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Issue Date:  November 12, 2004

Base communities, once hope of church, now in disarray

Part Nine: The church
During the latter part of the 20th century and into the beginning of the next, Latin America has served as a kind of laboratory in extremis for contemporary religious ideas and models of church life. Base communities, liberation theology, new lay movements and traditional Catholicism, all mix in cultures often beset by desperate poverty, unstable and bloody politics, and powerful outside influences.

San Salvador, El Salvador

It’s Saturday night in the sprawling industrial suburb of Soyopango, where grimy factories and dirt-poor neighborhoods lie close together in the desolate urban landscape of modern Latin America. Halfway up a narrow street on a shadowy hill, the door of Teresa Rivas’ humble home is open because the people gathered there don’t all fit inside. They tumble out into the street, as does the sound of singing. Inside there are candles and a small cross placed on a table shoved up against a wall under a large portrait of Rafael Palacios, a priest who in 1983 was machined-gunned and run over by a tank in Santa Tecla, a neighborhood on the other side of San Salvador.

Palacios dominates the room, but he doesn’t look subversive. Neither do the women, men and youth gathered on cheap plastic chairs in front of his portrait, their hymnals and Bibles at the ready, discussing tomorrow’s scripture lesson. Yet for many in the Roman Catholic church in Latin America, not to mention in far-off Rome, these humble folks represent a challenge to what the church is all about.

They are a Christian base community, one of 53 such groups in the Santa Cruz Parish. They meet twice a week, Tuesdays and Saturday nights, to sing and pray, to share the Gospel and their lives.

“We’re an extended family. The problems of one become the problems of the group, and we all look for solutions. We’re all sinners, but we look for perfection together, sharing love and the word of God as did the early Christian communities,” said Manuel Ortez, a 17-year-old group member. “We leave behind television but our compensation is a chance to live out the Gospel, to share the word of God, to share bread, to feel part of a family, to feel useful to the society through the community.”

For the Catholic church, the base communities were originally conceived as a way to extend the ministry of a professional clergy spread too thin. Rather than a worshiping community focused solely on Sunday Masses, the communities became a place where faith was made personal.

“Jesus always walked with the poor, hand in hand, and we try to help our neighborhoods understand that we’re not alone, that Jesus walks beside each of us no matter what kind of sinner we are. We’re very clear in the community that Jesus presents himself to us in the most needy, in the vulnerable, in the one who suffers, who is prostituted, who is disabled or poor. We don’t have to go looking for Jesus in some far-off place. We have him here with us every day,” Rivas, the group’s coordinator, told NCR.

Rivas has a busy schedule. Besides the two weekly meetings of her community, Rivas meets with other base community “animators” on Friday night to discuss with Luis Salazar, the parish priest, the scripture readings for Sunday. Salazar gets community input for his homily, and the communities discuss the readings on Saturday night.

“We go to the Mass better prepared to hear what the father is going to say in his homily. We don’t go to the Mass just to cross ourselves and pray, but with a desire to live this fiesta, this communion we share with others. So the Mass is participative. We participate in the singing, in the reflection, and in taking nourishment from the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which helps us resist through the coming week,” Rivas said.

Like Rivas, other members of this base community have volunteer jobs in the parish. Some serve on the parish environmental committee, helping keep the barrio clean. They recently protested enough to get a gas-emitting factory run out of the area. Others are catechists or serve on the parish human rights committee. The whole group does door-to-door evangelism twice a year throughout the neighborhood.

Palacios’ image on the wall is no mere adornment. The community took his name. “He was a prophet in his own land, killed for denouncing injustice against his own people. He couldn’t remain quiet confronted by injustice against the children of God. So he’s our icon to follow. We follow his path to construct the reign that God has challenged us to build,” said community member Milagro Monge.

The parish’s other base communities, which can have from 10 to 60 members each, take the names of other martyrs. There’s the John the Baptist Base Community, the Ita Ford Base Community (for the Maryknoll sister murdered in 1980), the Segundo Montes Base Community (for one of the Jesuit priests killed in 1989), and, of course, the Monseñor Oscar Romero Community (for the archbishop of San Salvador murdered in 1980).

For those who participate in the Rafael Palacios Base Community, this is the way the church should be. “If the church would take the base communities into account, it wouldn’t be suffering such a crisis in so many places. You can see that crisis in empty, dead parishes, parishes where people show up for Mass and then disappear until the following Sunday. In this parish we work together all week long. We’re stuck to Jesus all week long, and so we’re alive,” said Rivas.

Sharing weak coffee and stale cookies at the meeting’s conclusion, the group hardly seems something to make Vatican ideologues lose sleep. If anything, it would be easy to argue, church leaders should be glad such enthusiasm for mission exists. Yet here in El Salvador, as at other points across the region, these groups are controversial, often scorned by the men who run the church as a challenge to their authority.

