Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Circles of Discernment (the AsIPA)

LET us come together in little groups of reflection and discernment. In these groups we look seriously at our part in the many evils of our day—as individuals, as families, as communities—and discern what action we can do together.

On January 27 last, at the end of their first CBCP meeting for the year, the bishops issued that invitation to all of us in a pastoral statement they entitled with a quotation from the Evangelist Mark (1, 15): “Reform yourselves and believe in the Gospel!” In the earlier part of their statement, they reviewed briefly some of the besetting problems, current then, in our life as a nation: corruption in high places in the government (the ZTE scandal had just come to the public’s consciousness), extra-judicial killings, the bad peace and order situation, abuse of our natural resources, the growing incidence of political family dynasties, excessive politicking, etc. Summarizing these evils, they said: “In them all we see the all too patent subordination of the common good to the private good.” That subordination—they asked us to look deeply and honestly into by forming probing circles of discernment.

Except for a few gatherings here and there of students in universities in Manila and efforts by BEC groups and a sprinkling of lay organizations in some dioceses, the massive discerning that the bishops asked for did not happen—a disappointing response. As was the reaction of some Manila newspapers which preferred to contest the bishops’ listing of the evils of our country and failure to go along with their current obsession with the ZTE case and the “President-resign” movement. But even more disappointing, to me at least, was the parroting by some religious of the media discontent with the bishops’ statement. If the nitpicking was extraordinary, more extraordinary was the ignoring of the conclusion made by the bishops from their enumeration of evils about “the all too patent subordination of the common good to private good.”

Looking back now with the wisdom of hindsight, I wonder if the idea of circles of discernment—that was after all what the bishops were asking to be formed—was not fully understood in the context in which they put it: personal and especially communal conversion, our realizing of the part we play in the general malaise. In the statement, they referred back to what happened in 1986 in the developments that led to EDSA I reminding us of how we had come together “to pray together, reason together, decide together, act together.” In 1986, those words did bring about a common response among our people—they formed “circles of discernment”, however impermanent, asked in all seriousness how they should respond to the stolen election.

Some bishops thought that with our experience in the BECs, it would be easier to replicate, but to a wider extent, the reflection and prayer groups that formed then in 1986 after the issuance of their statement on the snap elections. For between 1986 and now, practically a generation, many dioceses have adopted the AsIPA (Asian Integral Pastoral Approach) methodology of community reflection and action in the formation of BECs. But possibly it has not been as widespread after all as was first thought, limited in most cases only to dioceses and parishes that had a strong BEC and social action program, hence the not too encouraging results. It might be a good idea then to say something here about what the AsIPA is all about, with a view to its further use as our methodology for change in the months and years ahead. For I think the bishops will keep returning to the need for communal discernment and action in the Gospel on national problems that so far have eluded efforts at correction. The method is briefly described thus:

The AsIPA presupposes a community (or group) that meets regularly for worship and keeps asking itself a basic question: “In the Scripture readings of today [usually those of Sunday] what is the Lord telling us to do as a community of believers?” The first step is to do some kind of social analysis of the life of the community—what are its current problems or opportunities, what is happening to hinder or help them live a more Christian life? Answering that question, they move on to the next step: a shared reflection on the message of the day’s scripture readings applied to their life as a community. From there they proceed to decisions on what to do with the fruits of their discernment. That done, they go on to make plans, assessing their capabilities and resources, assigning roles for particular tasks, etc. Action follows during the week. When they meet again, they assess what they have done, look into reasons for success or failure. Whether they have succeeded or not in their efforts at change, whatever situation they find themselves in as a community will call for another round of discernment and action. (That’s why the process is also called a pastoral spiral or cycle.)

The implications for self- and community-conversion of this method of communal discernment and action cannot be over-exaggerated. We’ve seen it work, as I showed in that incident I related last month on how the farming folk of Bukidnon dealt with those degrading referendums during martial law. I am convinced it is the only way we can form a strong communal sense of the common good. Without it we will most certainly continue to be mired as a people in the morass of our many intractable social ills solely because we cannot transcend selfish interests and strive as one for the common good.