Peter Finlayson is a parishioner of St Augustine's Church, Creswick, Victoria, with a professional background spanning 40 years in rural development both in Australia and in many developing countries. During this period he gained considerable experience with participatory development planning methods and workshop facilitation. This article is condensed from a longer report available from the author, E-mail address: email@example.com
From the Adelaide Archdiocese BEC website: "The Church in your street"
I would concede that Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) could have a role in Australia provided they operate within guidelines set out by a bishop within the framework of Catholic orthodoxy, subject to the direction of the parish priest, and are used to spearhead parish missionary activity, not to take over the running of the parish, with or without a priest.
This is the conclusion reached following my participation in a Marins workshop held at Ballarat in early May, 2001. It was one of four facilitated in the Diocese of Ballarat by the International (Fr) José Marins Team (comprising Fr Marins, Sr Teolide Maria Trevisan from Brazil and Pastor Robert Mueller from the US) under the auspices of the Pastoral Planning Office, led by its Director, Fr John Fitzgerald PP, Daylesford, Victoria.
Of the 172 people registered, 16 were from the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the remainder from 26 parishes covering a wide area of the Ballarat Diocese. Lay persons totalled 152, with clergy (eight) and religious making up the remainder. Seventy-five per cent were women, similar to other venues.
The workshop was conducted in five discrete but related sessions during 20 hours over two days and one evening. The overall theme was a "model of Church" that is self-contained, parish community-based and out-reaching with missionary activity.
The workshop started with the formation of ten-person "mixed" groups, allocated the names of one of ten "seed" communities of the early Church: Corinth, Caesarea Philippi, etc. The team then began to develop the concept of the early Church communities, characterised by their isolation, lack of a structured authority, need for self-reliance and decision-making.
The next session saw the continuation of this vision of Church as the team took us through the Acts of the Apostles. The theme of community-based, Jesus-inspired missionary activity in a hostile social and cultural environment was constantly stressed.
In the third session, the groups played at being "early Church" and interchanged missionaries with each other. The question: "How does this experience help me learn what is essential to forming small church communities where I live?" was answered in the subsequent plenary session where each group symbolically shared its conclusions. Mass celebrated by Fr Marins concluded the day.
Session four commenced with a short brainstorming of ideas about the "good" and "bad" features of the contemporary world and of the Church, but the ideas generated were not explored beyond their identification. The team further developed the model of a Church around small (parish) missionary-oriented communities. It challenged the contemporary concept of being a Christian - confined to church attendance (however irregular) and family - and stressed our missionary obligation to take the Church in person directly to the wider community, especially targeting the disadvantaged and marginalised people.
Session five extended the missionary theme using the symbolism of the fishing net and our food staples: bread, fruit and vegetables. The focus was again on leaving the comfort zone of our (parish) church and spreading the Good News as "fishers of men" by reaching out among the wider community.
The team's core theme of an out-reaching missionary Church could only be applauded, affirming the role of the laity in accord with Canon 211 of the current (1983) Code of Canon Law: "All Christ's faithful have the obligation and the right to strive so that the divine message of salvation may more and more reach all people of all times and all places" - although neither this nor the Magisterium were ever referred to by the team. However, that the early Church model is the most appropriate vehicle for this activity in Australian dioceses is questionable, for the following reasons.
I believe the core (out-reaching missionary) message will largely fall on deaf ears. In my experience, with few notable exceptions, most Catholic families are comfortable with the "ghetto model of Church" and are struggling to evangelise their own families, without worrying about their neighbours.
Again, others, who seemed well represented at the workshop, including many who have chosen the celibate life, seem more intent on trying to transform the teachings of the Church to suit their own views and to "reinvent the wheel", rather than getting on with the priority task of out-reaching evangelisation.
In contrast, the message that seemed to find fertile soil was the reintroduction of the early Church small communities, or Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), as a model for the future Church. It was soon apparent that many of the participants, but not all, were inspired by the model of a Church that is structured on small, self-reliant, decision-making, parish-based community groups, with minimum input from hierarchy and clergy, without the missionary focus.
This feature seemed especially attractive to the female participants, whose applause and laughter at the occasional asides made by Fr Marins, especially, questioning the need for authority and structure in a Church community, clearly identified them as dismissive of an orthodox, more authority-centred Church.
I got the clear impression this is what the majority of participants came to hear; not so much to learn about Catholicism but to have their already well-nurtured vision for the Church and the way to deal with the so-called clergy crisis in Ballarat Diocese affirmed by a person of impeccable credentials.
If the organisers were aware of this likely impact, I would suggest the program was disappointing - defeatism masquerading as realism - and bordering on the mischievous, by allowing disloyalty to papal authority and teaching.
The lack of any opportunity to interact directly in-session with the facilitation team was also disappointing. We were led through an unknown process to an unknown destination like unquestioning robots.
Moreover, this one-way, brainwashing method of facilitated group discussion laced with large doses of symbolism is out-of-date in these days of stakeholder-driven consultation methods. I found the workshop methodology childish and, from my experience with other Australian adult groups, do not believe it was necessary to reduce the concepts to such simplistic levels.
I found the liturgy strange, even questionable, dominated by significant omissions from orthodox liturgical practice: Responsorial Psalm, Alleluia verse, Gloria, Creed, and the bells during the Consecration. The (Presbyterian) pastor on the team gave the homily and leavened bread was used for the Eucharist.
On balance, while many participants may have left with a "warm and fuzzy" feeling around their hearts, I believe a more useful application of diocesan resources linked with the wisdom and experience inherent in its "human capital" would have been to address some of the critical pastoral issues in the diocese through a disciplined stakeholder consultative process.
The division (and resulting energy-consuming tensions) between liberal and orthodox factions in the diocesan community; affirming and strengthening the authoritative position and guidance of the Church hierarchy and its Magisterium borne of 2000 years experience; and empowering and enabling the laity to address the serious socio-economic "diseases" and anti-Catholic morality in society, especially by influencing our governing authorities, are more important than "going back to our roots" to reinvent an early Christian model of the Church.