“Those who get involved in the communities don’t want to leave, because they feel alive. And those who criticize us don’t really know us. It’s true that the archbishop we have now doesn’t appreciate us very much, but we always respect him as the head of the church in El Salvador. He’s got to accept us in some way, because what we’re doing is for the good of all,” said Rivas.

“People are afraid of us because they don’t know what we’re doing. They let themselves believe rumors, and talk about us without knowing what they’re talking about. They criticize the communities without ever having been in one,” said group member Martina Velásquez.

San Salvador Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lecalle is no fan of base communities, but he hasn’t banned them outright, as some of his hardline colleagues elsewhere have done. Indeed, the Santa Cruz Parish is one of 17 parishes in the Monseñor Romero Vicariate, a division of the archdiocese where base communities abound, tolerated if not appreciated by Sáenz.

The vicariate’s base communities involve thousands of lay people in the nuts and bolts of ministry, yet they are not simply an organizational gimmick, mere ecclesiastical hamburger helper designed to stretch priestly attention to the many. For Salazar, the pastor of the Santa Cruz Parish, they’re the future of the church.

“The communities are going to be the salvation of the church. When the sisters and brothers really share together as it says in the Book of Acts, sharing all, with the same spirit, holding all in common, then we’re beginning to see the salvation of the church,” he told NCR.

Who’s to blame?

Despite the health of the Rafael Palacios community, in many areas of Latin America the base communities are in crisis, with declining participation and less impact in the neighborhoods and villages around them. The crisis isn’t felt everywhere, but it’s general enough that many search for scapegoats. Not surprisingly, the Vatican is the favorite villain.

Pope John Paul II has repeatedly praised small Christian communities in several contexts. Yet, at the same time, he has made hundreds of episcopal appointments during his 25 years in office (some 300 in Brazil alone), and almost all of those new bishops have been more conservative than their predecessors. Every once in a while there’s a surprise, when a conservative arrives in his diocese and, shocked by the poverty or repression, is converted by the people, as was Romero. Yet most hold the course, implementing organizational centralization and fostering doctrinal conservatism. Whether it’s an accurate reading of their nature or not, the base communities are often seen to threaten both tendencies, and are either frontally combated, ignored with the hope that they’ll go away, or else diluted down by steadily absorbing them -- “Let’s put the base community in charge of altar flowers this year” -- into the activities of clerically dominated local parishes.

It’s not just Vatican bureaucrats and sinister bishops who are to blame, however. Madeleine Cousineau, a professor of sociology at Mount Ida College, Newton Center, Mass., has studied Christian base communities in Brazil for years. Author of the book Promised Land: Base Christian Communities and the Struggle for the Amazon, Cousineau told NCR: “The major influence in the decline of the base communities wasn’t the church so much as the social, political and economic crisis that people were suffering.”

The base communities were born three to four decades ago when Latin America was struggling to throw off military repression and the last trappings of neocolonialism. The church was often part of that struggle, and beyond the project of parish revitalization -- a response to too many Catholics, too few priests -- that was the motivation for many to launch the base communities, the small groups emerged in many localities as a locus of the struggle to throw off the old and build a new society. It was a heady time, the theology of liberation was in its prime, and even the region’s bishops committed themselves to a preferential option for the poor.

By the time the ’90s arrived, the poor realized that democracy had not rescued them from poverty, that, indeed, everyday life was getting worse. The military wasn’t around to blame anymore, and inflation was eating up whatever economic gains popular organizing had generated. All the gains won by the various popular movements didn’t seem to add up to much. Whereas in the ’60s and ’70s there was a sense that the people united could never be defeated, by the ’90s such optimism had worn thin. The malaise spread everywhere, including into the base communities.

“When the urban popular movements went into a crisis, so did the base communities,” said Cousineau. “And this had nothing to do with the pope, though I’m not letting him off the hook. As progressive bishops would retire, the papal nuncio was recommending and the pope was naming conservatives to replace them, and that certainly had a discouraging effect.”

Throughout the region, observers who report a decline in the base communities often note that yesterday’s leaders are no longer present. The reasons vary around the Americas. In El Salvador, government forces killed many of the base community leaders who emerged during the ’70s. “They eliminated a whole generation of leaders who had been formed within the church. A whole generation with deep faith and great clarity was simply disappeared,” said Miguel Cavada Diez, a theologian at the Oscar Romero Pastoral Center of the Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador.

Political parties, unions draw leaders

While military repression also took its toll in Brazil, the base communities there lost most of the leaders they had formed to the secular popular movements.

