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Franz Weber {*}

A new Kind of Being Church

What can we learn from the Latin American base communities


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2012, P. 128-132
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In view of the restructuring process and the creation of pastoral mega-areas in many German dioceses, a look at the origins and development of the Latin American base communities is instructive and encouraging. The Church leadership's concern about the unity of the universal Church must by no means lead to imposing a standard model of the Christian parish upon the local churches.


It's been a few decades ago that in the German-speaking world the base communities in Latin America, which until today very decidedly lay claim to the title "ecclesial" (CEBs = Comunidades Eclesieles / Eclesiais de Base), were seen as the ideal form of the future parish, and sometimes even praised to the skies in one's own unfulfilled dreams about the Church. "The Church of the future will be a Church that is built from below by base communities (...)", wrote Karl Rahner at that time (Rahner, Karl, 'Structural Change in the Church of the Future', Theological Investigations, vol 20, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1981, 115-132. 128 (original 1972) And he was not the only one who hoped for such a development. Such an expectation was certainly raised too high and could, due to different societal and ecclesial conditions in our part of the world, not be translated into pastoral practice. Hermann Steinkamp had at that time rightly warned against wanting to transplant base communities as "fresh cells into the aging organism of the European people's church" (Prozesse der Gemeindebildung, Exemplarische Schwierigkeiten in der Bundesrepublik, in: Johannes B. Metz und Peter Rottländer [ed], Lateinamerika und Europa, Mainz 1988, 110).

Despite such reservations, there was in the seventies and eighties of the last century in the German theology a fruitful discussion of this new form of church. It was expected to stimulate both the pastoral theology and the practice in our parishes. In Latin America, however, in a part of the hierarchy very soon strong resistance to the base communities was put up. This gave here often the false impression that these small pastoral units had, due to a conservative course correction of the Latin American Church, lost their pastoral significance. The opposite is true. It is good and necessary that this year the episcopal action "Adveniat" again makes specifically this hopeful form of Christian community in the church of the poor the focus of attention in the German Church.


Parishes with Room for the Poor

In response to the ongoing structural processes and the creation of pastoral mega-areas, where it is increasingly difficult for many believers in this country still somewhere to experience the Church as a lebensraum and faith community, an overview of the emergence and development of the Latin American base communities proves to be instructive and encouraging. In some German dioceses there are meanwhile also efforts to build so-called "Small Christian Communities". As substructure of large parishes and federated parishes, they are supposed to give the local church a new face (see HK, April 2010, 177ff., and September 2006, 463 ff). In many countries in Africa, Asia and Oceania, the model in which the parish is to become a "community of communities" has breathed new life into the church.

It seems imperative that the Church in the German-speaking area in the current pastoral emergency does not regard her structural reforms as the pastoral answer to everything. In an attitude of Catholic openness to the universal Church she must be ready to learn from some experiences gained by other local Churches of the Catholic universal Church in the search and learning processes of her parishes.

Both hopeful and painful experiences characterise the checkered history of the ecclesial base communities in Latin America. There were initially entirely unspectacular, 'wretched' pastoral experiments, which were dared here and there in the Latin American church already in the fifties and sixties of the 20th century. But they later developed promisingly, just in the difficult time of the military dictatorships.



In response to the distress, some bishops began to entrust lay people with presiding over divine services. In Latin America, the base communities were never an elitist, "decision-making church from below" in opposition to the hierarchy. But they were also no mass movement of the people's church, which had seized the entire continent and covered with a dense network of small communities. Such ideas, which can repeatedly be found in Europe, are historically incorrect.

Fact is that the base communities primarily owe their existence to the pastoral emergency situation. Many Latin American bishops sought a way out, so that they could somehow revive the religious and ecclesial practice, even with a very small number of priests. Despite all the creativity, triggered in many people by the introduction of base communities, there was always needed initially also the impulse from "above", that is the clear pastoral basic decision of the episcopate and a great commitment of pastoral full-time workers until the parishioners caught fire by the spark of this new practice.

The meeting of the Latin American Bishops (CELAM) in Medellin in 1968 was crucial for the dissemination of the base communities. At that time, the bishops had clearly realized how far they, but also their priests and religious were away from the real life of the poor. For them, the church with her traditional parish structures was often inaccessible. In Medellin, the bishops spoke out clearly in favour for the decentralization of the pastoral care and for the formation of Christian base communities. They should become the "source of evangelization" and the "main factor of human promotion and development", because as "nuclei of ecclesial structure" they enable a "personal fraternal encounter" (Final Document Medellin, No. 15, 10).

It was Pope Paul VI personally who at the end of the Council had asked quite decidedly the Latin American bishops to initiate pastoral reforms. The pope had admittedly some reservations about base ecclesial experiments in Europe. But it is evident from the Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii nuntiandi" (No. 58) that he was well disposed towards the experiment of the Latin American base communities, which was extensively discussed at the Roman Synod of 1975. Despite this fundamental recommendation of the new form of parish life by the papal magisterium - this view was shared also by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical "Redemptoris Missio" (No. 51) -, a part of the Latin American Episcopate rejected the base communities.

