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Marco Moerschbacher {*}

For Fifty Years on the Road

The Importance of the Base Communities in Africa's Local Churches


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2013, P. 200-204
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Ecclesial base communities in Africa represent a path that has been gone by the African local churches for the past fifty years. The base community especially enables church experiences of commonality in close connection with the everyday experiences of people in a residential district.


Neither from the time of the Second Vatican Council nor from Latin America comes the oldest option of a local church for what is called today Christian base community (see HK, December 2012, 609 ff and March 2012, 128 ff.) The oldest is rather the option of the Congolese Episcopal Conference at its plenary meeting in 1961 - historically between the independence (1960) of the former Belgian colony and the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962). The Brazilian church's pastoral plan with such an option dates back to 1962.

This piece of information was one of the surprises in Tübingen in mid-January at the symposium "In der Welt von heute? Kirche unterwegs in christlichen Basisgemeinden weltweit" ["In the world of today? Church on her way in Christian base communities worldwide"]. The aid organizations Adveniat and Missio-Aachen and the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen had joined in a new type of cooperation in order to lure more than 250 participants to Tübingen - with speakers from four continents and a program oriented towards the triad: See - Decide - Act. Here, the dynamism of the phenomenon of base communities, which is mostly associated with the Latin American Church, became apparent in the local churches of Africa and Asia.


Africanization of the Church

Josée Ngalula from the Democratic Republic of Congo worked out the factors that led to the spread of "Communautés Ecclésiales de Base" (CEB) in the vast country of Congo. There they are the smallest and very important pastoral unit, out of which the Church is built.



In 1961 these factors included also the difficult situation of the European-oriented church with her strong institutions (mission stations, hospitals, schools) - which in the course of the political developments were in danger to fall victim to anti-European resentments.

In response to the societal crises after gaining independence, the bishops - by the way most of them Europeans - suggested as a solution the fundamental Africanization of the Church in the Congo and the greater involvement of lay people by forming and strengthening vibrant Christian communities. They formulated accordingly their pastoral option: "Turning away from the pastoral ministry of the institution in favor of the presence of the Church in the world; focusing the apostolic efforts on the vibrant Christian communities" (Actes de la VIe Assemblée Plénière de l'Épiscopat du Congo. Léopoldville 1961 [20 novembre 2 decembre], Édition: Secrétariat Général de l'Épiscopat du Congo [Congo-Léopoldville 1961] 133).

But in Africa it was only after the Second Vatican Council - with its opening to the role of the laity, its support for the culturally different local churches, and its view of the Church as People of God on the road - possible to express these basic insights in concrete pastoral programs. For it the further encouragement by Pope Paul VI was needed. In 1969, he said in his famous speech to the African bishops in Kampala, Uganda, "By now, you Africans are missionaries to yourselves. (...), you may, and you must, have an African Christianity" (cf. La Documentation Catholique, 1546 [1969] 764f.). Subsequently, individual bishops who were courageous and keen to experiment were another important element: In their dioceses they started implementing these pastoral intuitions (as e.g. Cardinal Joseph-Albert Maloula in Kinshasa, see Marco Moerschbacher Volk Gottes in Afrika. Die Rolle der Laien in der pastoralen Erneuerung von Kardinal Malula, Kinshasa, Leuven ua 2007 [People of God in Africa, The Role of the Laity in the Pastoral Renewal of Cardinal Maloula, Kinshasa, Leuven et al. 2007]).

Also experiments, as e.g. those of the "Maryknoll Fathers," have to be mentioned. Based on "Ujamaa" - the Tanzanian concept of community - they build Christian communities on the basis of traditional social structures and values. It is indicative of the situation in the seventies of the last century, that under the banner of an authentic Africanization in many African local churches at the same time small Christian communities (under various names) emerged. At their General Assemblies in 1973 and 1976, the East African bishops (the region of AMECEA, Association of Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa includes the Bishops of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Sudan [with South Sudan], Tanzania and Uganda) took their pastoral option for "Small Christian Communities".

In West Africa, for instance the bishops in Burkina Faso decided to give the "Church as Family" a tangible form by building ecclesial base communities ("Communautés Chrétiennes de Base"). Here, the phrase "Church as Family of God" is mentioned for the first time. It was used by the First Roman Synod of Bishops for Africa, in order to designate a specifically African ecclesiology. In Malawi, Bishop Patrick Kalilombe held a "Mini-Synod" in Lilongwe. It understood this pastoral option of AMECEA as a path to an independent African church (self-ministering, self-propagating, seif-supporting). In South Africa, the Lumko Institute began to develop its famous training programs for community leaders and to systematize the method of "Bible sharing".


