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Basic Ecclesial Communities: An Ecclesiological Vision
Fr. Amado Picardal, CSsR, STD

One of the significant developments in the Church after Vatican II is the emergence of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) all over the world especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia. For the last thirty years, BECs have proliferated in the Philippines. Since 1991, the second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP II) has promoted the building up of BECs all over the country.

What are BECs? There is a need to clarify and deepen our understanding of BECs especially from an ecclesiological perspective. Our vision affects the shape of the BECs we are building. An inadequate vision or understanding can lead to the stagnation of BECs and confusion among those who are trying to form these.

Terminology

In the recent past there was a controversy about what terminology to use: BEC or BCC? Since PCP II, the generally accepted term has been BEC - Basic Ecclesial Community. BEC is a generic term that refers to the communities of faith that have emerged at the grassroots. As PCP II decrees:
 

Basic Ecclesial Communities under various names and forms - BCCs, small Christian Communities, covenant communities - must be vigorously promoted for the full living of the Christian life in both urban and rural areas. (PCP II decrees, Art 109, section 3)
 
There is no need to argue about what to call these communities. At the grassroots, they are better known as GKK - Gagmayng Kristohanong Katilingban, GSK - Gagmayng Simbahanong Katilingban, BCC - Basic Christian Community, KRISKA - Kristohanong Kasilinganan, Kristohanong Katilingban, BPK - Batayang Pamayanang Kristiyano, MSK - Munting Sambayanang Kristiyano. This even includes covenant communities. BEC is therefore the generic term used in ecclesiastical documents and theological discourse that refers to these communities. This was made popular in Latin America during the Puebla Conference and used in documents coming from the Vatican. The MSPC adopted this term since 1983.

What is the significance of this term - BECs or basic ecclesial communities?

Community - the use of the word community emphasizes the communitarian nature of the BECs. These are not groups, societies or associations but communities - local communities whose members live in close proximity and interact with each other regularly. These are not specialized groups but stable environments. Thus, mandated organizations (like KofC, Legion of Mary), renewal movements and their local branches (Charismatics, Focolare, CFC, Catechumenate, El Shaddai, etc), cannot be considered as BECs.

Basic - the word basic refers to both the size and the social location of the BECs. The BEC are small communities. A basic community is small enough for the members to know each other well and relate deeply as friends but not too small that it turns into a primary group or barkada instead of a community. A BEC may be composed of forty to two hundred families. A BEC may be subdivided into several selda or family groupings of five to ten families. The term basic may also refer to the social location of the BECs - they are at the grassroots, at the base of society, among the poor and the least.

Ecclesial - the word ecclesial emphasizes the ecclesiality of the BECs. They are a way of being Church - the Church that is realized, localized and experienced at the grassroots, in the neighborhood. The BECs are not just administrative units within the parish - they are indeed the microcosm of the Church. Whatever can be said about the Church in general may also be used and appropriated for the BECs.

The PCP II Vision of BECs

If we are looking for an updated understanding of BECs, the best place to look for it is in the PCP II documents. The PCP II gives us an ecclesiological vision of BECs - which shows us how the BECs are a way of being Church. This can be found in the second part of the document: Envisioning a Church renewed, and the third section entitled: Discipleship in Community: the Church. There is a paragraph (137) that sums up the vision of what it means for the Church to be a community of disciples and links its realization with the BECs:
 

Our vision of the Church as communion, a Church as priestly, prophetic and kingly people, and as a Church of the Poor - that is a Church that is renewed, is today finding expression in one ecclesial movement, and this is the movement to foster Basic Ecclesial Communities.
 
The PCP II vision of the Church which can be realized in the BECs may be paraphrased thus:

The Community of Disciples
living in Communion
participating in the mission of Christ
as a priestly, prophetic, and kingly people
and as the Church of the Poor

This vision of the Church brings together under the heading of community of disciples the various ecclesiological themes that have become dominant since Vatican II: (a) the Church as communion, (b) the Church as the People of God participating in the mission of Christ as a priestly, prophetic and kingly people, (c) the Church of the poor.

This vision of the Church can be concretely realized in the BECs. Thus, the paragraphs that follow (138-139) give a phenomenonological description of the BECs which corresponds to the PCP II ecclesiological themes:
 

They are small communities of Christians, usually of families who gather around the Word of God and the Eucharist. These communities are united to their pastors but are ministered to regularly by lay leaders. The members know each other by name and share not only the Word of God and the Eucharist but also their concerns both material and spiritual. They have a strong sense of belongingness and of responsibility for one another.

