Friday, July 30, 2010

A different way of being Church

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Anyone who read my last article, "Where the real crisis in the Church lies", may have been left feeling hopeless. In it, I analyzed the centralized, pyramidal, absolutist and monarchic power structure of the Church. This kind of power does not favor the evangelical ideal of equality, fraternity and the participation of the faithful. Instead, it closes the door on participation and love. It's that this kind of power, by its nature, needs to be strong and cold. This model of Church-as-power is presented as "the" Church, the only Church, and, worse still, as willed by Christ when, as I have shown, it emerged historically and it is only its facilitation and management side, being less than 0.1% of all the faithful. Therefore, it is not the whole Church but only a small part of it.

But the Church-as-community as a religious phenomenon and movement of Jesus is much more than the institution. That one finds other forms of organization, much closer to the dream of its founder and its first followers. Wisely, the Brazilian bishops at their annual meeting held in Brasilia January 4 to 13 this year, admitted that "only a Church with different ways to live the same faith will be capable of meaningful dialogue with contemporary society." This destroyed the pretense of a single way of being: the one of the power tradition. Without denying it, there are many other ways: the one of the Church of liberation, the charismatics' one, the one of the men and women religious, the one of Catholic Action, even the one of Opus Dei, the one of Communion and Liberation and Canção Nova ["New Song" -- a Brazilian Catholic movement founded in 1978], to name only the best known ones.

But there is a completely special and promising way, born in the 50s in the last century in Brazil and that has acquired global significance, as it has been assimilated in many countries: Base Christian Communities (CEBs). The bishops devoted an encouraging message to them ["As Comunidades Eclesiais de Base”]. Interestingly, they appeared at the time that a new historical consciousness was blooming in Brazil. In society, the people were craving more political participation, and in the Church, the members were also yearning for greater involvement and co-responsibility. The CEBs are another way of being Church, whose main theme, though not exclusively, is the poor. Their style is communal, participatory and integrated into the local culture. Services are rotating and leaders are democratically elected. Faith and life are continuously joined; they are active in the religious field, creating new liturgies and rites, and active socially and politically, through trade unions, social movements like the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra - Brazilian Landless Workers' Movement) or populist parties.

We do not know exactly how many there are, but it is estimated that there are about 100,000 base communities in Brazil, involving several million Christians. The bishops note their high innovative and anti-systemic value. The market eliminated relationships of cooperation and solidarity while in the CEBs, there are relationships based on gratuitousness, on the logic of offering-receiving-reciprocating. They have taken on the ecological cause, therefore they are also viewed as "comunidades ecológicas de base" or "base ecological communities". They have developed a strong spirituality of caring for life and Mother Earth. The result of all this has been more respect and reverence for -- and cooperation with -- all that lives and exists. The CEBs show how the sacred memory of Jesus can receive another social setting, focused on communion, brotherly love and the joy of bearing witness to the victory of life over oppression. That is the existential meaning of the resurrection of Jesus as a revolt against the current kind of world.

Humbly, the bishops state that they help the Church be more committed to life and the suffering poor. Moreover, they challenge the whole Church, calling it to conversion, to commitment to transform the world into a world of brothers and sisters.

This way of being Church can serve as a model for belonging in a contemporary, urban and globalized culture. If it were to be taken as inspiration for Pope Benedict XVI's project of "reconquering" Europe, it would likely have some success. One would be able to see communities of Christians, intellectuals, workers, women, and youth, living their faith together with the challenges of their life situations. They would not claim to have a monopoly on truth or the right path, but would associate themselves with all who seriously seek a new religious language and a new horizon of hope for humanity.

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