The Implementation Depends on the Local Bishop and His Beliefs

Up to the nineties of the last century, these awakenings led to an ever increasing spread of ecclesial base communities in the African local churches, albeit in very different contexts, in different ways of functioning, and under a variety of names: Small Christian Communtiy, Basic Ecclesial Community, Communauté Chretienne de Base, Petite Communaute Chretienne, Communaute ecclesiale Vivante (see the article by Joseph Healey, in: Klaus Kraemer / Klaus Vellguth [ed.], Kleine Christliche Gemeinschaften, Freiburg, 2012, 220-234). The regular meetings of African bishops at the level of the pan-African Bishops Conference SECAM were here of great importance for the exchange and mutual inspiration. The two Roman special Synods for Africa in 1994 and 2009 emphasized the central role of those base communities for the African Church. In September 2012 in Nairobi, a symposium on the role of small Christian communities was organized by SECAM. It dealt with their adoption by the Synod for Africa, and showed the spread and vitality of those communities in the various regions of Africa. But it became also apparent that the practical implementation of such a pastoral conception depends on the respective local bishop and his beliefs.

Eastern Africa belongs certainly to those regions where the base communities have found a strong expression. Pius Rutechura, longtime Secretary of AMECEA and now rector of the Catholic University of AMECEA in Nairobi (Kenya), underlined the fact that the there so-called "small Christian communities" resulted in a new way of being church.

Due to the manageable number of and the intense relationships among their members, they enable a sense of belonging, which is not possible in the larger parish structures, and thus it is possible that the church becomes a home to the Christians.



It corresponds to the African conception of community, is based on the central role of the common listening to the word of God and of sharing it, and embeds the Christian community in the "neighborhood," in its actual living environment.

According to Rutechura, this kind of belonging involves lay people and priests; it aims at a new type of "leadership" in complementarity and collaboration. From the respective requirements of life, in the base communities new services emerge. Theologically, they are based on the common priesthood of the faithful and thus on the sacrament of baptism, and make the relationship between salvation and the development of human beings and of society in concrete terms clear.

As an example Rutechura mentions the care for people living with HIV and those who suffer from AIDS. These new services, which are tailored to the needs of the Christian community, are also a challenge to the leadership style in the church. They call for a redefinition of the priesthood: The hierarchical priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood of the faithful.

According to the Second African Synod under the key word "The Church in Africa in service to reconciliation, justice and peace," small Christian communities play an important role also in the resolution of conflicts. Other priorities are in the family apostolate. In surveys, the small Christian communities are praised by outsiders for their esteem for the family and their practiced sense of family, and for their concrete solidarity with the poor, the sick and mourners. Their contribution to a holistic development and their social relevance becomes apparent in political sensitizing, training measures, and in specific development projects in the village or neighborhood. "Small Christian Communities," says Rutechura, "are among the signs of hope, vitality and synergy that grow on the grass root level in the African Church."

In the Congo, where on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the option of 1961 an investigation was carried out in all 47 dioceses of the Congolese Episcopal Conference CENCO, the vibrant base communities are up to the present day much influenced by Africanisation and inculturation, or, in other words, by the relationship between faith and concrete everyday life. Due to her cultural and structural strangeness, the European-oriented church remained foreign to people. Only the orientation of the pastoral care towards the vibrant base communities has made it possible that the Congolese Christians have experienced and understood the Church as their church, which is borne by their responsibility.



The manner of the weekly meetings - from the seating arrangements up to the interaction inspired by the Bible reading, but also the liturgical inculturation in singing, dancing and arranging the Sunday Eucharist in the parish church and the actions of concrete solidarity - all these are elements which substantially contribute to a Christianly inspired everyday life and to bridging the gap between the preached doctrine and concrete life.

Here, the care for mourners plays an important role, the organization of funerals, and the support and material assistance to the surviving dependants. All activities are carried out by the vibrant ecclesial base communities on their own authority; they are even financially not dependent on outside help. Important principles of how this works are co-responsibility and subsidiarity at every level: everybody is responsible for the community and each base community is, as e.g. designing by turns the pivotal Sunday Mass, responsible for the parish.


Lay People become Experts in Evangelizing their Living Environment

This is the way how the Church is present in society, for example in the residential district of a mega city like Kinshasa, and how the baptized and confirmed Christians as missionaries shape the church in the new (and old) neighborhoods. If the church wants to reach also in future people in a rapidly expanding metropolis, she must go where the people are, that is, into the new districts. And on this way she must - in comparison with the former large parish a pastoral unit - make substantive, structural reorientations. In close connection with the everyday experiences of people in a residential area, the base communities make ecclesial experiences possible: the church is creating community.

Here, the People of God theology of the Second Vatican Council becomes tangible. Due to Baptism and Confirmation, all Christians are called and - theologically speaking - also empowered by the grace of Baptism to build up the Church as a sign and instrument of the salvation that God wants for all people. The so-called laity become thus experts who evangelize their living environment. They are not "amateurs," as baptized people they are fully entitled members, they are subjects (not objects) in the missionary Church. In those dioceses in the Congo, where the pastoral care is orientated towards this principle of vibrant Christian base communities, this has changed the awareness and understanding of the Church as the People of God; it has greatly strengthened the Christians' ecclesial feeling of togetherness.

