I am a priest in a diocese in Mindanao, where there is a strong impetus for the establishment of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). The work these are doing for the Christian faithful is undeniable, especially in those areas hardly reached by the inadequate number of priests. However, at times I have been at odds with such groups because of a certain tendency to supplant the parish. It has even happened that such groups in the rural areas outside the poblacion even dissuade their members from going to town to attend Mass on holy days of obligation, with the reason that they already have what they call a “dry Mass”─basically a liturgy of the Word with the administration of Holy Communion outside Mass─in their chapel. In matters of governance too, at times such BECs are at odds with our Parish priest, because they impose requirements on their members (beyond those required by the Parish) in order to be included in the roster for the reception of Confirmation and Baptism, and even for Marriage.
What does Canon Law say about this?
WE resume our discussion of Basic Ecclesial Communities with a brief outline of what we shall tackle in this part.
1) There is an existing phenomenon, which in the Philippines we have given the name of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). Like many things in the Philippines, it manifests the vibrancy of our culture in general, and of the Catholic Church in this country in particular. However, like any new thing, it also has its pains. Already, we see shadows together with the lights: frictions with the hierarchical structures (parishes), abuses in liturgical practice (proliferation of so called “dry Masses”) and even an under-valuing of the Sacramental life─all of these mostly due to a sore lack of doctrinal foundations.
2) But, for the meantime at least, the BECs are there and are even spreading─due in no mean part to the encouragement of the hierarchy itself. On the other hand, we see why the hierarchy is encouraging the BECs, especially in Mindanao: given the acute shortage of clergy, the BECs seem to be the way to address the pastoral needs of the faithful, especially in those areas of difficult access to the hierarchically constituted pastoral structures─i.e., the parish.
3) Hence, we ask ourselves: is there a way for these BECs to develop more systematically─i.e., more ecclesiologically? Are there provisions in Canon Law that can serve as guidelines of what the BECs can do, and what they should not do?
A New Way of Being Church?
It has been said that the BECs constitute the new way of being Church. This may seem like an innocuous expression, but it has very serious theological and canonical implications. In the theological─ecclesiological─sense, it might even be misunderstood to mean that the Church is evolving by the initiative of the people. In this particular case, even starting from the grassroots.
But the Church did not arise─and neither can it unfold and develop─from a people power initiative. The people of God, which is the Church─comes about from a Trinitarian initiative. By the will of God the Father, Jesus Christ instituted the Church by (1) calling together the Apostles and empowering them to teach, sanctify and govern in his name, and (2) sending the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to inhabit a community of disciples, together with the Apostles. In other words, the Church came about by a Divine design and constitution. It also develops historically by a Divine design and providence.
Thus, if we are to understand the Basic Ecclesial Communities as the new way of being Church, we need to look at them from the perspective of the Church, as Christ established it and how it has developed through the centuries under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. More specifically, if the BECs are really to be ecclesial, they must be constituted and they must operate according to the parameters set by the Supreme Authority of the Church in her reflection on what the Church is and how it is constituted.
We can arrive at this by a deductive process, starting from the concept of the Church as laid down by Vatican Council II and later expressed in juridic terms by the Code of Canon Law of 1983. Based on the essential structural elements of the Church, as established by Jesus Christ, we can encounter the canonical locus of the BECs in the hierarchical structure of the Church. In other words, through the right application of Canon Law, the BECs can indeed be a way of being Church.
The Traditional Way of Being Church
Vatican Council II─in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium─already set forth the essential structural elements of the Church of Christ as follows:
1) A community of believers, who─regenerated in the new life of children of God by the sacrament of Baptism and subsequently nourished in their different ecclesial situations by the Word of God and by the other Sacraments─march in pilgrimage towards their definitive home in union with God. Together they constitute a portio populi Dei (a portion of the People of God, which is the Church).
2) A shepherd, who─as a successor of the Apostles─has received from the Pope, the Vicar of Christ (successor of Peter, upon whom Christ promised to build his Church), the mandate to be the proper pastor of the aforementioned portio populi Dei.
