The term BEC (basic ecclesial community) is not a household term for many Filipino Catholics. To those in the middle class—and especially in urban areas—the term doesn’t mean a thing. But to rural folk in many dioceses, the BEC is their way of being Church—and being Church in deeper ways than are known and practiced in more established parishes.
For it stands for people coming together to worship and, in their worshiping, to discern in community on their problems from motivations coming from their Gospel faith; and more, acting on those problems as community, in community. The potential of this mode of being Church for the reform of society is tremendous and may well be the only way open to us in the Philippines to get out of the slough of despond in which we have been sunk for years.
The story of the BECs is briefly told. The movement for their development started in Mindanao in the early 1970s. In 1971, the first MSPC (Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference) was held in Davao in a three-day gathering of delegates—bishops, priests, religious, laity—from all the dioceses of Mindanao-Sulu. The conference’s theme was the building up of Christian communities in the southern region of the Philippines, and to achieve that end, they zeroed in on three thematic Vatican II ideas, namely, dialogue, participation and co-responsibility, asking themselves how they could make these three ideas operative in the pastoral works and programs of their dioceses and parishes. Without realizing it, they had hit on a formula for the formation of what was known in other parts of the world, in Latin America especially, as basic Christian Communities (BCCs). That formula was later developed further in the AsIPA, the Asian Integral Pastoral Approach, that I spoke of in my last column.
Where comes the potential of the BECs for the reform of Philippine society? It is in the possibility of communal conversion to a greater sense and practice of the common good, the correction therefore of our greatest lack as a people and the wellspring of our massive and persistent culture of corruption. For simply from the BECs’ mode of common discernment and action on their life problems as a community, the members of the BECs develop a sense that their faith is not just for personal sanctification and conversion but for social as well. This sense is developed in their manner of community worship on Sundays. It is not the usual thing that is done in parishes where a priest leads the celebration of the Eucharist and preaches a homily on the day’s readings. And the parishioners sit passively and listen to his interpretation of scripture. People in the BECs do not have the Eucharist, but they have the Word of God in the scripture readings of the day. They apply the message of the readings themselves to their life, discerning individually and communally on what the Holy Spirit through scripture is saying to them in regard to their life and its problems in the here and now.
Thus, to give an example: today’s controversy about “reproductive health”—is this something that only legislators and bishops should argue about? If this is a problem of national significance for all of us, then the arguing on it must take place too among the rank-and-file of both state and Church, among and by the people whose lives are going to be affected by whatever government measures or laws result from the arguing that is going on today. The arguments of lawmakers for the need to control heavy population growth and their proposals for limiting it must be put squarely to the BECs for their discernment; so too the Church’s restrictions on some of those arguments and proposals, these are all grist for their discernment
Or the corruption in high places that our papers so nauseatingly report every day: Many of us despair of ever seeing an end to this shameful bane of our national life as one effort after another to face up to them and correct them ends in dismal failure. If this particular problem were brought down to the people in the BECs, rural folk for the most part whom the rest of the nation thinks are cogs in the political machines that power-holders treat as witless and easily manipulable, and they realize how in the end it is they who suffer most from the corrupt practices of “higher-ups”, what will happen? They may not be able to do much by way of stopping corruption, but one thing I am dead sure of: they will start us on the process of self-conversion simply from the realization that the biggest reason for its endurance is our high tolerance of it as SOP for politicians.
Such a wide and concerted reflection on national problems—is this beyond the thinking powers of our people? Church people who have had experience of BECs and their mode of worship and discerning are convinced there is no better way for entire communities to imbibe by their own efforts the values of the Gospel and hence to work our nation’s survival than through the discerning/praying process of self- and community-empowerment that is the Basic Ecclesial Community.