Usually emerging at the grassroots among poor farmers and workers, Basic Ecclesial Communities consciously strive to integrate their faith and their daily life. They are guided and encouraged by regular catechesis. Poverty and their faith urge their members towards solidarity with one another, action for justice, and towards a vibrant celebration of life in the liturgy.
 

Based on this description we may deduce several important characteristic of BECs which can be correlated with the ecclesiological themes:

1. These are small communities whose members are in unity and solidarity with one another and with their pastors. The members have a strong sense of belongingness and responsibility for one another. (This corresponds to the vision of the Church as communion).

2. The members share the Word of God and are guided by regular catechesis. (This corresponds to the vision of the Church as a prophetic people).

3. The communities gather around the Eucharist and have a vibrant celebration of life in the liturgy. (This corresponds to the vision of the Church as priestly people).

4. They share not only their spiritual concerns but also the material concerns. Their poverty and their faith lead them to involvement in action for justice and social transformation. (This corresponds to the the understanding of the church a kingly/servant people).

5. They emerge among the poor and empower the poor. (This corresponds ot the vision of the Church as church of the poor.)

Thus, from the PCP II vision and description of BECs, we can now have a deeper understanding of the nature and mission of BECs:

The BECs realize the vision of a renewed Church as a community of disciples

living in communion
participating in the mission of Christ as
    prophetic/witnessing communities
    priestly/worshipping communities
    kingly/serving communities
and becoming a Church of the Poor.

Let us go deeper into this vision of BECs and see their implication for the kind of BECs that can grow and develop.

BECs as Community of Disciples

The vision of the Church as community of disciples can be concretely experienced in the BECs. Without the BECs, the communitarian nature of the Church and of discipleship remains an abstraction. In the BECs the ordinary Christians are awakened to their call to live their discipleship fully and actively and in the context of the community.

Being a community of disciples means that the members of the BECs are united to Christ and with one another. They have a deep personal relationship with Christ and with one another. They are of one heart and one mind. There is therefore fellowship or communion among believers and followers of Christ.

It also means that the BECs are nourished by the Word of God. The members continue to hear the Word and to share or proclaim it to others. Christ continues to be their teacher. They learn from him. The community of disciples is an evangelized and evangelizing community. It witnesses to the coming of God's kingdom. It is a prophetic community that proclaims the message of the kingdom - a message of salvation and liberation.

As community of disciples, the BECs celebrate the presence of Christ in the sacraments. Christ continues to shape the community through the sacraments. The members actively participate in the liturgical celebration. They gather in the memory of Christ and celebrate the eucharist. They are ready to offer their life in self-sacrifice. BECs are truly a priestly community.

Like Christ, BECs are concerned about the plight of the poor and the needy, those who are sick, who are hungry, who are in prison. They actively participate in building of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice, peace and love. The community of disciples is truly a servant community.

The community of disciples follow the way of Christ who is poor. The members live the evangelical poverty, they make an option for the poor, they empower the poor in their midst to actively participate in the mission of Christ.

Living in Communion

Ecclesial Communion describes the unity and sharing among the members of the Church which is based on a common faith, which is celebrated in the breaking of the bread, and which is concretely expressed in the sharing of material goods. What is shared is not only the Word of God or the Eucharistic Bread but also the material goods and resources.

This communion is made possible by the presence of the Holy Spirit The trinitarian communion of the divine persons is the foundation and model of ecclesial communion.

This unity and sharing can be realized in different levels of the Church - whether universal and local, diocesan and parochial, within communities and between communities, within families and among families.

The BECs may be regarded as a locus of realization of ecclesial communion. In these communities communion can be more intimately and concretely experienced. There is a sense of belonging and responsibility for one another. The members can live as a community of friends in the Lord. Communion may be inculturated with the Filipino values of pakikisama, bayanihan, and pakikipagkapwa-tao.

The ecclesiology of communion also insures that the BECs do not become isolated, autonomous and in-ward looking communities. It promotes unity and solidarity with other BECs. The parish itself becomes a network or communion of BECs. The ecclesiology of communion requires that the BECs be united to their pastors and maintain their link with the local and universal Church. Without this linkage, the BECs cannot be considered as ecclesial communities or a way of being Church.