3) A group of ordained ministers, who─ontologically configured with Christ as head of the mystical body, and canonically invested with a specific participation in the pastoral mission of the bishop─act in persona Christi capitis to deliver to the faithful the means of salvation─i.e., the Word and the Sacraments.
Properly speaking, it is the aforementioned interaction of the ministerial priesthood (of the Bishop helped by his clergy) at the service of the universal or common priesthood (of the rest of the faithful) which brings about the congregation of believers which is called Church. In other words, the Church─as a visible structure and organization─has come about as a result of the unfolding of the mandate of the Resurrected Christ to Peter, to “feed my lambs” and to “feed my sheep”. In order to effectively deliver the means of salvation─the Word of God (revealed by Scripture and Tradition, and authoritatively taught by the Magisterium) and the Sacraments─to all the baptized, the Church organizes itself. Traditionally, this has been through the constitution of particular Churches (under the care of bishop as its proper Pastor), which are subdivided into parishes or quasi-parishes (each under the care of a priest, under the authority of the bishop, also as its proper pastor).
The traditional canonical expressions of this reality are the particular church and the parish.
A. Particular Churches: The Diocese
Can. 368 ─ Particular Churches, in which and from which the one and only catholic Church exists, are principally dioceses. Unless the contrary is clear, the following are equivalent to a diocese: a territorial prelature, a territorial abbacy, a vicariate apostolic, a prefecture apostolic and a permanently established apostolic administration.
Can. 369 ─ A diocese is a portion of the people of God, which is entrusted to a Bishop to be nurtured by him, with the cooperation of the presbyterium, in such a way that, remaining close to its pastor and gathered by him through the Gospel and the Eucharist in the Holy Spirit, it constitutes a particular Church. In this Church, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ truly exists and functions.
Can. 372 ─ §1 As a rule, that portion of the people of God which constitutes a diocese or other particular Church is to have a defined territory, so that it comprises all the faithful who live in that territory.
─ §2 If however, in the judgement of the supreme authority in the Church, after consultation with the Episcopal Conferences concerned, it is thought to be helpful, there may be established in a given territory particular Churches distinguished by the rite of the faithful or by some other similar quality.
Can. 373 ─ It is within the competence of the supreme authority alone to establish particular Churches; once they are lawfully established, the law itself gives them juridical personality.
B. Parishes and Quasi-parishes.
Can. 515 ─ §1 A parish is a certain community of Christ's faithful stably established within a particular Church, whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor.
─ §2 The diocesan Bishop alone can establish, suppress or alter parishes. He is not to establish, suppress or notably alter them unless he has consulted the council of priests.
─ §3 A lawfully established parish has juridical personality by virtue of the law itself.
Can. 516 ─ §1 A quasiparish is a certain community of Christ's faithful within a particular Church, entrusted to a priest as its proper pastor, but because of special circumstances not yet established as a parish. Unless the law provides otherwise, a quasiparish is equivalent to a parish.
─ §2 Where some communities cannot be established as parishes or quasiparishes, the diocesan Bishop is to provide for their spiritual care in some other way.
Can. 517 ─ §1 Where circumstances so require, the pastoral care of a parish, or of a number of parishes together, can be entrusted to several priests jointly, but with the stipulation that one of the priests is to be the moderator of the pastoral care to be exercised. This moderator is to direct the joint action and to be responsible for it to the Bishop.
─ §2 If, because of a shortage of priests, the diocesan Bishop has judged that a deacon, or some other person who is not a priest, or a community of persons, should be entrusted with a share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish, he is to appoint some priest who, with the powers and faculties of a parish priest, will direct the pastoral care.
Can. 518 ─ As a general rule, a parish is to be territorial, that is, it is to embrace all Christ's faithful of a given territory. Where it is useful however, personal parishes are to be established, determined by reason of the rite, language or nationality of the faithful of a certain territory, or on some other basis.
Can. 519 ─ The parish priest is the proper pastor of the parish entrusted to him. He exercises the pastoral care of the community entrusted to him under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, whose ministry of Christ he is called to share, so that for this community he may carry out the offices of teaching, sanctifying and ruling with the cooperation of other priests or deacons and with the assistance of lay members of Christ's faithful, in accordance with the law. (To be concluded.)