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Paradigm Shift to Genuine Participatory Church: General Evaluation on BEC in Asia



John Mansford Prior


Rapid Social Change

Asia, like the rest of the world, has been undergoing rapid social change, in particular since political independence (from the 1940s) and the globalising of the economy and communications (rapidly since 1989). New religious movements such as Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) arise, then, as both one-dimensional modernity and stagnant religious practice have lost their ability to provide a source of spiritual meaning (Cox 1995: 300-301). Despite the rapid race to modernise, Asian societies are still seeking a guide to the quest for meaning in science, technology and rationalism (Michael 2004: 410). The rise of new religious movements, such as the Pentecostal-like churches and the more creative, liberational BECs, respond to this quest for meaning, identity, power, dignity and self-esteem.[1]

Pakistani anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed has condensed and codified post-modern culture into four basic elements, namely eclecticism, syncretism, juxtapositions and irony (see Michael, 411). In a fluid, multi-dimensional and transitory world any pursuit or claim to a unique truth is seen as a cover for domination. Religious fundamentalism within the majority religions of Asia is a reaction against the invasive, intrusive and threatening features of (post)-modernity.

Cultures and religions which stress the importance of family, community, traditions and social values find it extremely difficult to cope with high-speed change (Michael, 413). Heredia (2004: 36-37), quoting Sudhir Kakar, suggests that religious fundamentalism holds up a crumbling personality the way scaffolding holds up a collapsing building. Such a personality needs a hierarchical order wherein each one has someone to command and someone to obey. Fundamentalism provides stability, clarity and certainty.

Responding to Rapid Social Change

Mainstream Catholicism has been responding to rapid social change not by distancing itself from social upheaval, nor by withdrawing from the threatening multi-religious and multi-cultural landscape, but by encountering it in faith. In the language of John Paul II, our step-by-step approach is one of cultural respect and religious freedom, rooted in right relationships and informed by an appreciation of history; our basic attitude is cosmic in scope (Ecclesia in Asia, 20).

The pastoral vision of the Asian Churches over the past 40 years has been to foster Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) as ‘a new way of being church’, a genuinely local church, ‘incarnate in a people, a church indigenous and inculturated (…) a church in continuous, humble and loving dialogue with the living traditions, the cultures, the religions – in brief, with all the life-realities of the people in whose midst it has sunk its roots deeply and whose history and life it gladly makes its own.’ (FABC I Taipei 1974)[2]

How are BECs Responding to Felt Needs?

Forty years later questions arise: in this time of rapid social change, are BECs responding to the need of perplexed Catholics for certainty and stability? Are BECs proclaiming the whole gospel in all simplicity without being simplistic? Are they reading the bible critically but without emptying it of its supernatural power? Are BECs acknowledging the world of spirits, shamans and miracles, the felt need for physical and psychological healing, while also responding to the real need for societal and cosmic healing? Are BECs continually encouraging their members to move beyond the personal and familial cares of their own, to live out the social gospel in the wider society? Are they creatively developing non-authoritarian team-leadership? Are they maximising lay participation, nurturing warm fellowship and proclaiming a gospel of hope and empowerment to the bewildered and the marginalised?

Pastoral styles emerging from positive responses to (some of) the above questions would characterise our local churches as living in solidarity with the marginalised, being engaged in inter-faith dialogue, sensitive to cultural change and open to ongoing liturgical creativity. How many of our BECs continue to struggle along, borne along by this vision?


Structural Participation

John Paul II reads the entire corpus of the Second Vatican Council through the prism of “dialogue” (Ut unum sint 1995), while Francisco Claver hones in upon “participation” as the most “revolutionary” of the pivotal areas of reform initiated by the Council (Claver 2009: 34). Participation has been accepted into church life through major structural innovations. Regular meetings of the synod of bishops in Rome; national conferences of bishops; diocesan pastoral councils and other diocesan bodies such as senates of priests and presbyteral councils. Vicariates and deaneries have regular meetings, and at the parish level there are parish pastoral councils with numerous committees.

