This Saturday night, the pubs are full. The evangelical churches too. Outdoors in the Luiz Fernando district, Fr. François Glory begins the first of six Masses he will celebrate this weekend. For two and a half years, he has been the pastor of Maiobão, a bedroom community of 100,000 inhabitants, close to São Luis Maranhão, on the northeast coast of Brazil.
There, as everywhere, the takeoff of the economy makes insolent wealth rub up against vast and extreme poverty, corruption hampers public action and infrastructure renewal (in Maiobão, the streets are impassable when it rains), while unemployment, drugs, alcohol and violence are rampant...
Seated on plastic chairs, some sixty faithful begin the opening hymn. Some men turn up. However, the attendance is mainly composed of women and children. Earlier, when Father Glory asked everyone to introduce themselves, many spontaneously confessed to being young single mothers, without employment or resources ...
Which doesn't prevent them from -- on the contrary -- keeping the faith, or confiding, as most Brazilians do: "For me, God is everything!" This is the first time that Father Glory has come here. The people of this working class and still rural neighborhood have recently organized themselves into a base ecclesial community (BEC).
Excesses denounced by Rome in 1984
Abandoned for a time by the official Church after Rome denounced its excesses in 1984, liberation theology and its expression in the field, the BECs, are experiencing a gradual comeback since the meeting of the Latin American bishops held in Aparecida in 2007. "In the aftermath, the Brazilian Bishops' Conference, the CNBB, published a text promoting them," says Father Glory.
In Luiz Fernando, the celebration has been entirely prepared by the laity, who are very independent. Only one improvisation: during the homily, Fr. Glory invites, as he usually does, two young people in the congregation to act out the text that is being commented. This "staging of the word of God" -- an "old scout trick!" -- seduces those assembled.
As Fr. Glory, who is overwhelmed, can't visit them every week, the BECs organize, betweentimes, liturgies of the Word, prayers, songs, catechism, Bible study. They are also attentive to the real problems of their members -- here a single woman with children, there young people who are adrift, elsewhere, the lack of a clinic.
At the "Mother Church", the central church, Alcemar, the general coordinator of the parish, struggles valiantly to put young offenders back on the right track by giving them vocational training. He also circulates a petition to prevent the municipality from setting up shelters draining a dubious clientele that consumes drugs and alcohol, two steps from the catechism rooms.
Enthusiasm and commitment
In Maiobão, meetings occupy the evenings and weekends of many of the faithful. No doubt about it, this way of being Catholic together every day, in a small community where everyone knows each other and experiences the same hardships, arouses enthusiasm and commitment. To wit, what one man, though he had gone over to the evangelicals, confided after a very fervent Mass in the community of Nazareth: "It was...marvellous!"
For Padre Chico (as they call Father Glory here), "there is no question of staying locked in his church." He wants to "proclaim the Good News wherever people live and suffer." He adopts the stance of "coordinator" and encourages his followers to take care of themselves.
On the one hand, his parish is very large. On the other hand, a strong supporter of liberation theology, he believes that the BECs can give a stronger voice to the poor, recognizing them for who they are, giving them access to responsibilities, making a more vibrant, more participatory church emerge and, beyond that, helping transform the world.
"The Church," he adds, "isn't a priest and some faithful; it's a community that gathers to commemorate the Lord, to celebrate the risen Christ, and that changes everything."
"Staying in touch with reality instead of sinking into a disembodied spirituality"
A member of the MEP (Missions étrangères de Paris), François Glory, who comes from France, arrived in Brazil in 1976. For twenty years, he has created base communities in the vast parish of Uruarà along the Transamazonian road. "I've made quite a few Christians out there," he says, referring to the 600 annual baptisms and the extraordinary welcome in the BECs which he only visits two or three times a year.
Here in Maiobão, the parish has 22 BECs. "We need twice as many! There are neighborhoods where the Catholic Church does not exist," laments Father Glory, who plans on creating others. This will also allow the Church to "counter the evangelical groups" whose proximity and warmth have made them successful.
So the pastor of Maiobão devotes countless nights and days to training lay people, be they catechists, animators of communities, of liturgies of the word, etc...
The Sisters of St. Joseph of St. Hyacinthe, a Canadian order deeply involved in the education of disadvantaged youth, give him a helping hand. "Our church must answer the call of Aparecida," Sister Silva asserts. "Staying in touch with reality of the place instead of sinking into a disembodied spirituality is a challenge, a daily call to conversion."
A few days in Maiobão allow one to measure the specific results on the ground. "Many of my parishioners know more than the seminarians that I teach in São Luis," says Father François Glory, after an evening of Bible study with the laity.
This Tuesday, it's 11 p.m. and after commenting on the story of Genesis, the small group is sharing a plain meal. Many will rise at dawn, anyway. Indeed, though Alcemar, the general coordinator of the parish, and Magnolia, the treasurer, are retired (the first was a laborer, the second, a university professor), Hilda, head of the catechists, Marila, Joelma and Luiz Fernandez, will catch a bus at six o'clock to go to work in São Luis.
The succession is being prepared anyway. Jadson Borboso, 26, a seminarian in São Luis, plans to take over after Fr. Glory. "The BECs allow us to share the word of God and reflect together on the realities of life. It's a way of living one's faith that speaks a lot to me," he says. This son of a notary was, indeed, "born in a BEC."
What answer to violence?
An answer to everything and for everyone? Even a strong proponent of liberation theology such as Fr. Glory doesn't go that far.
The middle class -- a minority here -- sometimes better understands the language of the charismatic movements, which he takes care to associate with his church activities, when appropriate. And then, he adds, "liberation theology, in the current state of thinking, doesn't bring a relevant answer to the violence in Brazilian society."
- François Glory, missionnaire sur la Transamazonienne, Biblia Magazine (French)
- Um passeio pelo Tocantins: partilhando a esperança / Un voyage dans l’État du Tocantins : en partageant l’espérance by François Glory, Alterinfos America Latina, 9/9/2009 (Portuguese/French)
- Les communautés ecclésiales de base sont toujours vivantes by François Glory, Alterinfos America Latina, 6/30/2010 (French)