"It is not a matter of getting people to church, but how to be authentically church to them. To be church is not to do the religious thing but to listen, to struggle with people"
Experts on Latin American Basic Ecclesial Communities - Fr José Marins and his Team from Brazil - are currently touring several Australian dioceses, training participants in a series of workshops.
Some Australian Catholics might wonder what relevance BECs could possibly have for the Church in this country.
While they may have a place in Latin America, with its distinctive cultural and socio-economic conditions, it seems debatable whether they are relevant to Australia. Their origin in neo-Marxist liberation theology - criticised by the Vatican - also raises misgivings.
No doubt, under the direction of a strong, orthodox bishop, with equally orthodox advisers, parish priests and lay leaders, BECs might achieve positive results, their impact depending on who exercises overall control and what theology predominates.
But, to date, the more orthodox dioceses making serious efforts to recruit priests - and experiencing some success in this regard - have indicated no interest in BECs.
BECs themselves involve the division of parishes into small clusters of parishioners, each under the direction of lay or religious leaders responsible to the parish priest. Their structure is based on re-creating isolated, self-reliant, missionary-oriented communities that characterised the early Church, with minimum authority. That is the theory, at least.
This approach might appear acceptable, since many Australian suburban or rural parishes, with the shortfall in clergy numbers, have grown larger and more impersonal. Breaking up parishes into smaller units ought to allow more direct contact with Church representatives, more sense of belonging and more possibilities for contacting the large percentage of non-practising Catholics.
The general picture, however, suggests that to date the prime movers - notably in Adelaide - are committed liberals using BECs to further their own agenda for the Church. Their emphasis is not so much on evangelisation or bringing back lapsed Catholics to the practice of the Faith, but on building "a new model of church" involving a more autonomous, congregational style of Catholicism with less hierarchical input.
Here, the fall in clergy numbers appears to have become a window of opportunity. Rather than take strenuous, creative measures to increase clergy numbers - including following the lead of successful dioceses in Australia and overseas - the emphasis has been one-sidedly on restructurings and "empowering" more lay people, including the introduction of BECs.
Adelaide has been introducing BECs into its parish structures for almost ten years, even as its seminary has shut down for lack of numbers - a predictable result of years of talk about empowering lay people to take over the running of parishes.
A report in SA Catholic (June 1995) had enthused over the number of pastoral associates studying theology at the St Francis Xavier Seminary "under an archdiocesan initiative called Formation for Pastoral Ministry." It concluded: "And with the move towards Basic Ecclesial Communities, the presence of such informed people who can draw on the richness of Church traditions can only lead to a very 'alive' Church."
The Adelaide Advertiser later reported (8 April 1996): "Adelaide is the first diocese in the modern world to adopt the BEC model, which arose out of Latin American liberation theology, as the basis for church structure."
The apparent revolutionary intent of some of those promoting BECs in Adelaide comes across in various archdiocesan publications.
Materials for applicants for a BEC Project Officer position noted, for example, that "encouraging parishes to begin the development of BECs is a challenge because it is a new model of church." A Project Officer would have to develop programs for Neighbourhood Pastoral Teams and Coordinating Committees that, among other things, "deepen their understanding of the principles and theology of BECs." Since BECs "are inherently about change," the Officer "requires the ability to deal with conflict and negotiation."
Would-be Project Officers are informed a special project is being developed in Adelaide "which will offer an intense communal experience based upon the Marins style and match it with extensive experience of church through visiting and forming local community." The "next big challenge facing the BEC work", it explained, was the "development of a new level of church."
On the other hand, bringing "lost sheep" back to the practice of the Faith is not cited as a priority. Sr Ruth Egar, an expert on the subject in Adelaide, told an in-service conference: "It is not a matter of getting people to church, but how to be authentically church to them. To be church is not to do the religious thing but to listen, to struggle with people."
In fact, during the period BECs have been operational in Adelaide's parishes, Mass attendances have continued to fall in line with the rest of the country.
During an earlier visit to Adelaide, Fr Marins explained (SA Catholic, September 1994) that BECs were not just smaller models of the parish but a different model whereby there was a much deeper experience of community: "Instead of inviting people to go to the sacraments and the organisation of the parish, the Church is the sacrament in the world ... in order to reveal to the people of this age the deep experience of Jesus Christ that is full humanisation."
Fr Marins foresaw a time in the future when each small community would have its own minister, though the ordination process might differ. It would, he said, require a new style of being a priest and being a Christian.
These statements could mean almost anything and certainly raise questions as to what Fr Marins actually intends. Nor is it indicated whether the Holy See would have a say in such "grass roots" arrangements. Indeed, the problem with Fr Marins' accounts of BECs is their ambiguity, leaving the actual result to depend largely on the stances of those in control.
Other Australian dioceses apparently embarking on a similar path to Adelaide, with visits from the Fr Marins Team in recent weeks, have included Ballarat, Sandhurst, Bathurst and Canberra-Goulburn. The Hobart and Maitland dioceses have already been looking at similar restructuring approaches.
It remains to be seen at this stage whether the Adelaide approach to BECs of the past few years will be replicated in these dioceses.
In Ballarat, promotional material sent out to all Ballarat Diocesan Assembly participants prior to the Marins Workshops on 1 March 2001 by Fr John Fitzgerald, Director of the Pastoral Planning Office, contained similar progressive terminology to that used in Adelaide: "an experience of a dynamic Church, basically of equals", "insights into the Australian Church of the future", "a refreshing image of church in which you can hope", "a new model of church: a model where there is a fresh emphasis on community."
Granted the usual quota of lonely, sick, elderly, disabled, struggling people will always welcome a friendly visit from anyone - whether from Meals on Wheels, the Salvation Army, or even a BEC representative. But most people belong to assorted overlapping "communities" of their choice - work, hobbies, sport, church, school, etc. It is difficult to visualise the silent majority in an Australian Catholic parish taking kindly to being conscripted into designated "communities". And there are already well-established ways in the Australian context of reaching out to the "lost sheep" and "battlers" such as through the Legion of Mary and St Vincent de Paul Society.
It seems surprising that some Australian dioceses have gone to so much trouble and expense to learn from Brazil - with its radically different cultural and socio-economic environment - when success stories of evangelisation and seminary numbers are literally on their doorsteps.