Report on the Intercontinental Symposium
17 — 20 January. 2013
Organized by Adveniat, Missio and the University of Tuebingen.
By Max Stetter
“We have met Christ who listens to the cry of the poor in Latin America. We have met Christ who stands for dialogue and harmony in the multi-religious continent of Asia. We have met Christ who walks the villages and visits homes in Africa. We have met Christ who has many questions and faces challenges in Germany.” With these words, Estela Padilla from the Philippines, summed up the symposium in her sermon in St. Johannes University Church, Tuebingen during the closing Pontifical Mass presided over by Oscar Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga of the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
About 250 participants from German-speaking Europe, from Latin America, Africa and Asia flocked into the Auditorium Maximum of the University of Tuebingen. Among them were first generation pioneers of Basic Christian Communities, present day protagonists of Base Communities and students keen to learn more about this ”new way of being church.’ The flow of theology from the times of Josef Ratzinger and Hans Küng in Tuebingen has, at least for these 3 days, changed direction. In days past, theology here was a product of export to all parts of the world. This time it looked more like a bazaar; on offer were pastoral experience and theological reflection from Latin America, Africa and Asia. This reverse flow is due mainly to a dramatic change in the traditional structures of the church in Germany. Lack of priests, dwindling faithful and finance shortage are creating a situation that calls for new wine skins as the old ones seem to tear apart. Clustering together several parishes and hiring priests from overseas seems not to be the answer. Prevailing insecurity is widening the pastoral horizon.
In this context the agencies of Adveniat and Missio have been active for years in building worldwide bridges between local churches and in facilitating the cross-over from a teaching to a learning church. Prelate Klaus Kraemer, President of Missio Aachen, is convinced that one of the fruits of Vatican II is the strengthening of each Christian’s personal responsibility. Prelate Bernd Klaschka, managing director of Adveniat, is convinced that Basic Christian Communities in Latin America are the model for “new ways to help people of today to encounter the living Christ.”
Professor Dr. Paulo Suess, a German diocesan priest who spent most of his priestly life in Brazil, in an opening keynote compared Base Ecclesial Communities to a train. The train is moving through the Latin American continent on the tracks of faith and life, of discipleship and community. The passengers he described are people who push ahead the flock of their dreams of a good life, defending them against the attacks of wolves, the raving wolves of poverty, hunger and oppression. Signs of hope arose from Vatican II, when the church decided “to face the poor”, a versus populum in theology, diaconate and liturgy. Unfortunately, this new missionary spirit did not last, because its wings were clipped.
Three women theologians from the three continents Latin America, Africa and Asia gave mother church a new face, their face, on the first morning of the symposium. They gave an insight into the history, the development and the day-to-day-reality of Base Communities in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Sister Socorro Martinez of Mexico reported about the Base Communities in Latin America. Starting Base Communities as far back as the 1960s, they developed the method of see, judge, act, extending it to evaluate and celebrate. Their spirituality takes its inspiration from the communitarian triune God and focuses on the following of Jesus and the reign of God he preached and represented on earth. The ministries and services of their members aim at reconstructing the social fabric. Their organizational structures underwent changes according to the social and ecclesial contexts. Training at all levels is a priority; social awareness and conscientisation, women in ministry, participation and networking were the hallmark of the communities across the regions, moving towards a more mature and assertive laity.
Estela Padilla of the Philippines spoke about the Base Ecclesial Communities in Asia. Despite developing economies, two-thirds of the world’s poor live in Asia. Of the 3.5 billion inhabitants in Asia there are 2% Catholic living in diverse cultures and religions. Asia changed from being mission territories to sending missionaries. Local churches turned incarnated and inculturated. For these the key words are justice, liberation, inculturation and dialogue. Base communities started in the 1970s in the Philippines and India, in the 1990s in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Myanmar followed. In 1993 FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences) started the AsIPA Project (Asian Integral Pastoral Approach), promoting Christ-centered communities, harmony of faith and life and a new style of leadership. A research project had brought to light that Base Communities are strong in communion, but still weak in mission. The present aim is to create a culture of communal leadership.
Sister Josée Ngalula of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) traced the origins of Base Ecclesial Communities in Africa to the Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) Bishops Conference Meeting in Kinshasa in 1961 and the initiatives of Maryknoll missionaries in Northern Tanzania starting in 1966. It was Pope Paul VI who addressing the church in Africa in 1969 coined the phrase “You are your own missionaries.” In the 1970s and 1980s the pastoral priority of building Base Communities emerged in most African Regional Episcopal conferences. They were welcomed enthusiastically as expressions of African faith and culture.
Dieter Tewes, representative of Missio Aachen, reported about a slow reception of the concept of Base Communities in Germany/Europe since the year 2000. Previously efforts initiated in the 1990s by Missio had little impact. Things changed through the assistance given in Missio projects by two German bishops from South Africa, Oswald Hirmer and Fritz Lobinger, founders of the LUMKO Institute in South Africa. Missio was instrumental in sharing African and Asian pastoral experiences with German Christians, not importing the fruits but sharing the seeds for planting in German soil.
Very important for further developments in Germany was AsIPA. Their representatives frequently visited and conducted workshops, training pastoral agents responsible for implementing this pastoral concept. A national team was constituted with members from various dioceses. The challenge that remains for the church in Germany is the question whether a preoccupation with structural reforms will solve the problem of dwindling numbers of priests and of faithful. Base Communities may well strengthen the church by practicing decentralization, participation, shared vision, biblical spirituality and trusting in the presence of the Lord.
Rev. Max Stetter