· Interview with Tea Frigerio on her decades of experience with the Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil ·
"The life of a basic ecclesial community (Bec) - explains Tea Frigerio - is concentrated on the Sunday celebration of the Word performed by the laity. The innovation, in these traditional communities, is the centrality of the Word the starting point which begins to renew pastoral action. The reading of the Word, starting with lives committed to social change. The early struggles for free trade unions are born, which, whilst trying to seek liberation from the oppression of landowners, becomes an instrument of justice. The commitment for life also grows within the community through acts of solidarity, through the so-called mutirão that is, mutual help in the work in the fields. A Bec is like a wheel: the central pivot is Jesus, the rays being the living ministers, the circle is life. "
How and why were the Basic Ecclesial Communities born in Brazil (Becs) ?
In Lumen gentium, the council had defined the Church to be the people of God. The meeting in Medellín in 1968 recalled this prophecy, embodying it in a pastoral letter addressed to the poor. It was observed amongst the most abandoned, the presence of communities, often supported by a popular religion, which received the visit of a priest once or twice a year, celebrated the Word, and remained tied to Jesus and Mary by a deep faith expressed in traditional ways. The bishops recognized in these communities the seed of the communities described in the Acts of the Apostles. From this observation a process of formation of the laity began based on the Word of God which is embodied in life. In this process, liberation theology has been of great help.
Did liberation theology precede the Becs ?
There is no before or after. There is a theological process, there is an ecclesiastical path that sees the people, missionaries and religious, priests and bishops pooled together.
How has political oppression affected the course of the Becs?
It is not only Lumen gentium that affects this process, but also Gaudium et spes that calls the Church to be a hope for the world. These two documents, in my opinion, are the light that guides the meeting of the bishops in Medellín when they affirm that there is a silent cry that comes from the people and that needs to be heard. At that time, Brazil was under total dictatorship. In this process, the pedagogy of Paulo Freire is of the utmost importance: to give voice to the voiceless. Many lay people, religious and priests, are committing themselves to launch movements of awareness and protest due to the situation of oppression generated by dictatorships. In this period reflection on the Exodus and on Jesus the Liberator are of paramount importance. There is an unrest, which sees involved the Church, preexisting communities, liberation movements, such as the leghe campesine, movements that are born from a renewed Christian consciousness. These three components interact and will give birth to the basic ecclesial communities.
What impact did the Becs have on the life of the people?
A lay person conscious of being the bearer of and not only the recipient of good news was born, an awareness that led to a transformation not only of church structures but also of social structures. Many who are now in unions, political parties or other social commitments have followed this path. For example: farmers and fisher men tied to a dependence on powerful people, beginning with the life of the community have managed to set up cooperatives that still exist. The Gospel that created their community led them to think about how to live the Word in a transformation that permits a life of dignity for themselves and their families. The consciousness of being God's people has led them to feel themselves to be protagonists not only in the community but also in social life. All the movements that led Brazil to its democratic transformation have as their base this journey of Christian awareness.
What stopped the path of the Becs ?
They began to develop beginning in the seventies; they had been in full bloom for two decades: the stagnation began with the process of liberation theology, which also challenged a way of being the Church. I think those who watched from the outside must have been afraid. But even inside those few who had not made the choice were afraid and pushed so that the journey might be interrupted. They were afraid of losing powers and roles, they feared a conscious laity and an excessive politicization, they feared that liberation theology and the Becs had been infiltrated by Marxism. But nothing was taken from Marxism apart from an analytical tool. Using the method to see-judge-act, in seeing the analysis was made with the Marxist paradigms. Fernado Belo then published a book on the Gospel which gave it a political reading. The reading of the lived situation in the light of the Exodus and Jesus the Liberator has aroused a suspicion of Marxism which in my opinion was unfounded, although the utopia of an egalitarian society is contained in the Marxist analysis.
Some have seen a lack of spirituality
I disagree: a path of the Church that has given so many martyrs - priests, religious men and women, bishops, the laity - can only be sustained by a deep spirituality.
What are the other factors behind the crisis of Becs?
There are also internal causes. The experience was born in the inland areas, on the banks of rivers, in the countryside: the Becs have not yet found a way to be Bec in the city. But the spread of Pentecostalism in recent decades has also contributed to the weakening, which responds to a certain soul that seeks the folk healer, a psychological comfort without commitment.
Are the groups of the Gospel in the city of which so much is spoken about today the same as the Becs?
In my experience in Belém, the Gospel groups, groups who concern themselves with listening to the Word, are the path to the search for the new face of Becs in the urban environment. They are the seed of the Becs who are walking a path of research because the utopia of the Church as the people of God and of the Church at the service of the Kingdom is not dead, but it is a little flower that needs to be cultivated. In this search, the thirst for the Word is always very strong: the Word read beginning from life. And when the laity discover this, they discover that to be a Christian is to be bound to the true tradition that is the utopia present in the Acts of the Apostles, not as something that has already been accomplished, but as a utopia that has yet to be realized.
Gustavo Gutiérrez and Gerhard Ludwig Müller’s book, "From the side of the poor. Liberation theology, the theology of the Church " (2013) what does it signify?
It is not only a sign of hope. In this moment in history, the document of Aparecida, the assembly of the Latin American bishops born in 2007, is an inspiration for the life of the churches of Latin America: it recalls the utopia of the Becs. Pope Francis often speaks of community, of going back to the poor. I am convinced that both the Becs and liberation theology, before being a theory, have been a condition of life. Even if we talk about the death of liberation theology and the Becs, even if they are no longer in fashion, however, there remains the lives of so many people who believe that the community dreamed of by Jesus should be a community of life and this continues to be experienced in the base, among the people. It's like an underground river which may seem extinct, but walk under the ground and one is purified to come to the light with even more clear and refreshing water for life.
From 7 to 11 January the thirteenth Inter-ecclesial meeting of the Becs will be held.
It is the three yearly itinerant meeting of all the Becs in Brazil, which Becs of Latin America will be attending. The theme - "Justice and prophecy in the service of life: Becs pilgrims of the Kingdom, in the countryside and in the city" - is accompanied by a text for reflection in preparation for the meeting. It is promoted by the Permanent Council of Becs, which includes two bishops, priests, religious and lay people, its purpose is to assess the progress of the Becs and trace it for the next three years, according to the method of seeing, judging and acting.
The Brazilian bishops, therefore, continue to believe in the Becs?
The Latin American episcopate has never denied this choice, quite the contrary. The fact that the Brazilian Bishops' Conference has appointed two bishops to represent the Board of Becs is a sign of the importance it attaches to this path. It is the Brazilian church that takes care of the path of Becs. Of course this can be seen as an attempt to recover, but history never goes back: there may be a lull, but life moves forward. The sacred circle dances, you dance sixteen steps and go back fourteen, because life never returns to the same point, there is always growth. An experience will never be forgotten. Pope Francis has not come by chance: he is the result of a journey, a pastoral journey, a church, of a feeling, just as Jesus is the fruit of the anawim, the people of the "poor"of Israel, of the journey of a people. An experience that is life never returns to the starting point.
A Xaverian Missionary, Tea Frigerio has been in Brazil since 1974. She lives on the outskirts of Belém (Pará). Teacher of Sacred Scripture, she was the coordinator and director of the Department of Pastoral Studies in the Institute for the Pastoral Region. Since 1985 she has been a member of the Centre for biblical studies, which coordinates the training programme. Since 1999 she has also animated the development of the popular reading of the Bible in Italian. Her books include Sfida al patriarcato. Lettura femminista del Libro di Rut (2011) e Fonte d’acqua viva (2006).
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