The sharing of material resources is an essential expression of communion both in the New Testament and the conciliar documents. This is an ideal that many BECs are trying to put into practice. Thus, there are many mutual aid systems and income generating projects designed to help the members who are needy. Some BECs in the rural areas have set up communal farms. Many have organized cooperatives. These common undertakings are based on the principle of pooling of material resources and engaging in economic activities as a community. They provide alternative values and patterns of behavior for socio-economic transformation. Instead of fostering values identified with capitalism such as individualism, selfishness and greed, these projects are based on Gospel values such as sharing, partnership and communal responsibility. While these projects have sometimes been classified as non-religious activities, they are actually concrete expressions of communion - the community of goods. Through these projects the BECs are able to address the problems of poverty and exploitation. Through the principle of the common ownership of the means of production and sharing of resources the BECs can help create a society where there will be no needy person among them. It will be the realization of the ideal of the Christian community as described in the summaries in Acts and an approximation of the Kingdom of God.
 

BECs as People of God Participating in Christ's Mission as Priestly, Prophetic and Kingly People

Vatican II, especially in the dogmatic constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) links the threefold mission with the image of the Church as a people of God. Accordingly, the Church as people of God is by its very nature a priestly, prophetic and kingly people (LG 10-13). The Church as a whole participates in Christ's prophetic, priestly and kingly mission. The ministry of the hierarchy (the bishops, priests and deacons) are seen as priestly, prophetic and kingly (LG 24-29). Lay people actively participate in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Christ by virtue of their baptism and membership in the Church (LG 34, 35, 36). In the Vatican II document on the missionary activity of the Church, Ad Gentes 15, the communities of the faithful that are to be built up in the mission field are to carry out the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Christ. Thus, the ecclesiological trilogy is the underlying schema for describing the nature and mission of the Church, the ministry of the hierarchy and the role of the laity.

The three-fold nature and mission of the people of God has been appropriated for the BECs in the Philippines. This is the ecclesiological perspective that many dioceses, institutions and programs promoting BECs have in common.

It was the Mindanao- Sulu Pastoral Conference (MSPC) that first used this framework. In 1971, the theme of the first MSPC was "The Church in Mindanao and Sulu: The Teaching, Worshipping and Serving Community." The three-fold nature of the Church in Mindanao-Sulu corresponds to the three-fold nature and mission of the Church as prophetic (teaching), priestly (worshipping) and kingly (serving) community. When MSPC began promoting the formation of the Gagmayng Kristohanong Katilingban (GKK), these communities were characterized as witnessing, worshipping and serving communities (masaksihon, maampoon, maalagarong katilingban).

The PCP II has appropriated the vision of the Church as a priestly, prophetic and kingly people and see its realization in the BECs.

Prophetic Communities

The BECs actively participate in Christ's prophetic mission. They are prophetic communities. They hear, proclaim and witness to the Word of God. They are evangelized and evangelizing communities, learning and teaching communites, witnessing communities. The tasks of evangelization and catechesis are part of this prophetic mission. It also involves denunciation and annunciation. (1) denouncing sin and evil in society (e.g. the idolatry of power and wealth, injustice, oppression, the culture of death), (2) announcing the message about the coming of God's kingdom - a message of salvation, of justice, peace and liberation.

There are programs and activities that concretely express this prophetic character of the BECs: evangelization seminars, bible-reflection sessions, conscientization or social awareness programs, education for justice, catechetical program (for children, youth, adults), etc. The most regular activity is the bible-reflection session where the members of the BECs gather in their homes or in their chapel to reflect on the word of God and their concrete situation. In the light of faith they discern their concrete response and course of action.

Priestly Communities

The BECs actively participate in Christ's priestly mission. Thus, they are a priestly people. They are worshipping and celebrating communities. This priesthood is expressed in their full and active participation in the liturgical-sacramental celebration, in prayer and thanksgiving, in active charity, in the offering of spiritual sacrifices, and in self-sacrifice which may include the readiness for martyrdom when necessary.

The activities that express the priestly nature of the BECs are: the weekly bible-service held in the chapel (Kasaulogan sa Pulong, Katilingbanong Pag-ampo), prayer meetings in the homes, the monthly or bi-monthly mass, the celebration of the other sacraments ( baptism, matrimony, penance), the fiesta celebration, popular devotions (novena, rosary), the rituals for planting and harvesting, etc. The BECs can continue to worship and celebrate even in the absence of the priest.

Serving Communities

The BECs actively participate in Christ's kingly mission. Since this kingly mission is expressed in service, the BECs are serving communities. They participate in making the kingdom of God a reality in this world by promoting peace and justice, integral development and liberation, and the integrity of creation.