José Oscar Beozzo, a historian who heads the Center for Evangelization and Popular Education in São Paulo, recalls the identity confusion of the ’80s. “In some places I visited, the base community held its meeting right after the meeting of the union, which was right after the meeting of the PT [Workers Party]. And it was the same group of people. And then they’d take time to prepare celebrations for the catechists, then they’d talk about the problems of the union, and then they’d talk about the upcoming meeting of the married couples. They finally arrived at a difficult moment for the base communities when there was confusion about leadership, because everyone was in everything. People began to leave the communities because of so many other commitments. Many base community leaders left to become mayors and city council members and union leaders,” Beozzo told NCR.

“The base communities suffered when the leaders of the base communities were absorbed into the political parties and unions. Much of the leadership of the communities was pulled away from the base. The leaders who were born of the communities, in the streets, went off to the parties. The leadership the church prepared moved on,” said Cilto Rosembach, a parish priest in São Paulo who edits Cantareira, a monthly newspaper for base communities and other grass-roots groups.

According to José de Souza Martins, a sociologist at the University of São Paulo, the Vatican didn’t crack down on the base communities, but rather on their politicization. The decline in the communities came not as a result of ecclesiastical repression, but rather from history moving on, leaving the base communities, known widely as CEBs (comunidades eclesiales de base), behind as a now obsolete nursery of the current crop of leftist political leaders.

“It’s easy to see that the communities have lost a lot of their importance. But this is due neither exclusively nor not even principally to the naming of more conservative bishops. A good part of the energy of the CEBs was directed to politics, above all the PT and Lula [Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva]. The growth of the PT seems to be a corollary of the decline in the visibility of the CEBs. The ascension of Lula to power, in a certain sense, means that political hope has displaced eschatological hope, and that has had a negative impact on the CEBs,” Martins told NCR.

Moreover, Martins argues, the religious scene in Brazil has taken a conservative turn, and CEB leaders are attempting to re-engineer the movement to fit into the changing environment. One attempt is the Faith and Politics movement, yet Martins notes that the number of people who show up for its meetings don’t amount to 10 percent of those who flock to the Sunday Mass of Padre Marcelo, a pop star of Brazilian Catholicism. As such, Martins said, the base communities “have become one more type of Catholic organization and less a type of exercise of the Catholic faith.”

Cousineau, however, doesn’t let the church off the hook. Asked by NCR why the hierarchy has been so afraid of the base communities, she responded: “You said the word: hierarchy. The base communities are very democratic. Yet the Catholic church is still stuck in the Middle Ages. The Vatican doesn’t favor capitalism. It would like to have feudalism again. The bishops are lords of their dioceses. It’s all very well and good if you have ladies making altar clothes and people going to Mass every Sunday and doing what their priest tells them to do, but the difficulty with the base communities is that when you develop lay leadership, people start to feel that the bishop is their equal. And while there are some bishops who are quite comfortable with that, many bishops don’t like the idea that the lay people think they are equal.”

According to Pablo Richard, a Chilean priest who directs the Ecumenical Investigation Center in San José, Costa Rica, the reaction of many bishops to such uppity laity has been to drive them out, if not from the church, at least from their positions of leadership.

“In many parishes there’s a tendency to expel the laity from the administrative councils, get them out of the decision making process. There’s a strong hierarchical centralization going on. You hear all over: ‘I’m the priest here!’ Although it’s a bit of a caricature, many would say, ‘The pope in Rome, the bishop in his diocese, and the priest in his parish.’ And it ends there. That’s all there is to the church. Laity are leftovers, especially the laity who are poor. The only laity who can participate are the ones who are totally submissive to the priest,” Richard told NCR.

While much has been made of official resistance to the base communities, Cousineau said too much official support can also be a bad thing. She noted the experience of the archdiocese of São Paulo under Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, where the base communities “were weakened because they were creations from the top down.” She said the communities blossomed under Arns, who sold the archbishop’s palace and used the proceeds to build scores of community centers in poor neighborhoods around the city, training priests and nuns and lay people in how to organize base communities. Then the Vatican came along and gerrymandered the archdiocese, leaving Arns with control of only the city center while handing over control of the city’s legions of poor neighborhoods to his auxiliaries, who, especially as they were replaced over the coming years, weren’t as crazy about the new forms of organizing. “This created a lot of discouragement and served to weaken the base communities, because they had grown accustomed to getting support from the archbishop,” Cousineau said.

She contrasts the São Paulo experience to Rio de Janeiro, where base communities were literally proscribed under Cardinal Eugênio Sales, the archbishop of Rio until 2001. The situation was so bad that at a national meeting of base community leaders in the ’90s, participants from what she called “clandestine base communities” in Rio were not allowed to attend because under Sales they weren’t supposed to exist, and the meeting’s organizers didn’t want to provoke an angry reaction from the cardinal. In the course of researching base communities around Brazil, Cousineau said she intentionally included Rio and was surprised to find “resilient communities which, now that there’s a new archbishop in Rio, are beginning to come out of the shadows.”

