The Pastoral Challenge for Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs)

Rapid Social Change

Asia, like the rest of the world, has been undergoing rapid social change, in particular since political independence (from the 1940s) and the globalising of the economy and communications (rapidly since 1989). New religious movements such as Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) arise, then, as both one-dimensional modernity and stagnant religious practice have lost their ability to provide a source of spiritual meaning (Cox 1995: 300-301). Despite the rapid race to modernise, Asian societies are still seeking a guide to the quest for meaning in science, technology and rationalism (Michael 2004: 410). The rise of new religious movements, such as the Pentecostal-like churches and the more creative, liberational BECs, respond to this quest for meaning, identity, power, dignity and self-esteem.1)

Pakistani anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed has condensed and codified post-modern culture into four basic elements, namely eclecticism, syncretism, juxtapositions and irony (see Michael, 411). In a fluid, multi-dimensional and transitory world any pursuit or claim to a unique truth is seen as a cover for domination. Religious fundamentalism within the majority religions of Asia is a reaction against the invasive, intrusive and threatening features of (post)-modernity.

Cultures and religions which stress the importance of family, community, traditions and social values find it extremely difficult to cope with high-speed change (Michael, 413). Heredia (2004: 36-37), quoting Sudhir Kakar, suggests that religious fundamentalism holds up a crumbling personality the way scaffolding holds up a collapsing building. Such a personality needs a hierarchical order wherein each one has someone to command and someone to obey. Fundamentalism provides stability, clarity and certainty.

Responding to Rapid Social Change

Mainstream Catholicism has been responding to rapid social change not by distancing itself from social upheaval, nor by withdrawing from the threatening multi-religious and multi-cultural landscape, but by encountering it in faith. In the language of John Paul II, our step-by-step approach is one of cultural respect and religious freedom, rooted in right relationships and informed by an appreciation of history; our basic attitude is cosmic in scope (Ecclesia in Asia, 20).

The pastoral vision of the Asian Churches over the past 40 years has been to foster Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) as ‘a new way of being church’, a genuinely local church, ‘incarnate in a people, a church indigenous and inculturated (—) a church in continuous, humble and loving dialogue with the living traditions, the cultures, the religions — in brief, with all the life-realities of the people in whose midst it has sunk its roots deeply and whose history and life it gladly makes its own.’ (FABC I Taipei 1974) 2)

How are BECs Responding to Felt Needs?

Forty years later questions arise: in this time of rapid social change, are BECs responding to the need of perplexed Catholics for certainty and stability? Are BECs proclaiming the whole gospel in all simplicity without being simplistic? Are they reading the bible critically but without emptying it of its supernatural power? Are BECs acknowledging the world of spirits, shamans and miracles, the felt need for physical and psychological healing, while also responding to the real need for societal and cosmic healing? Are BECs continually encouraging their members to move beyond the personal and familial cares of their own, to live out the social gospel in the wider society?

Are they creatively developing non-authoritarian team-leadership? Are they maximising lay participation, nurturing warm fellowship and proclaiming a gospel of hope and empowerment to the bewildered and the marginalised? Pastoral styles emerging from positive responses to (some of) the above questions would characterise our local churches as living in solidarity with the marginalised, being engaged in inter-faith dialogue, sensitive to cultural change and open to ongoing liturgical creativity.


1) See my presentation tomorrow morning, “Spirituality of Pentecostal Groups.”

2) FABC, ‘Statement of First Assembly, Taipei 1974.’See, Rosales & Arevalo 1992, 12-19. The expression ‘A New Way of Being Church’ is found in FABC documents since the 1990 Bandung General Assembly. Basic Ecclesial Communities are being fostered through the Office for Laity’s Asian Integral Pastoral Approach (AsIPA) workshops.