Will BECS Flourish Or Self-Destruct In The Post-Modern Era? (Gaspar)

Karl M. Gaspar CSsR

 

Three decades after the accumulated experiences of  organizing and strengthening Base Ecclesial Communities (BECs) – earlier known in Mindanao as Basic Christian Communities (BCCs) – it is imperative to ask the above question.

The BECs will flourish in the post-modern era, if all of us will be in touch with the call of the Spirit for a continuing renewal as demanded by the exigencies of a post-modern world.  If not, no matter how hard we try to keep the BECs going, they will ultimately self-destruct.  If this will come to pass, it would be such a great loss for us – the Church as People of God.

LOOKING BACK TO THE BECS’ HOPEFUL BEGINNINGS

Post-colonial Latin America was rocked with the rise of social movements leading to the people’s demands for  radical reforms around the time when Vatican Council II was convened.  Revolutionary  social movements arose all across the continent from the l950s to the l970s.  Trade unions to peasants’ organizations took to the streets clamoring for land and liberty, justice and jobs.  These were met with brutal repression by corrupt regimes in many a banana republics.

In the wake of Vatican II, the Confederacion Episcopal Latina America (CELAM) or the Confederation of Episcopal Bishops’ Conferences throughoutLatin America responded to the challenge for aggiornamento.  The convening of the CELAM Conference in Medellin, Columbia  in the late l960s brought about the emergence of a Church responsive to contemporary social realities characterized by massive poverty, gross inequalities between the social classes, political repression and socio-cultural disenfranchisement.

Medellin served as a beacon of light in the sea of hopelessness. Where the Church used to be associated with the rich and powerful, she was now seen as pursuing an option to be on the side of the poor and powerless. The pastoral discourses at Medellin lead to the popularization of what were then controversial pastoral concepts and approaches but which have now become acceptable in many institutional churches throughout the world.  These included conscientization, liberation theology, communidades ecclesial de base, preferential option for the poor and the like.

Elements that would serve as indicators of the initial stage of  a post-modern era were erupting everywhere in the continent.  The voices of the poor –campesinos, obreros, indigenas, mujeres (farmers, workers, indigenous people, women) – were emerging everywhere.  Because of the conscientization processes, more and more people became conscious and, consequently, demanded the exercise of their basic human rights.  A growing number of people were  no longer gripped by the culture of silence;  they were marching in the streets demanding reforms that would benefit their lives.  All kinds of social movements – from the armed revolutionary groups to mothers’ groups demanding the end of human rights violations -  flexed their muscles even as they operated in collaboration with or parallel to each other.  The big-scale mass mobilizations  and the quiet everyday struggles of the people in their villages co-existed.  The irruption of the poor could no longer be contained and its reverberations was heard throughout the world.

Into this shifting landscape was born the communidades ecclesial de base.  Touched by the Spirit, the Church began to let go of its institutional barnacles. The contemporary prophets – especially the liberation theologians  -  whose voices used to be  heard only in the periphery were now ushered into the halls of pastoral conferences and their views popularized in the mainstream Churches.  Ecclesiastical power, to some extent, got decentralized. There were initial critique of clericalism and patriarchy.  Laypeople were embraced as pastoral agents almost equal to the clerics;  subsequently, they were provided a lot of space to play their role in various ways.

Justice became a core value as the  Church’s prophetic voice condemned all forms of oppression. Tools for social analysis assisted in pinpointing the root causes of injustice as well as determining what praxis should be promoted.  Dole-outs became passé; action on behalf of justice became privileged especially theconscientization and organization of the oppressed sectors of society.  A re-reading of the Bible became a must, as pastoral agents deconstructed and  reappropriatedbiblical texts within the contexts of their engagements for liberation.  Pastoral agents began to rely on the local epistemological discourses rather than from Western sources;  soon, the production and reproduction of pastoral knowledge systems were becoming more  home-grown and localized.