Some circles of hierarchy and clergy refused to recognize them as a pastoral opportunity, and openly, often quite polemically opposed them as allegedly direct democratic 'people's church'. They regarded not only the theology of liberation, but also the base communities, and even the preferential option for the poor as a serious threat to the Catholic faith.

However, in the bishops' meeting in Puebla (1979), a majority of Latin American Bishops again clearly spoke out in favour of the base communities and saw them as an occasion for joy and hope, because they "had become focal points of evangelization and engines of liberation and development" (Final Document Puebla, No. 96). And this they were: in many places in the tense social situation of the continent where the church, due to the determined implementation of the preferential option for the poor, often also became a church of martyrs. As pastors, the bishops wanted to "resolutely promote, orient and guide" the base communities, as it says literally in the final document (No. 648).

While a large part of the hierarchy felt obliged to fulfil this order of Puebla, primarily some of the subsequently appointed bishops were sceptical or took a negative view of the formation of small parish structures and self-confident leaders. The members of base communities for their part often responded in an annoyed and disappointed way to a newly appointed bishop, because they felt themselves left in the lurch by their shepherd. They began rightly to doubt whether the base communities were really still an "expression of the Church's special affection for the common people" (Puebla, No. 643). However, some episcopal conferences repeatedly defended the base communities against external and internal attacks. Thus, the Brazilian bishops repeatedly felt compelled to take a stand against the indiscriminate criticism of the base communities from their own ranks, and to emphasize their pastoral significance.


When Wanted Children become Stepchildren

Those who know the reality of base community on the spot know the churchliness, the sometimes even almost childlike loyalty and devotion of ordinary people to their pastors and bishops, when they feel accepted by them and taken seriously, and can reckon upon the clear taking sides of their pastors in the often life-threatening social conflicts. In the time of post-conciliar renewal, the base communities were for a large part of the Latin American hierarchy, without exaggeration, something like pastoral wanted and favorite children. A generation of post-conciliar bishops hoped that through them their dreams about the shape of the Latin American church would come true: a church that was fit for the future, and transformed society. In them, the Council's theology of the "People of God" and "Communio" should become pastoral reality.



In the base communities, many people from the lower classes have gotten back a new access to the Church. Objects of missionary work became subjects and supporters of evangelization. When ordinary women and men as lay people in their parishes began to emancipate themselves and to gain in self-confidence, when the "sons and daughters of the Church" in several respects behaved in an adult way and freed themselves from clerical paternalism and asked "Mother Church" unpleasant questions, many bishops in Latin America regarded this awakening of the laity as a sign that the preferential option for the poor began to bear fruits also in terms of pastoral care. In contrast, other members of the hierarchy and clergy felt threatened in their ministry and treated the base communities as stepchildren, whose ecclesial cast of mind was called into question.


The Latin American Bishops Remains Divided over Base Communities

In this vital question of a new form of credible presence especially among the poor, the Catholic Church in Latin America is unfortunately still divided. At the last assembly of bishops in Aparecida (2007), the base communities came once more between the millstones of opposite positions within the Latin American Episcopate. After there had been great excitement during the conference because of the mysterious disappearance of a section of the original text, one was particularly annoyed at the subsequent changes to the by the plenary assembly approved text of the final document. Those changes distorted above all the original statements about the ecclesial base communities (cf. HK, July, 343ff. and September 2007, 450ff.).

After all the questioning of the last time, it had been a big concern of many bishops to reach at long last a clear option for this popular form of parish life. The original text, which had spoken about the prophetic mission of the base communities and their task to enliven inwardly the parishes, has in the final version been changed substantially and weakened to such an extent that a clear pastoral option can no longer be derived from it. But even the final document approved by Rome had no choice but to recognize the base communities in the wording of Medellin as "initial cell for building the Church and a focal point of faith and evangelization" (Aparecida, 178).



It is fully consistent with the reality when the final document states that the base communities "have the word of God as source of their spirituality. They deploy their evangelizing and missionary commitment among the humblest and most distant, and they visibly express the preferential option for the poor." (Aparecida, No. 179). Their opponents in the episcopate failed once again in the attempt to deny the base communities the right to live. Recognized and encouraged by some bishops and called into question and fought by others, they will in many places probably continue to shape in this or that way the religious beliefs and parish activities, especially of the poor.

Many people in the church of Latin America become more and more aware of the fact that the base communities' closeness to people gains anew in importance, especially in view of a rapidly changing religious landscape. Where in the church small groups, which are accessible and tangible for people, are missing, where the parish life takes place only in parish churches which are accessible only limitedly or not at all for the majority of the population, there the Catholic Church has already to a great extent disappeared from the scene - especially at the peripheries of big cities (see HK, April 2011, 210ff.).