But as Claver points out (p.36), official, “canonical” bodies are purely consultative in nature and each of them is responsible to a higher authority – not necessarily to its own members let alone to those on lower rungs of the church hierarchy. Parish councils and vicariate/deanery bodies depend on the parish priest who decides whether to implement its suggestions or not; the priest depends on his bishop as does the national conference of bishops; the bishop is responsible to Rome, and the pope (apprently) is responsible to none other than the Holy Spirit!

These canonical bodies were intended to express the church as the people of God on pilgrimage (Lumen gentium 2), and to soften the non-participatory, hierarchical structure of the church of pre-Conciliar times. In practice, the pyramidal, clerical church has largely “absorbed” the participatory thrust of these conciliar structural innovations.

Beyond Vatican Council II

The recent “Jubilee Declaration on Authority in the Catholic Church” [3] signed by dozens of prominent theologians from throughout the world, calls for the radical democratising of each of these canonical structures in order that they embody the participatory vision of the Council beginning with the papacy, bishops’ conferences, the central synod of bishops, and pastoral councils. They also urge the establishment of an independent international electoral office to oversee the correct implementation of the norms for election and/or selection of key church office holders as laid down by the central synod of bishops; a root and branch reform of the Vatican offices in Rome (which is essentially the pope’s international secretariat), in particular a recasting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whose main task should be – as envisaged by the Vatican Council – to encourage the study of the advance of the sciences in our time and actively to promote the inculturation of our Christian faith in the greatly enriched base of knowledge and scientific discovery achieved in our modern world. If such a democratising reform were to take place, then we would indeed experience a genuinely participatory church in its canonical structures. Given that present canonical structures are part of an oligarchic-monarchy (where the monarch appoints members of the electoral college that will elect his successor and his personal bureaucracy appoints the heads of virtually all dioceses throughout the world) we should not expect that democratic reform will come through these canonical structures. We need to look at, and be engaged with, extra-canonical bodies. And I have been asked to look at such an extra-canonical network, namely Basic Ecclesial Communities.


Two types of extra-canonical participatory bodies have proliferated throughout much of the church in Asia, as elsewhere: ecclesial movements and Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). We shall be looking at the spirituality of one particular ecclesial movement tomorrow morning – the Pentecostal/charismatic movement. Here we have been asked to see how genuine is the participatory nature of BECs in Asia.

Basic Ecclesial Communities: A Paradigm Shift?

While BECs as ‘a new way of being church’ have been actively promoted by the FABC for many decades, ecclesial movements have largely arisen on their own. BECs implement the conciliar vision of the FABC while (charismatic) movements are answering the felt needs of many in a time of social upheaval.

BECs are charged with being actively engaged with the world around them, and in fact  BECs among the urban poor and the rural neglected often critique the status quo and work for social, cultural and religious transformation. Whatever their model, all BECs are expected to witness to the coming of God’s Reign on earth in the here and now (c.f. Mat 6:9-10).

In line with the longstanding vision of the FABC, three key criteria for evaluating and responding to Basic Ecclesial Communities are 1) their rootedness in culture, 2) their openness to other faith-traditions and 3) their solidarity with the marginalised. This ecclesial vision has been spelt out lucidly in numerous FABC assemblies and workshops, and gives rise to three crucial questions:

1) How adequately are Basic Ecclesial Communities embodying the engaged Gaudium et spes vision of the church?

2) How can BECs embody the Gaudium et spes vision and at the same time answer the felt needs of bewildered, powerless persons at the edge of society, who in urban environments opt for the Pentecostal/charismatic movement?

3) What sort of culture in parish and diocese do we have to nurture to make space for both new ecclesial movements and BECs, not in “separate but equal” (apartheid parallelism!) but in a dynamic and creative tension?

The Spiritual Challenge

In BECs members are invited to experience God as gracious and holy, merciful and just, as members turn away from selfishness and commit their lives to serving one another. God’s “power” and “sovereignty” are disclosed when believers choose to live under the cross, suffering for justice and love. Here there is much scope for common action for compassionate justice and practical love (Self 1992:71).