Other changes took place in the area of liturgy, popular devotions,  the administration of sacraments, catechesis, formation of priests and religious, ecclesiastical governance, ecumenism and reaching out to the youth.  (Just to be precise: even as I refer to Latin America as a whole, it is common knowledge that the progressive Church did not arise in all the countries in that continent;  it did in only a few countries especially in Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala and Chile).

The Spirit that inspired Vatican II brought the pentecostal fire across the Latin American Church.  This fire was also a wind that continued to blow across the world bringing forth refreshing changes within a Church that seriously attempted to catch up with a world shifting into a new era.

THE SEEDS OF BECs FIND FERTILE GROUNDS IN MINDANAO

Within just a year or two after Medellin, the wind reached Mindanao.  The Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers in what was then the Prelature of Tagum (Davaodel Norte and Oriental) served as the bridge to connect  Latin America and this part of Asia in terms of a sharing of pastoral praxis.   Having familiarized themselves with the original model, a few of the Maryknollers experimented on the BCC model that they thought might work in Mindanao.  The result was the first model of theGagmay’ng Kristohanong Katilingban or GKK.

A mini-CELAM arose in the Mindanao-Sulu Church in the l970s when the bishops set up the Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC).  This was to become the venue for the popularization of the GKKs.  The first three MSPCs (l972 in Davao City, 1974 in Cagayan de Oro City and 1976 in Ozamis City) provided the Mindanawon  pastoral agents with what they needed to learn about the pastoral discourses on  the GKKs.  It also provided the occasions to share the initial GKKmodels  including that of the Kristohanong Kasilinganan (Kriska), the initial model for what is now known as family groupings.

The declaration of martial rule made all the difference in the growth and development of the GKKs in Mindanao.  Like those in Latin America, the GKKs found themselves in a context defined by the expansion of transnational corporations or TNCs (especially agri-business plantations), aggressive militarization and the ensuing gross violation of the people’s basic human rights, the growing impoverishment of the poor (peasants, workers, lumad), massive corruption in government and the non-delivery of social services and the rise of social movements.

The Mindanao Church – by and large – turned prophetic during this period.  Consequently, there was a lot of support for the setting up and consolidation of theGKKs.  Programs for the conscientization and organization of the poor sectors were the main focus of the GKKs as well as the programs of the Social Action Centers in most dioceses.  Some bishops, a number of diocesan priests, religious, seminarians and layleaders were fully supportive of this pastoral vision.

Eventually the military attacked the GKKs as Gagmay’ng Komunistang Katilingban (Small Communist Communities).  However, the attacks from those that propped up the Marcos dictatorship – the military, the CAFGU and Marcos supporters -  including the arrest, imprisonment and killing of BEC leaders only added fire to the hearts of those who would preach the Good News in times of persecution.  Instead of instilling fear in the hearts of the people, the repression of the GKKsbrought greater courage and passionate commitment.  The GKKs flourished and made a difference in the lives of the poor and powerless.

The GKKs did find their way to almost all the dioceses of Mindanao-Sulu.  However, the level of their prophetic witnessing varied from diocese to diocese.  In some, the GKKs only functioned in terms of liturgical expectations, that is, the members of the GKKs came together in the chapel for their Sunday Bible service as well as for special occasions like their fiestas as well as the administration of sacraments.  No other activities were conducted nor encouraged.  In others, additional engagements were initiated including the training of local catechists, conduct of occasional seminars for the GKK members, the introduction of popular devotions, monthly Masses and the formation of GKK leaders.

In a number of dioceses – where the bishop and the pastoral agents were clear as to the prophetic nature of GKKs and consequently, provided all the needed support to the GKK leaders  – these went beyond the above engagements. Fully integrating Jesus as Priest, Prophet and King into the theological foundations of theGKKs, these became truly worshipping, witnessing and serving communities.  The GKK members came to

worship and pray together, they witnessed to justice and served the least of their neighbors.  Their liturgical celebrations were participative and creative.

