section affirms that discipleship cannot be lived in individualistic terms. It has to be lived in community – as a community of disciples. This is why the Church is necessary. What does it mean to be a community of disciples? The division of this section tells us: (a) communion, (b) participation, (c) mission (d) priestly, prophetic and kingly people, (e) Church of the poor. The PCP II vision of the Church can be summed up as:

            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.

This vision of the Church finds its realization in the Basic Ecclesial Communities:

“our vision of the Church as communion, participation and mission, about the Church as priestly, prophetic and kingly people, and a Church of the poor, that is a renewed Church, is today finding expression in one ecclesial movement, that is the movement to foster Basic Ecclesial Communities” (PCP II 138).

            The PCP II vision of a renewed Church follows a logical progression from Christology, to discipleship and to discipleship in community. Community of Disciples is the most dominant image of the Church in PCP II. This integrates several ecclesiological themes: (a) The Church as communion, (b) people of God – priestly, prophetic and kingly and (c) Church of the poor.

The vision of the Church as communion and the priestly, prophetic and kingly people of God obviously echo Vatican II. We can say that PCP II is a contextual reception of Vatican II ecclesiology. It appropriates the Vatican II vision of the Church for the Philippine context.

            However, PCP II does not just echo Vatican II, it also develops it further. “Community of Disciples” is a new image. “Church of the poor” is a post-Vatican II development of the seminal idea that we find in Lumen Gentium 8 — the Church following the example of  Jesus in poverty.

            Like Vatican II, PCP II has a holistic and coherent vision of the Church which embraces the various models of the Church. PCP II further links this ecclesiological vision to the Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). Whatever is said of the Church in general can be applied to the BECs. This is significant since PCP II implies that the vision of the Church in Vatican II and PCP II can be realized and experienced by ordinary people in the BECs – the local incarnation of the Church in the grassroots. The Church is truly renewed when BECs proliferate all over the country.

From Vision to Reality and Facing the Challenges of Philippine Society


The Church in the Philippines continues to make the Vatican II and PCP II vision of a renewed Church a reality in the various parishes, villages and neighborhood communities through the building up of BECs. Ecclesial communion is experienced among the members of the BECs who experience unity. solidarity and sharing, and among the BECs within the parish thereby making the parish a communion and network of BECs. Within the BECs, the lay-faithful actively participate in the prophetic and evangelizing mission of the Church. They come together regularly to reflect on the Word of God and live the Word in their day to day life thereby growing as evangelizing and witnessing communities. They actively participate in various liturgical celebrations of the community thereby actualizing their priestly mission. They grow as kingly/serving communities as they work together to work for total human development, justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. The Church of the poor becomes a reality. Through the BECs, the church is renewed from below and the transformation of society is realized.

In 2002, the statement of the National BEC assembly answered the question whether the BECs are still a dream or are they already a reality in the Philippines:

Over the years we have been actively involved in the building and strengthening of BECs. We came to this Assembly asking ourselves the question: are BECs a dream or reality?  As we shared our stories and discussed our concerns we have come to believe that BECs are indeed a dream that is becoming a reality. The building up of BECs has become the pastoral thrust in many dioceses in the Philippines. Many parishes are becoming a network of BECs, a communion of communions. These BECs are becoming a basic unit of the local church and a way of life to many lay faithful. Through the BECs, the lay faithful respond to the call to discipleship and actively participate in the life and mission of the Church. It is in the BECs that the Church is becoming truly a Church of the Poor.

We know there is still much to be done. The promotion of BECs is a lifetime process. There are still many dioceses and parishes where BECs remain a dream. There are  BECs that were established that are now inactive. Many are struggling for survival. Others are crying for support from their pastors. There are many BECs that need to address the problems of poverty, injustice, traditional politics, armed conflict and the destruction of the environment. We also see the need to dialogue with the lay organizations, movements and associations and encourage their members to actively participate in the building up of BECs in their locality. The BECs have to participate in the inculturation process so that the Church in the Philippines will truly become an inculturated Church. They must also get involved in inter-religious and interfaith dialogue especially in this time of intensive globalization. The family and youth within BECs need to be evangelized.

            The BECs in the Philippines did not emerge and develop at the same time. Their growth have not taken place in a uniform manner. Some have been formed forty years ago, while others are just starting. Some are already fully developed and are realizing the vision of a renewed Church while many are still struggling to make it a reality. BECs have emerged through the various periods of the history of our country with their specific situation, problems and needs. From the early 1970s through the 1980s, BECs had to contend with a situation of poverty, injustice, violation of human rights, dictatorial rule, armed conflict, environmental destruction, etc. From the late 1980s to the present , there have been a lot of changes in the social, political and economic landscape accompanied by technological and cultural changes. BECs have to contend with globalization, urbanization, secularization and more liberal and permissive values. As we are move towards a post-modern world the Church/BECs continue to face the same old problems of poverty, inequality, environmental destruction, unresolved armed conflict, and the culture of death, etc. In face of these realities, the activities and praxis of  BECs cannot remain purely on the liturgical and spiritual level – reducing them to small prayer groups or bible-sharing groups turned in-wards. The Vatican II vision of a renewed Church which was further developed by PCP II makes it possible for the growth of BECs that can respond to these challenges and transform Philippine society.

[1] Section 3, article 109 Acts and decrees of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (Manila: Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, 1992), p. 267.

[2] PCP II article 110, p. 267

[3] Karl Gaspar, “The Growth and Development of MSPC” Philippine Priests’ Forum 11/4 (December 1979): 23-24.

[4] Ruben Birondo, “Basic Christian Communities: The Experience of the Philippines” The Clergy Review 70/7 (July 1985), 25.

[5] “Archdiocese of Cotabato: Lay Liturgical Leadership Program” MSPC Newsletter (April-June 1990), 20.

[6] Archdiocese of Davao, A Vision on Building Small Christian Communities (Davao City: John XXIII Catechetical Center, 1977) 10.

[7] “BCC Program of Isabela, Basilan” MSPC Newsletter (July-September 1991), 11.

[8] cf. Archdiocese of Cebu BEC Secretariat “Cebu BEC Handbook” [unpublished document] Cebu City: 1985, 6.

[9] cf. Proceedings of the Pastoral Congress for Priest, Diocese of Bacolod. November 11-15, 1985.

[10] Marcelino Prudente, “Yapak ng Panginoon of the Prelature of Infanta” Life Forum 14/4 (1982): 21.

[11] Rosemarie Cabrera “Building and Organizing Christian Communities: Cathedral of St. Ferdinand, Lucena City” Parish Power 2/34 (August 2, 1992), 7.

[12] Charlito Ayco, “The BCC Experience of Project 4, Quezon City” Church of the People, ed. Gabino Mendoza (Manila: Bishops-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development, 1988), 151-152.

[13] Bishop Teodoro Bacani, “Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kami Ngayon?” (A Simple Presentation on the Church) Church of the People ed. Gabino Mendoza (Manila: Bishops-Businessmen Conference for Human Development, 1988), 44.

[14] Bishop Francisco Claver, “The History of the BCCs: Philippines” Church of the People ed. Gabino Mendoza (Manila: Bishops-Businessmen Conference for Human Development, 1988), 22-23.