There are reports from all continents that significantly more women than men attend the meetings of ecclesial base communities. Men rarely participate actively in the life of the community, and if so, they strive after the leading positions. It applies also to the African local churches, that this impairs the scope of effectiveness of the base communities, and that a just relationship between the sexes is a constant challenge. The small Christian communities have not succeeded in effectively questioning the tradition of an often patriarchally dominated gender ratio.

There are admittedly subtle signs of hope, as e.g. when Josee Ngalula reported that women in the ecclesial base communities are called by their name (and not by the name of her husband or her eldest son), and that they are able there to support and help each other in solidarity, but there remains still a long way to a balanced gender ratio. A complicating factor is certainly also the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church. At the Second African Synod, many speakers in clear terms complained about the lack of recognition of women and of their importance for the Church.

The financial autonomy of the small Christian communities is admittedly an advantage regarding their independence and internal processes, but it can also be burdensome. In their meetings the collections and the acquisition of financial means are therefore of great importance. The fact that most of the actors are women means that also the community's financial burdens lie on the shoulders of women. Especially in the care of those who are HIV infected and affected by AIDS, it is predominantly women who take responsibility and organize the solidarity and support.

Likewise, all continents share the question of how it is possible to reach young people and to arouse their interest in the activities of the base community. Just here the great, daily experienced tensions between tradition and modernity, between predominantly rural social structure and urban lifestyle become apparent. And the relationship between the generations is also shaped by the mostly devastating consequences of globalization and the neoliberal structures of world economy, from which at best only a few people benefit. Migration is another factor that is shaking the social order in many African local churches. It constantly confronts base communities both in rural and in urban environments with the question of how to create a future-oriented tradition. Not the one who has the youth has the future, but the one who has the future has the youth.

Overall, the precarious situation, for instance in the Congo, leads to a high degree of social instability from which the vibrant Christian base communities are suffering. Migration, war, expulsion, and sexual violence make communal ties even more important but lasting social bonds all the more difficult. Also the precarious economic conditions - the Democratic Republic of the Congo comes last in the development index of the United Nations - make it difficult to spend the necessary time in the attitude of shared responsibility for the life of the Christian community. There is more time necessary for securing one's daily survival.



The training of those who take responsibility in the ecclesial base communities is of particular importance. Its aim is on the one hand a competent management style, which takes consultation, participation and delegation seriously and, on the other hand, a perceptible role of base communities in society. In the elections in the Congo in 2006, the in the vibrant ecclesial base communities conveyed awareness-raising, which is oriented toward the triad "See - Decide - Act," has significantly contributed to political participation at the grass-roots level.

With the help of the small Christian communities, church leaders have also in Kenya played an important role of solidarity and reconciliation in the unrest after the 2007 elections. In small Christian communities "capacity building" remains a challenge, in order to have more clearly and more prophetically an influence on society.


In the Formation of Priests the Base Ccommunities are hardly be found

But with regard to this issue also a certain ambivalence of African local churches becomes apparent, because in the formation of priests the base communities and their fundamental ecclesiological intuitions are hardly be found. In the presented local churches, there remains a tension in the issue of exercising power and authority. Clericalism and thirst for power have a tendency to allow base communities only a narrow scope of action.

Then they are no longer supported for the sake of God's encounter with human beings or the missionary realization of one's vocation through baptism; they rather serve the goal that the pastoral or parochial structure is smoothly functioning. Pius Rutechura speaks of the danger of "milking" the small Christian communities for the purposes of the institution. This would reverse the ratio: the common priesthood of the faithful would then be in the service of the ordained priesthood.

The question of a training of priests which is adapted to the needs on the spot is here gaining in urgency. If the time in the seminary admittedly well prepares the seminarians for their sacramental and liturgical service but does not put them in a position to deal with the burning problems of the social context, this shows the gap between the option for ecclesial base communities, in the sense described above, and a concept of the ecclesial ministry that is based on prestige and social advancement. "Capacity building" is therefore also a special challenge for the training of priests and for theology.

It becomes apparent that the ecclesial base communities in Africa are not a model strategically to position more cleverly the Church but a way that the local African churches have been going meanwhile for fifty years. This path emerges by walking. Depending on the context it looks different and changes with the daily changing challenges of a "life in abundance", which is threatened in many cases, especially in Africa. An international exchange may here certainly be helpful - in the sense of a learning community Universal Church.


    {*} Marco Moerschbacher (born in 1964) gained his doctorate in pastoral theology in Frankfurt with a thesis on the reception of Vatican II in the local Church of Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo). He is Africa expert at the Institute of Missiology eV, Aachen.


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