When God is experienced as such, then BECs lead to the renewal of their adherents’ lives by encouraging their members to put their religious beliefs into practice. Such BECs read the bible in the light of the signs of the time which, in turn, often leads to social commitment.

Many BECs are ephemeral communities active for only a certain period of time (“fragile flowers”). Where BECs are firmly rooted in the cultural and social traditions of popular culture, as in Eastern Indonesia and much of the Philippines, they have a considerable potential to endure and prosper over the long haul. There seems to be little if any emphasis upon healing in BECs. What seems to endure is personal family-based religious practice and belief which remains Catholic where it is accompanied by regular sacramental celebrations. The latter clearly depends on the availability of ordained ministers.

BECs that have not been incorporated (absorbed) into the parish structure (sub-units under the parish council), do not tend to place much emphasis upon the parish or parish councils. Participants are inspired directly by God in prayer and bible sharing. Everybody is deemed competent to reflect upon and interpret the bible. They tend to be more or less autonomous.

The Social Challenge

In large, diverse and increasingly anonymous cities, BECs can offer warm fellowship where everyone is recognised and made to feel at home. In their local BEC, members may well feel significant, relaxed and good.

The BEC offers a support network centred on the duty of mutual assistance. They offer psychological support by praying, talking, listening and advising each other. BEC members help themselves by working together and finding collective solutions to shared problems, running credit unions, taking on local economic projects, engaging in local political, legal and human rights advocacy and the like. Some BEC members might on occasion fight publicly for the interests of the poor. Nevertheless, most work for their own members rather than for the wider society.

Many BECs are rooted in oral, ‘pre-literary’ culture and so challenge us to re-root our theology, spirituality and pastoral practice in experience (narrative and testimony) rather than in abstract concepts or top-down (national, diocesan, parish) planning. Nevertheless, when given the opportunity they can answer the psychological need to be part of pastoral planning, decision making and implementation.

The Prophetic Challenge

Many if not most BECs have been initiated by diocesan pastoral programmes. Understandably where diocesan programming has engendered BECs and the ongoing nurturing (in particular leadership training) of the small communities is neglected (often due to the lack of sufficient numbers of interested clergy), many evolve into little more than administrative units within a conventional parish. Potentially the BEC could trigger an empowering movement rooted in people’s lives but this is neither inevitable nor automatic.

The BEC is potentially prophetic. Members can discover new horizons through sharing life issues in the light of the scriptures. The BEC, therefore, counteracts a fatalistic outlook by encouraging people to disagree with reality as conventionally defined and so lead to transformation (Mariz 1992: 63-70). Also, BECs, when engaged in practical goals for the common good, confront the destructive forces of power, repression, collusion and corruption with the gospel message of servanthood, liberation and community sharing (Self 1992: 72).

BECs occasionally mobilise political participation, as in the people power movement in the Philippines in the 1980s and the democracy and human rights movement in South Korea during the same decade. Potentially, BECs can provide a power base for organised influence on NGOs and political parties.




And now we (finally!) come to the issue proposed by the title of this paper.


The Conventional Parish

It is not sufficient to make liturgical, catechetical and pastoral suggestions for giving new life to the parish.[4] The conventional parish is culturally monotone and limited to a commonsense view of life. It depends upon the ordained pastor and his pastoral council where top-down authority is centralised through controlled channels. This ideal of comprehensive organic integration reflects a stable, rural society with its well-ordered, organic community. All components are synchronised by the central authority in order to achieve accord. Such a parish or diocese does not see the need to balance divergent movements through complementarity, but integrates or eliminates them in the name of harmony. In this conventional ecclesiastical culture there is little room for particular interests, social diversity, cultural pluralism or religious non-conformity, let alone for questioning authority. These are viewed as detrimental to the common good.

Unsurprisingly this conventional Catholic culture was marked by authoritarianism, elitism and patriarchalism. Such a parish culture conforms closely to that of the rural Asia of yesteryear or the conformist cultures of authoritarian Asian governments today. Without a radical change in parish culture and pastoral care, ecclesial movements, Protestant or Catholic, to the left or the right, will absorb Catholics who no longer find a place in the monochrome parish.

