“Church Reform”: From BEC as a Unit for Church Administration to a Neighbour-involved Basic Human Community (BHC)

“Church Reform”: From BEC as a Unit for Church Administration to a Neighbour-involved Basic Human Community (BHC)

By John Mansford Prior

The Dream:
Basic Ecclesial Communities/Small Christian Communities are a way of releasing faith to inspire the whole of life, no longer a faith enclosed in ritual, but the light that enlightens our daily path. Faith can be lived in its entirety when the joys and the pain of society are the joys and the pain of the BECs/SCCs. If that be the case, then we can describe a neighborhood involved basic community as: An ever-developing community, which is ever on the road growing more faithful. It is not static, and its arrangements and organization are never final.

Nevertheless, while its takes on a whole variety of forms, for Christians the biblical images that underline it remain constant. The BEC/SCC consists of persons who are united in Christ and let themselves be guided by the Spirit in the
journey towards the Reign of the Abba. (see, Gaudium et spes, 1)

To achieve this ongoing aim, to take on the joys
and the pain of society as our very own, in the famous words of Bishop Francis to “smell like the sheep” (and not just the few perfumed sheep!), at the very least we need to see the needs of our BEC/SCC members, and those of the surrounding
society; judge and evaluate how we have reached this point and how come these are our concerns (and not others); act to take up a stance and do something locally and quite possibly more widely through social networking. We can therefore understand the “ideal” BEC/SCC as 1) at the base of the local Church, 2) at the base of society, 3) at the base of our apostolic outreach and activism, and 4) at the base of the empowerment of its members and members of the surrounding
society.

The Reality: The BEC/SCC as an Administrative Unit of a Parish

The “dream” outlined briefly above presupposes a prophetic vision, areas of professionalism, and deep personal motivation. The vision comes from the Scriptures which inspires and motivates daily life. The professionalism comes from learning specific skills either through experience or through training programmes. This is often motivated by local, felt-needs – such as the need to accompany children to school or to right a specific injustice. Prayer and Bible sharing/study integrate when there are at least some key members who are active Christians and are willingly and have the time to practise the necessary skills.

The problem is, many BECs/SCCs, so called, have not risen from the grassroots due to felt-needs but have been formed from above as part of parish or diocesan policy. Virtually all Asian Conferences of Bishops, as also the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), have officially prioritised the
formation of BECs/SCCs.

Further, most parishes remain structured as a stable (rural) organisation although its members have long lived a much more complex (majority urban) and fluid life. At the top is the priest and “his” Pastoral Council who oversees the geographical area of “his” parish which, for practical reasons, is divided into small units. These small units, although called BECs or SCCs, in practice are administrative units for disseminating parochial news, gathering money, and assist in arranging the liturgy and the sacramental life of the parish.

Some of the elements of the “dream” may well also be present, but fundamentally, we are talking about a sub-unit of the parochial organisation. Not much to inspire, and certainly not the “participatory Church” envisioned by the FABC. In practice, the clerical, static organisational structure of the traditional Catholic parish absorbs the BEC/SCC.

The NGO as our Social Network of Choice
The contrast here is with our involvement in social activism. Here the prophetic vision and personal motivation (always) come first; we are not informed that we are a member of a group, we make that personal choice ourselves. Thus, we have the motivation to learn the necessary skills and willingly join – or form – a network to carry the vision forward. And we are totally engaged. The contrast with the traditional top-down parish could not be more stark. However, as committed Christians we are also active to some extent in our parish community, at least liturgically at weekends, and quite possibly more so. The question arises: How should our experience of social activism in inter-faith networks interact with our local
parochial BEC/SCC? More fundamentally, should we attempt (should we bother) to bring these two diverse experiences together?

Ideally the prophetic vision of the Bible would inspire not just our social activism but also our presence within the local Christian community (parish/diocese). The problem is, these are two different types of organisation (the one top-down, static and institutional, the other a dynamic network with local, regional and international social engagement). They also have diverse membership (in the one all are baptised into a specific Christian community, in the other we find adherents from two or more faith communities). Allow me to make the following suggestions.