Where direct experience of ecclesial communion is impossible and where the actually tangible solidarity of the church with people in situations of poverty, injustice and unfairness is missing, there many believers migrate to the Pentecostal churches and other religious groups. Where the Church, especially in the lower classes, becomes actually not the church of the poor, where ordinary women and men have no longer the opportunity to take by their various pastoral services direct responsibility for the pastoral care, there the Church comes no longer "to life" and will also not remain alive.

New social forms of parish life emerged not only in the Church of Latin America. Already before and immediately after the Second Vatican Council, the Bishops' Conference of the Democratic Republic of the Congo had begun building the so-called "Communautes Chretiennes Vivantes" (CCVs) or "Communautes Ecclesiales Vivantes" (CEVs), which spread later also in other West African countries. Since 1973, the emergence of the so-called "Small Christian Communities" (SCC) was mainly initiated by the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA). An important impetus for life and spirituality of the "Small Christian Communities" was the practice of Bible sharing. It was developed at the Lumko Institute in South Africa and was taken up from there by many local churches in Asia.

Mainly through the communication of the South African bishops Oswald Hirmer and Fritz Lobinger and on the initiative of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) in several countries also various forms of "Small Christian Communities" soon developed. They give there the church an Asian face in her situation as religious minority.


People want to live the Christian faith in their own homes

In a pastoral plan for East Africa of 1973 it literally says, "The life of the church has to be rooted in those communities where everyday life and work happen." In Africa, on her mission stations and outstations the church has often failed in inculturating herself in the traditional African lifeworlds. In Asia, Christian communities are up to the present day often perceived as an alien element. In this new form of ecclesial presence in the "Small Christian Communities," the church should really become a "local church", and inculturate herself in people's lives.

For according to the understanding of the Second Vatican Council, the church is realized in local congregations of the faithful where Christ is present, "though they are frequently small and poor or living in the Diaspora" (Constitution Lumen Gentium Church, No. 26). Hardly noticed in the German-speaking area, in the Catholic Universal Church a parish development has happened where, despite all in the diversity of incultured social forms, significant similarities between Latin America, Africa and Asia can be ascertained. The worries of the Church leaderships about the unity of the universal Church must in no case lead to imposing a uniform model of Christian community on the local churches. The Catholic Church does not consist of residential containers which are produced by the one and the same factory and can be exported all over the world. People want to live their Christian faith in their own homes. In foreign houses they will not feel at home.

In Africa and Asia, just as in the Church in Latin America, the gap between faith and life begins only to close where in a communicative dealing with the Word of God in Bible sharing local and participatory forms of Christian congregation emerge. The Church is then no longer experienced as an externally imposed and imported religious institution but as a local community where life and faith are shared. Here, the legal structure of the parish is not abolished, but decentralized. Due to the creation of smaller substructures it is brought back to life - as a "community of communities."



A look at the learning process in terms of pastoral care and pastoral theology, which the Church in Latin America has gone through for more than five decades, gives us as much cause for thought as the creative development of parishes in many local churches in Africa and Asia. How can it be that some dioceses of the German language area focus only on the formation of pastoral mega-areas? This development is a special case in the universal Church. It may become a pastoral fatality, if small and medium-sized parishes and chaplaincies are starved out eucharistically and if, in the wake of a disastrous and ecclesiologically highly questionable clericalization of the pastoral care, women and men who previously had joyfully used their charismata in building a local church become superfluous and lose thus also their ecclesial home.

In the ecclesial base communities and in the Small Christian Communities people have chosen the exactly opposite path and have thus given the church new life, even though claims to power and lack of cooperation by clerics bother the congregations in the churches of the South to the same extent as here. Why are in this country not even well-trained and highly motivated so-called lay theologians employed in the pastoral care and entrusted with the leadership of local congregations, whereas the small congregations in Latin America, Africa and Asia are without exeption led and accompanied by men and women who often have only a low level of education?

In "Evangelii nuntiandi" (No. 73), Paul VI had still enthusiastically welcomed the large number of newly created ministries taken over by laymen. He spoke unbiasedly and realistically of the "ministry of head of small communities," as it is common practice elsewhere in the universal church. The base communities in Latin America and the other new forms of congregations are not the ideal parish model but just like our parishes and other social groupings only "church in the fragment." In a new kind of church, as she is dared in many places in the universal church as inculturation of the Gospel, faith comes to life. That should make us think in our pastoral situation, in which many people deny the Church life and future.


    {*} Fanz Weber (born in 1945) is a member of the international community of the Comboni Missionaries and accompanied for a long time ecclesiastical base communities in Brazil, research stays in various African countries. Since 1997 Professor for Intercultural Pastoral Theology and Missiology at the Theological Faculty of the University of Innsbruck, parish priest in Arzl near Innsbruck. Publications on parish development and pastoral theology in the universal church.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'