Where BECs are little more than parish wards, leadership tends to be in the hands of one person only; here authoritarianism can become the norm. In a clerical church BECs leaders will tend to be mini-clerics. I find that a BEC leader who is a retired member of the armed forces will tend to “command” (the troops!); a teacher will tend to “teach” (their students!); a civil servant will tend to “administer” (the office), a traditional cultural leader will employ the ways of traditional (patriarchal) leadership. As Claver points out, “the kind of leadership in dialogic, participatory and co-responsible communities like the BECs … is just the opposite [of the leadership we encounter in both the clerical church and in society at large which is] authoritarian, intolerant of criticism, not sharing power or responsibility.” (Claver 2009: 119). To go beyond Vatican II we would need to develop counter-cultural communities over against the prevailing culture of both church and society. Where a substantial minority feel that their religious needs are not being met they may join a new religious movement either within or without the church. We have, then, to identify religious and pastoral needs. And if BECs are to function as creative networks within a genuinely participatory church, then we must replace the hegemonic culture of the conventional parish.[5]

Dialogic, Participatory, Co-Responsible Leadership?

However – praise the Lord! – in many cases BEC leaders are not primarily functionaries nor administrators but spiritual leaders. Many, though by no means all, BECs evolve some form of collective leadership and decision making. These BECs create open spaces for thinking and articulating which fosters an attitude of engaged criticism while developing their members’ organisational, communication and leadership skills. Team leadership and common deliberation on life issues cultivate a sense of responsibility for the condition of society. Such (weekly) discerning, reflecting and praying, when the need arises, leads towards common action on common problems. If the action is to be at all effective, the decision has to be communal also.

Where BECs are creatively active, they struggle to find an appropriate balance between personal, entrepreneurial ministerial ‘charismatic’ leadership and ordered, constitutional, differentiated roles within the church (Gros 2006: 34-41). This occurs either through the creative initiative of dynamic lay people working autonomously, or through ongoing training leadership programmes that “evoke … the leader … who can bring others to share their thoughts and concerns.” (Claver op.cit.)

The Second Vatican Council provoked cultural pluralism within Catholicism on a broad scale. This led to the rise of many new movements including the emergence of BECs. Some BECs interpret the council as a call to engage the world and take up social justice issues (a Gaudium et spes church) while others read the council as calling for a more devotional church (a ritualistic church) (See, Claver 2009:111-115).[6] Often, but by no means always, BECs take the former line, while charismatic groups take the latter. The conventional parish is not coping with these contradictory trends. In many cases parishes have evolved into a complexio oppositorum (a complex of contradictions) of different organisations which live side by side without any meaningful reciprocal enrichment. ‘The whole of Catholicism … has to decide whether … the development of its identity must be that of a great network of sites [each] reserved for a registered clientele, or of an open ‘sanctuary’, humanising, hospitable [where] … ‘each one has their gift, each one their burden.’’ (Claver 2009:111-115) [7]


Need for a Paradigm Shift in Parochial Cultures

Due to rapid social change in a post-modern “cyber” world, Catholics now feel relatively free to forge new meanings and networks that are often only loosely connected with the parish. There is a plurality of models in contemporary Catholicism (See, Claver 2009:111-115). As in Latin America, Catholic loyalties are shifting from diocese and parish to movements, groups and organisations (Smith: 1994: 119-143).

BECs cannot breathe in a staid, homogenous religious culture. For if BECs are absorbed into the institutional structure of the conventional parish they tend to be reduced to little more than parish wards. In that case Catholic activists move out into extra-ecclesial networks. Similarly, when charismatics are brought under the control of the conventional parish, and clear demarcations are insisted upon between liturgical rites and charismatic celebrations,[8] then understandably many move on to the freer Pentecostal churches.

When left to mature according to their own dynamic, both movements advance social pluralism, foster participation in the wider society and promote an expectation and practice of both church and societal accountability. Participatory BECs express a process of social differentiation in the direction of personal choice and greater participation.