Optimism lingers in countryside

Cousineau’s research also found a marked difference between base communities in the cities and those in the countryside, largely, she claims, because the crisis in the popular movements wasn’t as profound in rural areas as it was in the cities. In the Brazilian countryside, the Movimento Sem Terra -- the Landless Movement -- has remained strong. The rural poor continue to achieve a return on their organizing. “So the optimism of earlier decades, albeit a cautious optimism, has carried over longer in the countryside. People have continued to struggle for land, and still feel that society can change. That optimism has carried over into the rural Christian base communities,” she said.

May 14 Part 1 Introduction: Power or credibility?
June 4 Part 2 Economics: Little relief in sight for poverty, debt and unemployment
July 16 Part 3 Development: Lasting change by helping the poor without paternalism
Aug. 13 Part 4 Immigration: Opportunity and challenge for Latin America's poor
Sept. 10 Part 5a

Part 5b
Truth: an essential ingredient for reconciliation

Reconciliation from the grass roots up
Sept. 24 Part 6a

Part 6b

Part 6c
Indigenous people: Fighting for rights after centuries of discrimination

Health worker brings education back to his people

Vanishing forests threaten indigenous groups 
Oct. 8 Part 7 Women In Latin America: The gender gap kills
Oct. 29 Part 8 Children: Poverty cuts children’s chances for a future; interview with the Bishop of the Gangs
Nov. 12 Part 9a

Part 9b

Part 9c
Church: Base communities, once hope of church, now in disarray

Less threatening lay movements favored by church leaders

Priests in region grow more conservative
 Part 10 Solidarity: Church groups find countless ways to put faith into action

The pace of modern life in the city also puts urban base communities at a relative disadvantage to their country cousins. Whereas rural base communities are roughly half men and half women, urban base communities are composed of mostly women. “In urban areas, since the men have to commute so far to their jobs and work long hours, many of them are simply not around to take part in base communities. Being a base community member is hard work, and not everyone wants to be a member. You don’t just go to church and then go home. You’re out of the house several nights a week, and if a man is working two jobs or lives on the distant edge of the periphery and has to commute into the city to work, he’s just too tired and too short of time to participate,” Cousineau said.

The phenomenon is widespread. Leonel Yañez works with Education and Communication, a coalition of church- and community-based radio stations in Chile. He’s a base community dropout, and said his situation is common. “Given where our economies have gone, you’ve got to work more these days to maintain a decent lifestyle. You work longer hours or a second job. Chile is a very workaholic country, so everyone is stressed. When the weekend comes, individualism takes over and we settle down in front of the television. That pulls us away from any community organization. All the news about crime makes people close themselves in behind the bars of their house. People are tending to break apart rather than come together. And so community life, including life in the church, is diminishing,” Yañez told NCR.

The changing nature of the base communities has left some outside observers confused. “As the activism of the base communities in Brazil has slowed over recent years, some have observed that the base communities have become more spiritual. That’s rather humorous, because they always have been spiritual. Although I’m a sociologist, I have a certain sympathy for the communities, and when I began researching I immediately noticed all their religiosity, the processions, the saints, the novenas, the hymns, whereas others who came from a purely secular viewpoint were looking for just activism. So when the activism begins to diminish, then they see the religiosity and they proclaim, ‘Oh, they’re becoming pious groups.’ But because I came from a religious viewpoint I saw the religiosity at the beginning, and I saw the activism flowing from that religiosity,” Cousineau said.

Activism continues to flow from the religiosity of base communities throughout the Americas. In Nicaragua, despite official hostility from the hierarchy, base communities have launched educational and psychological programs with young sex workers in the streets of Managua. In the agricultural north of the country, the communities have sponsored annual pilgrimages that, while ostensibly religious, have a heavy focus on land reform and the impact on rural villages of free trade. And communities throughout the country have taken a leading role in civil society efforts to fight government corruption, which peaked under former President Arnoldo Alemán.

In Honduras, where base communities have a different organizational history, forming primarily around the figure of a “delegate of the word” (a sort of lay pastor), the country’s environmental movement has been energized by the commitment of grass-roots communities in the remote province of Olancho, where a struggle with logging companies led to the assassination of one church activist last year. In the western province of Santa Rose de Copán, far from the political elites of the capital, the base communities have been at the forefront of resistance to a regional free trade agreement with the United States that is pending in the U.S. Congress.

Barbara Fraser, who worked in Peru for 14 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner, now lives in Peru as a freelance writer. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary who lived in Central America for two decades. He now lives in Eugene, Ore.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004

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