By Gerry Proctor
At the point where many commentators in Europe had been announcing the death of the Basic Christian Communities suddenly they have made a dramatic re-appearance in the very lecture theatre in Tübingen where the young professor Josef Ratzinger delivered his renowned “Introduction to Christianity” course. The Catholic Theology Faculty of the University co-hosted an International Symposium from 17-20 January, 2013 entitled In the World of Today? The Church on Her Way in Basic Christian Communities, along with the German aid agencies Adveniat and Missio.
So great was the demand for places that the organisers were forced to move the venue at the last minute to their largest auditorium, well known to the present pope, and though his younger version was favourably quoted by the present professorial staff, it wasn’t clear what Benedict XVI would have made of this renewed interest in Base Communities in his home country. People came from all over Germany as well as Switzerland and Austria to meet with exponents of the Base Communities from across the developing world. Perhaps the genius of the Base Ecclesial Communities is that they are considered to be the smallest cell of the Church, a level of Catholic organisation and structure below that of the parish where the faithful gather in their homes to both share the Word of God, grow together as a community and reach out in mission to those around them in the neighbourhood, taking care especially of the poor and marginalised.
The context common to all the participants was: ageing and declining numbers of clergy, the merging and suppression of parishes, a loss of youth and families from congregations, a growing number of Catholics who feel disconnected from and disaffected with the Catholic Church, and an increasing sense that the clergy are cracking under the burden they are being asked to bear. This crisis has created among some of the faithful a desire to look outward for inspiration. Many commented that they felt a lack of leadership and direction coming from clergy and bishops. The aid agencies have been drawn into this ecclesial vacuum and for some time now have been sowing seeds of hope.
This reality has become a creative space where after decades of one-way traffic transferring aid from the wealthy and generous German dioceses to the churches of the developing world, there is now an in-coming gift of ecclesial inspiration from the thousands of Base Communities in the partner churches of the South. Fr Bernd Klaschka, President of Adveniat, saw this as an opportunity for Germany to experience itself as a world Church, genuinely enriched by this mutual sharing. Dr Klaus Krämer, President of Missio, claimed during the opening speeches that Base Communities were now on the local agenda in a big way.
Professor Dr. Father Paulo Suess, a priest of the diocese of Augsburg but living in the Amazonian region of Brazil since 1966, gave an inspirational keynote address on the first day in which he traced the negative impact of European influence on the Base Communities following the Second Vatican Council. He called for this “fear” of the organised poor from sectors of the Church to be converted into fear of the “social irrelevance of the faith.” The flourishing of the Base Communities after the council, he said, took the institutional church by surprise and pre-conciliar elements in European hierarchies and the Vatican attacked those supporting and encouraging them particularly in Latin America.
Episcopal Conferences around the developing world have found a deep source of inspiration in Lumen Gentium No. 26 where the Council Fathers declared that ‘the Church of Christ is present in all legitimately organised local groups of the faithful … in these communities though they may often be small and poor … Christ is present’. This along with the rich theological ideas of the People of God (Lumen Gentium), the concept of the local Church (Ad Gentes, Christus Dominus, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes), the positive relationship between church and society and the call to read the sign of the times (Gaudium et Spes), all underpinned the subsequent post-Conciliar developments that gave rise to Base Communities.
Perhaps what was remarkable in this symposium was the simple fact that representatives of those Base Communities, 50 years after the council, were sharing their experiences with a European Church more fearful now of its own crisis and challenges and therefore more open to external advice. The majority German audience were treated to a series of authentic reflections upon the global phenomenon of Base Communities, delivered by three women leaders from Latin America, Asia and Africa – an impressive statement in itself not lost on the participants – all of whom happened to have doctorates in theology.
Sister Socorro Martinez from Mexico said that the Base Communities were an on-going active process and “a precious gift from the Holy Spirit.” Estella Padilla from the Philippines shared that at the core of the Base Communities was an ethos of dialogue that emerges as a response to the gospel and is directed towards the poor, to cultures and to religions. “Can we re-imagine the church” she asked “as the servant-sacrament of harmony?” Sister Josée Ngalula from the Democratic Republic of the Congo revealed that the Base Communities were a response to basic African intuitions and a desire to root Christianity in an African reality. Base Communities we were told are flourishing all across the developing world. Each of these women in sharing the stories of faith from their poor communities profoundly impacted on the audience with their wisdom and the depth of their reflections.
Many of the almost 250 people present were genuinely impressed with the episcopal contributions of Bishop Thomas Dabre (Pune, India) and Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez (Tegucigalpa, Honduras). Both gave enthusiastic support to the Base Communities. The cardinal referred to them as ‘the great fruit of Vatican II’ which in giving new hope to the whole church were a “valued and positive experience.” Bishop Dabre said that the Base Communities were “endorsed and legislated as a way of pastoral ministry and Christian life in India.”
Despite the moving testimony given about the Base Communities, many people were sceptical about how they could be implemented in Germany even though a number of dioceses have already made a start. There is confusion about what they really are and do, symbolised by a question from one Filipina migrant in Germany who wanted to know if her fellow-countrymen and women meeting together for devotional purposes formed a Base Community.
In failing to answer her question adequately the symposium failed to define clearly enough terminology that was being used interchangeably and indiscriminately throughout the conference. Base Ecclesial Communities are not the same thing as Small Christian Communities, though they may have many aspects in common. This is indeed an important subject for clarification and the presence of senior academics from such a prestigious theology faculty means that this question and others raised during the conference will undoubtedly be explored in future events.
It is critical that Germany, in the struggle to implement their version of Basic Christian communities, gets as complete a picture as possible of the truly radical option that the Base Communities present to the church. Indisputably the organisers here are to be congratulated in having brought together, probably for the first time, such an impressive gathering of open-mined and searching Europeans with an inspirational collection of practitioners of another experience of being church from the Developing South.
There is indeed much to learn here and much to debate. An image that seemed to resonate with many of the participants was the idea that Europe was living through an ecclesial winter and Cardinal Rodriguez was asked what advice he might give. He smilingly responded that spring would follow winter and that “spring will come from the base.” That seemed to suggest that what would come still remained buried beneath the snow, was under-ground and that in awaiting its arrival with hope we should turn our attention to those at the base, the majority of ordinary people, and start listening to them and making their concerns and agenda ours too.
Perhaps this symposium was like the snowdrop in winter, the first visible green shoot of a small but significant process that in some unimagined future would blossom. It has definitely generated an energy that will ensure that the journey continues. Whilst recognising that we in Europe owe a debt of gratitude to those responsible for organising this event, it is to be hoped that they realise that experiments such as these mean that the eyes of many in the Church will be watching, and that not all those eyes will be friendly.
Rev. Gerry Proctor
239 Ellerman Road
Liverpool, England L3 4FG
Tel: (0044) 01517267240
NOTE: His research thesis A Commitment to Neighbourhood – Base Ecclesial Communities in Global Perspective is being published by Liverpool Hope University.