In participatory BECs women experience independence and self-esteem. Individual choice is encouraged, and therefore free will. The emphasis is on achieved rather than ascribed status which contrasts sharply with the conventional parish.

We need, then, to shift from an authoritarian to a collegial culture; from a commando ethos to one of listening; from a religiosity that inculcates acceptance to that which inspires faith-in-action; from a church culture over-adaptive to local and global cultural norms to a church culture embedded in the values and norms of the Scriptures; from a church centred on its members to a church focused on its mission to society.

Towards a Communion of Communities

In short, the culture of the conventional parish needs to be replaced by an open, networking culture. We need to develop the parish into a flexible poly-centred web where BECs and other (charismatic) movements can mutually enrich rather than studiously avoid one another. If each movement were somehow to combine their strengths in the coming decades the result would be extraordinarily potent. If the charismatic movement were to absorb, and be transformed by, the social justice vision of the BECs while the BECs would take up the emotional, communal, narrational, hopeful and radically embodied ‘experientialism’ of the charismatics, the offspring could be more powerful than either parent (Smith: 1994: 119-143). At the beginning this might well have to be forged despite the parish priest and his pastoral council. The vision and the practice comes from below; the pressure must also. The central threads converging in the ‘nucleus’ of this poly-centred web would consist of Catholic activists and their families. This core would arrange their own ongoing training and so challenge the parish pastoral team. Does anyone here know where we can find any “dialogic, participatory, co-responsible parish pastoral teams?

Lay leaders from BECs could be trained together with ordained pastors and non-affiliated activists according to the reflection-action-reflection (see-judge-act) model of reading life in the light of the Hebraic-Christian scriptures – and in multi-faith contexts the scriptures of other faith traditions – and then acting upon insights.[9] This would assist the BECs in uncovering the social roots and religious implications of the problems of life. Members could learn to read the bible in a way that links Christian symbols, events and teachings to the life of Asia’s poor. Then, as long as the ordained leadership does not feel threatened by developments but continues to work collegially in bold-humility, the open parochial culture would cultivate a communion of communities.[10]

Back to the Future?

Would going “beyond Council Vatican II” actually entail “returning to the Council”? At a workshop during the Seventh FABC Plenary (Bangkok 2000), Antonio de Los Reyes presented a paper on charismatic movements and small Christian communities. He opinions that the charismatic movement, ‘has not come to grips with the imperative of channelling its formidable power into the needs of the temporal world, towards the gospel’s call to transform the social order according to the plan to God (…) The movement has been unable to catalyse most of its adherents to embrace the radical discipleship of the early Christian communities. It has confined itself to a spirituality of conversion, of holiness and fellowship, failing to galvanise its adherents into a force of advocacy and action against the structures of sin.’ (De Los Reyes 2000: 10) On the other hand De Los Reyes sees small Christian communities as, ‘circles of households living in the same geographical area who integrate worship, catechesis and social action into their social, cultural and economic life… centred on Christ, rooted in the Word of God, gathered in meaningful celebrations of the Eucharist, open to dialogues of life with people of other faiths, and committed to the transformation of society and the liberation of people from oppressive structures.’ (ibid. 11) He asks that the two movements enrich each other and asks, ‘Is it viable to merge the dynamism of the charismatic movements and the solidity of the basic ecclesial communities to strengthen the catholic faith in Asia? Not only is it viable, it is perhaps the soundest option for the church.’ (ibid. 12)

While it may be true that much of the charismatic movement has little social conscience even when it calls for a “moral reformation”, BECs per se cannot be identified with social activism. Many dioceses established BECs in order to re-organise large parishes with insufficient ordained pastors and so BECs have developed as parochial sectors directed by the centre rather than as a grassroots church of the poor. Many BECs remain as small neighbourhood groups for pietistic bible sharing and administrative units for the larger parish.[11]

Paradigm shift? A paradigm shift is clearly and urgently called for, but will come about only after we are fully engaged in non-canonical bodies such as liberational BECs and pressure the clerical church from below, beginning at parish level. When a machine goes rusty begin by unscrewing the bolt at the very bottom!