There are activities and programs that express this kingly/servant nature of the BECs: (a) socio-economic projects that respond to the needs of the people - livelihood projects, cooperatives, communal farming, organic farming, community-based health program, appropriate technology, etc. (b) ecology campaigns: anti-logging, anti-dam, anti-mining, reforestation projects, etc. (c) promotion and defense of human rights (d) voter's education and working for clean and honest election (e) peace-building, establishment of peace zones, Muslim-Christian dialogue, etc. (f) protest action against objectionable government policies (VFA, charter change, mining act, etc.). The kind of activities that the BECs undertake depend on the concrete situation and needs of the people. Through these activities, the BECs can become instruments for social transformation.

The prophetic-priestly-kingly nature of the BECs should be regarded as a triad. Using this triadic framework provides a holistic vision of BECs. The priestly, prophetic and kingly dimensions are the three essential dimensions of the BECs. BECs are not just bible-sharing groups. Neither are they only liturgical assemblies. Nor are they only socio-economic or political organizations. The BECs are not one-dimensional communities. The ongoing task of BECs is to develop and integrate these three dimensions and grow as priestly-prophetic- servant communities.
 

BECs as Realization of the Church of the Poor

The BECs concretely express evangelical poverty, the option for the poor and the participation of the poor in the life and mission of the Church.

(1) The BECs as Communities of the Poor

Most of the BECs are found in the rural barangays and urban slums. Most of the members are materially poor. They are like the biblical anawim for whom poverty is a way of life - they are the ones who are hungry, who suffer, who mourn, who easily get sick, who are often harrassed, who go to prison, who thirst for justice, who seek peace. They are the ones with deep faith and trust in God's loving providence. They wait in expectation for God's liberating grace. They are predisposed to the message of the Gospel, the message of the kingdom. Thus, the Christian communities that emerge among the poor can rightly be called the communities of the poor - the church of the poor. In these communities the poor can experience communion among themselves. They experience what it means to be a community of disciples, a community of friends.

This does not mean that membership in the BECs is exclusively for the poor. It just happens that BECs thrive among the poor. Those who are not poor tend to join mandated organizations and renewal movements like the charismatics, Couples for Christ, etc. There need not be a competition or antagonism between the BECs and the mandated organizations and renewal movements. Part of the challenge of the pastoral ministry is to reorient the mandated organizations and movements so that they become supportive of the efforts to build BECs and they make an option for the poor. They have to be encouraged to enter into a dialogue of life with the poor in the BECs, to be in solidarity with them, to share their resources with them, to be one with them in their struggle for social transformation. In doing so they also become part of the Church of the Poor.

(2) The BECs Enable the Poor to Participate in the Life and Mission of the Church

In the BECs the poor are not just the object of the Church's ministry or preferential option. They become active subjects or participants in the Church's prophetic, priestly and pastoral mission.

In these communities the Gospel is proclaimed to the poor and the poor proclaim the Gospel. The poor are not only evangelized, they also become evangelizers. This happens every time they gather for their regular bible-service in their chapels, or hold bible-reflections in their homes, in their farms or even in the barricades. The poor become prophetic when they learn to break the "culture of silence" and begin to speak out against the situation of injustice, oppression and the culture of death. They become prophetic when they are able to announce the Good News of liberation.

In the BECs the poor can exercise as a community the priesthood of the faithful by their active participation in the liturgy, through their popular religious practices and devotions, in their fiesta celebrations, and in their acts of self-sacrifice and self-offering.

In the BECs the poor are not merely recipients of aid or charity from the clergy, religious or from the more well off members of the Church. The poor actively participate in the struggle for social transformation. They are able to organize socio-economic projects that respond to their basic needs (like cooperatives, income generating projects, community based health programs). They are able to defend their rights and work for justice and liberation. They can be mobilized to work for peace and put an end to the spiral of violence. They promote the integrity of creation by caring for the earth and defending the environment. Thus, they are empowered to respond to the situation of poverty, injustice, oppression, violence and the destruction of the environment.

Bishop Quevedo sums up very well what it means for the BECs to be a concrete realization of the Church of the Poor: "Truly in the BECs the poor have taken up their own destiny into their own hands. If the Church is the People of God, it is in the BECs that this mystery is being realized, lived and acted upon. The poor, as the Church, are making their own response to their own poverty. This is the highest form of Church response there is when the poor are no longer outside the orbit of the Church but they identify themselves as God's people called by God to march on their own Exodus to liberation."

Concluding Remarks

The BECs are indeed a way of being Church. They concretely express the PCP II vision of the Church as community of disciples: that is the Church as communion, participating in th mission of Christ as a priesty-prophetic-kingly people, as the Church of the poor. What is said of the Church in general can also be said about the BECs. They are the realization of the Church at the local level - that is, the Church at the grassroots.