Ecclesial base communities founded in Latin America

A school of freedom

 Una scuola di libertà  DCM-008
02 September 2023

“One indigenous girl told me that every week, when she came home from the community, her husband beat her. On one occasion, she confronted him: eventually you will get tired of beating me, but I will not get tired of going to the community because I feel free there. The man was taken aback. Since then, however, he has not touched her. Here, this story sums up what grassroots communities are for people on the margins and, in particular, for women: a school of freedom”.

Eudosia Lagunes Molina experienced this first hand in her work in Paso del Macho, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. A tiny village of peasants, more than half poor, hostage to the violence of the drug trafficking mafias. There, for the past three years, Eudosia has been coordinating an ecclesial base community that brings together hundreds of boys and, above all, girls. She tells me, “There are many young mothers. They come with their children, and it is a joy to see them because it shows that ecclesial base communities are not outdated. They are the present and the future”.

It is impossible to know the exact number of these Church of the margins realities, with markedly Samaritan traits - poor people evangelising other poor people through solidarity - and female. “Countless as the stars in the sky”, defined them as Carlos Mesters, Carmelite theologian, who is Dutch by birth and Brazilian by adoption.

Founded from the renewal ferments of pastoral practice that marked the 1950s in Latin America, they were “formalized” in 1968 by the Medellín Conference, which was a crucial moment of reception of the Council by the continental episcopate. The Final Document calls them, “Propulsive centre of evangelization” and “initial cell of the ecclesial structure”. “The text describes what was already happening, particularly in the immense peripheries of the nascent megalopolises and in rural areas where Catholics had taken to gathering in small groups, “on a human scale”, it was said, to read their own reality in the light of the Word and make a commitment to help make the former more like the Gospel. It was not about big projects but small actions that offered a testimony, according to the principle, borrowed from an African proverb, “simple people who do insignificant things in insignificant places can achieve extraordinary changes”, explains Mexican Socorro Martínez, a Sacred Heart nun and coordinator of the continental articulation of the Ecclesial Base Communities (ECN), in which she has been involved since 1971.

In the beginning, the priests’ and religious congregations’ impulse was decisive. Soon, however, the laity took over the leading role. In addition, women, thanks to the streamlined and flexible structure, became the backbone. Eudosia Lagunes Molina emphasizes, “It was precisely the grassroots communities that helped them to become aware of their double marginality of socio-economic and gender and to counter it. Understanding that for God everyone are sons and daughters, which has pushed them to speak out, to choose, to become active subjects”.

The transformative power was maintained over time, even when the communities spread outside the continent, particularly to Africa. “This and the social activism meant that they were often looked upon with suspicion by the ecclesial institution”, Sister Socorro continues. After the ebb and flow of the 1980s and 1990s, the 2008Aparecida Document marked a period of revitalization of the grassroots communities. “With the current synodal process, then, they have become topical again. We have always been synodal. We can offer our experience to the universal Church”.

“The communities are a concrete example of harmonious diversity, in which the different charisms and ministries are integrated on an equal footing”, explains Claudia Pleita, a 29-year-old nutritionist from the Paraguayan region of Chaco. Five years ago, she met the San Ramón community and became an active participant. “I thought they were haunts for nostalgic old men with lots of free time. Instead, I discovered that they were places full of life, where I could bear witness to my faith in a more authentic way”, she says.

In these times, the main challenge for grassroots communities is to establish a dialogue with the new generations. To this end, Bendita Mezcla, a blessed mixture, was founded. This is a virtual school that offers theological training to under-35s and exponents of popular movements. The initiative, which hatched in 2016 and has been active since 2020, aims to teach the “young” that starts from everyday experiences and helps people create community bonds.

“It was a very intense experience”, Claudia Pleita continues, “that made us want to continue along this path. So, in July, we launched the first in-presence meeting in Paraguay for ‘community listening ministers’, which was also aimed at young people. The latter have a deep desire for strong bonds, based, however, not on evasion but on shared commitment to mitigate injustice, care for the common home, and support the most fragile. In these communities, they find a welcoming laboratory of experimentation, just like their parents' generation”, says Giliane Gomes Lete, a former history teacher who, in 2014, left teaching to devote herself full-time to pastoral work in the diocese of São Félix do Araguaia, one of the cradles of Brazil’s grassroots communities thanks to the prophecy of the late Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga. “His memory is alive. His words continue to inspire young people, urging them to walk together, alongside the poor”.

By Lucia Capuzzi
A Journalist with the Italian national newspaper, “Avvenire”