Two Key Principles
1] The principle that “the Church is for mission not mission for Church” must be upheld. The centre of the parish is the household and its social networks and outreach. Our key Christian witness is not expressed in internal engagement within the parish, but rather with our social witness outside. As Bishop Francis of Rome emphasises time and time again, this priority must remain clear. Rather than a clean, neat, tidy Church suffocating in the sacristy, Bishop Francis calls for a Church out in the streets and by-ways of society, where it will surely get dirty and “smell like the sheep”.
2] Authentic, integral and prophetic faith drives our wish to transform our local BEC/SCC from being a sub-unit within a traditional top-down parish into becoming a vibrant faith-inspired, mission-motivated community. By bringing the BEC/SCC and our NGO experience together we can live more authentic lives.

Widening the Horizon
3] Based on these two principles (the Church-inmission and thus for mission, and the desire to live an authentic, prophetic, integral life of faith), I do not think that we should spend too much time or energy “battling” with a conservative, ritualcentred priest and “his” parish council to the detriment of our faith-inspired, social activism
with like-minded and prophetic colleagues of other faith communities. By all means let us make our voice heard at
BEC/SCC and parish levels, but let our energy be focused on social engagement. That is what Church community is all about: mission in society.
4] When we participate in our local BEC/SCC, possibly not every week but probably at key moments in the Church’s life such as during Advent and Lent or during the Bible month, then we can allow our experience of social activism inform and shape our Bible sharing and indeed the general conversation. Our social concerns, our experience and our learned skills can assist the BEC/SCC to “think outside the parochial box”, and possibly take up a key social issue.
5] If our local BEC/SCC is focused on internal parish issues (administration and liturgy), then our engagement with the wider society can be utilised to open up our fellow Christians to key social issues which as a matter of fact are impinging on our common life, such as migration that splits families, the rapid though quiet spread of HIV, opencast mining. Our function, then, is to open eyes to the wider social horizon of faith.
6] When occasion arises and it is seen as nonthreatening, we can introduce Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim friends and colleagues to the BEC/SCC, such as when their specific experience or skills would contribute to a social issue that is to be taken up by the BEC/SCC. Also, when an inter-faith “incident” arises, and their presence would help to dissipate harmful prejudice.

Faith Inspiring Social Activism
7] The prophetic “dream” of the BEC/SCC can also inspire our involvement in our social network. As committed Christians we learn to read the Bible with social eyes, picking out the social background and assumptions of each biblical character. We also learn to read the Bible with “the eyes of the other” – with the eyes of the poor, the discarded, the stigmatised. We also listen to our Buddhist/Hindu/Muslim colleagues as they talk of their faith commitment, and perhaps engage in
inter-scriptural sharing.

What of the Parish?
The above suggestions are all for grassroots transformation. If (by a miracle!) the local priest is like-minded and socially-engaged, and sees the parish as a community-in-mission and not as a religious/ritual-organisation over against society, then the “dream” of the BEC/SCC and our NGO activist experience may also assist in a wider transformation of the local Catholic community at parish and diocesan levels.

In this case the rather static, top-down traditional parish organisation divided into many small administrative sub-units would be transformed into a loose network of a whole kaleidoscope of possible small communities: some of the baptised only, others inter-faith, all in some crucial way involved in mission in society. Here the Pastoral Council with its various committees would not “control” let along “instruct” the “sub-units”, but would rather facilitate open and sincere communication between the more devotional and sacramental minded communites and the more socially-engaged, between those focused on “charity” and those more focused on “justice”, between the poor and the rich, between the young and the old, between the physically and socially disabled and the “healthy”. And so forth.

The parish would not be at the centre, but would facilitate open communication between all the various social networks and commitments in which we are involved: the household, the family, the neighbourhood, work colleagues, giving support through prophetic inspiration, through liturgical celebration of life, through engaging in what it is to be truly human. The parish as a network of a whole variety of communities would be as open to inter-faith communities as it is to
communities of the baptised only. Boundaries would not blur, but they would be open to mutual enrichment, mutual conversion, mutual advance towards what the Gospel calls the Reign of God.