They regularly had their bible sharing sessions,  read the signs of the times from a liberation perspective,  set up community-based health programs  and resolved conflicts among the members.  They confronted their corrupt government officials and the military when their rights were violated. They had communal farms so they could help one another in terms of food production.  Widows and orphans were not left to fend for themselves.  Money held in trust was kept intact in the hands of those accountable to the GKK members.  Decisions were never made arbitrarily by their leaders;  all got involved in the process of decision-making.  They had empowering relationships with their parish priests who provided them the autonomy they sought.  When times got really tough, they knew they could run to their parish priest for his assistance and support.  When the parish priest himself needed such assistance, he, too, could seek support not just from his bishop but groups that were easily mobilized to provide solidarity support including church agencies like the MSPC Secretariat.

A SHIFT IN THE VISION AND PASTORAL CHARACTERISTICS  OF THE GKKs

Alas, the military’s black propaganda against the GKKs became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Eventually, the witchunting that originated within the corridors of power of the Marcos dictatorship reverberated in ecclesiastical circles.  The fact that there were, indeed,  progressive pastoral agents  who had established tactical links with underground elements served to justify the campaign  to prevent church activities from being infiltrated by leftist elements and ideologies.

The main casualty of this aggressive campaign was the GKKs.  Even before People Power erupted at EDSA in 1986, there were already moves to minimize the ideological characteristics and political engagements of the GKKs.  The initial moves to change the name of Basic Christian Communities to Base Ecclesial Communities was only one indicator of a shift taking place in the Church.  Those in the center of power would no longer trust the activist priests, religious and lay pastoral workers to define the vision and characteristics of these base communities; henceforth, they would be the ones to do so.

The political climate that arose in the wake of People Power and Cory Aquino’s Presidency pushed the Church even further towards the center.  Having been a party to the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship and a stakeholder of the new political order, the Church became a cultural apparatus that actively called for reconciliation. Consequently, there was pressure on the GKKs to stop opposing the State, to refrain from  antagonizing the military, and to collaborate with government officials.

However, there were still belligerent pastoral agents who continued to support poor sectors  demanding radical reforms.  The voices in the streets continued to call for land and liberty, justice and jobs.  This time, there was to be little support from the institutional Church for such engagements primarily because of a shift in pastoral orientation.

The major changes that took place in Philippine society after the Marcos era and the  shifts in the pastoral priorities of the institutional Church eventually had an impact on the vision and characteristics of the GKKs.  Even in the most progressive dioceses in Mindanao, the GKKs turned introspective;  they became less interested in dealing with social issues becoming more concerned with their internal issues, interests and structures.  In the other dioceses, they became passive, even inactive. Less members – mostly women – join the Bible service and bible sharing groups.  The GKK leaders became more and more clericalized, demanding that inactive members not be allowed to receive the sacraments.

THE BECs TURN MAINSTREAM

When the BCCs gave way to a more apolitical model and were no longer a threat to those in power, these base communities became more acceptable among church people.  As they became more popular,  an increasing number of dioceses in the Philippines jumped into the bandwagon to organize their own model.  As can be expected, the model was mainly concerned with the worshipping aspect;  consequently, their main activities were liturgical.

With the rise of this model, the BEC turned mainstream.  It was no longer just  present among progressive dioceses whose bishops and their advisers remained true to the Vatican II spirit. Diocese after diocese, from the north to the south, adopted this pastoral thrust.  However, each diocese re-appropriated the BEC in whatever way they wished; oftentimes, moving drastically away from its holistic and prophetic framework.

Eventually, there was a clamor to define what the BECs were supposed to be in a Church that was dealing with new realities and would soon be moving towards a new millennium.  The Spirit, once more, touched the hearts of those who might be able to seize the opportunity for the rise of a prophetic Filipino Church at the tail end of the 20th century.  The Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) came into the scene 28 long years after Vatican II and 21 years after the Church in Mindanao appropriated Vatican II for its pastoral programs through the MSPC.  It was a bit late, but the texts it produced  - manifesting a prophetic will to make the Church truly responsive to the needs of the Filipinos in the 1990s and beyond   - more than made up for the delay.