Barreda, Jesús-Angel, ‘The Church’s Apostolate before the Phenomenon of New Religious Movements’, Omnis Terra, No.292, 355-361.

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Cox, Harvey, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century. New York: Addison-Wesley Pub. Com., 1995.

FABC, ‘Statement of First Assembly, Taipei 1974’, in: Gaudencio Rosales and C.G. Arévalo (eds.), For All the Peoples of Asia: Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences Documents from 1970 to 1991, Manila: Claretian Publications 1992, 12-19.

Gros, Jeffrey, ‘Can They All be One? A Response’, One in Christ 41/1 (2006), 34-41.

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[1] See my presentation tomorrow morning, “Spirituality of Pentecostal Groups.”

[2] FABC, ‘Statement of First Assembly, Taipei 1974.’See, Rosales & Arévalo 1992, 12-19.  The expression ‘A New Way of Being Church’ is found in FABC documents since the 1990 Bandung General Assembly. Basic Ecclesial Communities are being fostered through the Office for Laity’s Asian Integral Pastoral Approach (AsIPA) workshops.

[3] See, For my own take on the vital need for the democratising of the church, see Prior 2012, 101-131. For a Catholic human rights lawyer’s proposals see, Charlesworth 2008.

[4] This seems to be the approach of various Episcopal conferences (e.g. Philippines, India, Indonesia) and also theologians such as Jesús-Angel Barreda (Barreda, ‘The Church’s Apostolate’, 358-360).

[5] I am leaving doctrinal issues aside and concentrating on cultural and pastoral concerns. I concur with Walter Hollenweger that Pentecostalism has a Catholic root and this explains why comparatively few Catholic charismatics leave the church (Hollenweger 1997, 144-180). ‘One could say that Pentecostalism is a way of being Catholic without accepting the juridical structures of the Catholic Church’ (Hollenweger 1999, 33-44).

[6] Claver categorises BECs into three types: liturgical BECs, developmental BECs and liberational BECs.

[7] Claver seems to presuppose that BECs celebrate the Eucharist regularly. Asian Catholics are found in widely-scattered communities most of whom receive only occasional ministry by an ordained pastor. A sacramental community is nurtured by a sacramental ministry. By restricting the ordained priesthood to university-educated, celibate members of the community and making the vocation full-time and life-long we are preventing our communities from becoming Eucharistic by denying them regular sacramental celebrations. One or other of these restrictions could be lifted. There will be no enduring Catholic response to the rise of Pentecostalism as long as we fail to ordain an adequate number of presbyters to serve Eucharistic communities in the context of rethinking the whole issue of ministry (Burrows: 1980, 2006). Burrows laid the theological groundwork for a rethink of ministry in the Catholic Church in his 1980 book. More recently (2006), quoting the Annuarium Statisticum, he gives the following data: from 1978 to 2003 the number of Catholics in the world grew from 757 million to 1.07 billion. To serve 300 million more Catholics in 2003 there were 15 thousand fewer priests. For rethinking grassroots team ministry, see Lobinger, 1998 & 2004. As long as we neglect to do so Catholics will continue to look elsewhere for their spiritual and personal nourishment..

[8] While the disciplinary norms of the Instruction on Healing (art. 1 – 10) are theoretically plausible, I am not aware of their implementation which, if carried out, might well drive even more Catholics into the Pentecostal churches.

[9] One pattern that has emerged in Java, Indonesia, is that collaboration in the struggle against systematic corruption and for human rights forges deep friendship and close bonding which opens up into inter-scriptural sharing on their faith-based commitments.

[10] For an appreciative yet critical look at Gaudium et spes 40 years down the road, see Felix Wilfred 2006, 15-20. Felix Wilfred argues for a broad sociological-political-economic-cultural analysis of society rather than a narrower cultural-anthropological one.

[11] In eastern Indonesia such small communities busy themselves with “devosi dan duit” – devotional practices and collecting money (for the priest).

VaticanⅡ, Ecological Crisis and Peace of Asia, Seoul : WTI 2013