PCP II’s Acts and Decrees faced the realities of an emerging post-modern era head-on.  The document identified the social ills confronting the people, provided the social context of the call for social transformation, demanded that pastoral agents embrace the call for renewal, announced the dawning of the Church of the Poor, and reiterated the need for BECs to fully witness to Gospel values.

As the world moved towards a new millennium, the BECs were to serve as instruments making the Church relevant to the hopes and dreams of the post-modern persons.  Voices that for so long stayed at the periphery would now be privileged and brought to the attention of the powers-that-be.  Those who used to be collectively seen as “the other” (the lumad, those of other faiths and cultures, women and children, the physically disabled and the like) were now to be regarded as partners in the task of working for peace, justice and the integrity of creation.

The identification of the face of the poor would go beyond class;  it would embrace those impoverished on account of gender, cultural and faith tradition, ethnicity and the nature of the species. A more comprehensive reading of the root causes of the social ills (not just focusing on the political economy but also of culture) demanded pluralism in terms of responses.  Layers of engagements from the personal to the global were highlighted.  Inculturation was to be taken seriously, along with inter-faith dialogue.  Care for the earth  was defined as a major concern.

The sub-texts that one can pick up while reading  the document manifest the authors’ wish for a deconstruction of the power structure within the institutional Church.  There is a strong commitment to provide the laypeople a bigger space to assert their role and  a stronger voice in the decision-making processes.  If the BECsare to be a new way of becoming Church, the old hierarchical, patriarchal, clerical Church should now share power with the anawim of the base communities – poor peasants, embittered workers, battered housewives and the confused youth.  To become even more inclusive, the table which brings the faithful into communion  mightalso include returning OFWs, gay beauticians in the neighborhood, prostituted women, drug addicts and pushers, cancer victims, the vendors in the market and the like. As befits the growing complexities in terms of the  multiple identities of those living in the same neighborhood – especially among the urban poor – the BECs need to embrace all if it is to integrate a post-modern perspective.

TEN YEARS AFTER, WHAT’S HAPPENED TO THE BECS?

It is a full decade since PCP II.  While this is still quite a short time to expect big results, nonetheless, it is fair enough to expect that something has happened with the BECs after a major push was provided by the institutional church.  After a  ten-year period since the GKKs were founded in Mindanao (late 1960s to late l970s) it was undeniable that the GKKs  had such a major impact on the lives of the people and the power structures in southern Philippines.  The people were empowered;  the people’s oppressors got scared.  A new Church emerged in Mindanao which attracted the attention of pastoral agents  not just in the Philippines, but all over the world.

So what’s happened to the BECs ten years after PCP II?

It can’t be denied that there are oasis of hope here and there all over the country.  There are still BEC practitioners who continue to exert their best efforts to build and strengthen BECs that are holistic and prophetic.  They sustain their engagements to confront the complexities of the post-modern world and empower theBECs so they would not be left behind by the ever changing social realities.  They seek resources – with a greater initiative to mobilize  these locally – so that they can continue to explore creative methodologies that take into consideration the specificities of the contemporary age.

They are rooted in the accumulated wisdom gained through years of BEC groundwork among the most desperate of circumstances; however, their sights are anchored in the present while getting ready for the future.  They are not fixated by frameworks that no longer resonate with the hearts and minds of the churchgoers of today.  Neither do they embrace new paradigms just because these are in vogue.  They reflexively deal with opportunities that arise and are not afraid to critique their every move.  They explore theoretical constructs that help them read the signs of the times and debunk those that are no longer relevant. They intuit what changes are to be made as they develop a sensitivity to where the people are.  They are willing to explore new avenues of engagements, combining the occasional big mobilizations with the quiet actions that take place in the everyday.  They know that the weapons of the weak and the tactics of the marginalized can arise in the most unexpected times and places.

Because of such reflexibility, adaptability, creativity and grace, the BECs they help to organize and consolidate are the BECs that flourish in the post-modern era. These are worshipping BECs that can truly claim to situate themselves within the rich culture or even cultures of its members.  Their inculturated liturgical celebrations allow its members to worship a God of their ancestors while celebrating the richness of their cultural identity.  A traditional cosmic perspective isreappropriated in their rituals, even as Jesus Christ becomes even more the center of their faith.  Their spirituality finds greater meaning as they become more at home with their religio-cultural expressions.

These are witnessing BECs that build empowering relationships among the various groupings: the majority and the minority, those in the center and the periphery, men and women, the old and the young, the poor and those who would treat them with dignity.  A reading of the signs of the times, involving tools of social and historical analysis are integrated into the formation of both members and leaders.  The members are updated as to the global, national and local situationers so they can decide for themselves if globalization, GMOs,  Bt corn should be embraced or rejected.  As they come together for their bible sharing sessions, they deepen their internalization of the Gospel values as lived in their daily interactions within their families and neighborhoods.

Education to justice is promoted;  the people are familiarized with the social encyclicals.  Basic human rights are promoted including those of the children. Battered and abused women are able to liberate themselves from  their oppressed status.  A greater commitment to live simply while respectful of the most delicate eco-systems is promoted.  The members are able to witness to peace, reconciliation and the possibilities of peaceful co-existence with peoples of other faiths and cultures. They are encouraged to come together for inter-faith dialogue which can serve as venues towards a greater understanding of their differences and acknowledgment of commonalities, conflict resolutions and peacebuilding efforts.

In these BECs power is decentralized among the members.  The leaders do not take on dictatorial  tendencies;  instead, they are always willing to take on the stance of the lowly servant.  Those who mentor them – their parish priest and bishop – serve as their examples.

They are serving BECs that can respond – no matter how little – to the social ills confronting their communities.  They manage to come up with communal projects that serve every member of their BEC whether these are health, income-generating, ecological and sustainable agriculture projects.  They become passionately involved in  promoting technologies that are in harmony with nature and promote healthy living.  They are able to mobilize resources from all sources – from their own pool of savings to available funds from the local government units – so that they could put up a water development project or a nursery school.  The sick and dying, the widows and orphans, the strangers and victims of calamities are assisted through the heightened generosity of the GKK members.

However, they remain vigilant and militant.  They have the courage to face all armed groups of whatever ideology to protect the peace zones they have established.  When human rights violations still take place, they immediately come up with actions to defend their rights by seeking solidarity from various groups.  They have the ability to mobilize the support not just of their members but other groups and communities when they need to stop destructive development projects e.g. mining and the building of a dam.  When there is need to expose the corruption of government, they seek creative ways of raising their voices that effectively produce favorable results.  During the election period, they are engaged in voters’ education and help monitor the counting of votes.

QUO VADIS, BECs?

The question, however, is:  what percentage of the BECs throughout the Philippines could claim to have such comprehensive engagements?

A safe answer would be – not too many and they are not expanding rapidly.  One is not even sure if one could expect that the time will come when one out of five BECs in the Philippines would embrace such an ideal paradigm.

Sure, there will be thousands of BECs all over the country and hundreds more would see the light of day.  However, these may not be the BECs envisioned by PCP II. Perhaps, given the human condition, one can only expect a fraction of these to have the audacity to claim that they are the truly authentic ones, foreshadowed by the Acts of the Apostles.

One still hopes that the BECs will flourish in the post-modern era.  However, if they self-destruct in the process, we have no one to blame except all of us BECpractitioners  who should do our best to flesh out the PCP II vision of the BECs.

If the BECs self-destruct, Mircea Eliade’s thesis that “the modern world as a whole can no longer be justifiably called Christian,”  might as well  take on another layer of reality, namely that “the post-modern world as a whole truly can no longer be justifiably called Christian.”