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?
GIVEN the existence of BECs, the question now is can they be accommodated into the hierarchical structure of the Church? Better still, if they are to be accommodated into the hierarchical structure of the Church, how should they be configured so as to make them fit better in that structure?
A. Point of Departure: The Duty of the Bishop to Provide Pastoral Care.
Can. 516 ─ §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.
This canonical norm provides us with the point of departure for finding a legal support for the BECs. In effect, the BECs as we know them are precisely communities of faithful, which for various reasons─e.g., distance from the parish or town proper, insufficient number of people to warrant an investment of priest and material resources, or as mostly happens in Mindanao a scarcity of priests─cannot be constituted into a parish or quasi-parish.
Nevertheless, the diocesan Bishop is bound by Law to provide for the spiritual care of such a community of faithful in some other way, so that they are not marginalized as far as pastoral care is concerned.
B. Point of Arrival: The Collaboration of Non-ordained Faithful in the Pastoral Care of a Parish, under the Direction of a Priest with Powers and Faculties of a Parish Priest.
Can. 517 ─ §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.
This canonical norm provides us with the legal nexus between the traditional ways of being Church and the so-called BECs. In effect, the canon admits the possibility of delivering the pastoral care of souls─which properly belongs (i.e., entrusted by Christ) to the bishops, but is participated in by his presbyterium─to a community which cannot be constituted into a parish or quasi-parish due to a shortage of priests, through a sharing in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish by a non-ordained person or persons. This then is the possible legal basis of the BECs: they can be the application in the Philippine context of c.517, §2.
But for this to happen correctly, an indispensable requirement must be met, as stipulated in the last part of the aforementioned canonical norm: the diocesan Bishop…is to appoint some priest who, with the powers and faculties of a parish priest, will direct the pastoral care.
Why this requirement? To understand this, we need to delve deeper into the nature of the pastoral care of souls, as carried out by the proper pastors─i.e., primordially and principally the bishops (as successors of the Apostles who directly received that mandate from Christ), and participating with them as their collaborators, their presbyterium.
C. Pastoral Care of Souls is an exercise of the Sacra Potestas.
Before Christ ascended to Heaven, he gave the Apostles a solemn mandate: All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world (Mt.28, 19-20). We can summarize the great truths enshrined in these lines as follows:
1) The pastoral care of souls consists essentially in teaching (make disciples of all nations), sanctifying (baptizing them, and together with that administering all the other sacraments), and governing (teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, meaning to follow the path to holiness).
2) Such pastoral care was entrusted principally to the Apostles and their successors in history─i.e., the bishops (behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world).
3) Such pastoral care requires a sacred power that only Christ can give. This is the reason why the mandate by Christ is preceded by a solemn declaration: All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Only by investing them with such power of jurisdiction─to bind and loosen─can they effectively carry out such pastoral care. Hence, Christ continues: Go, therefore, and make disciples….
D. Only the Ordained Ministers are Capable of the Power of Governance in the Church.
This theological truth is expressed in canonical language in the famous c.129 of the Code of Canon Law:
Can. 129 ─ §1 Those who are in sacred orders are, in accordance with the provisions of law, capable of the power of governance, which belongs to the Church by divine institution. This power is also called the power of jurisdiction.
─ §2 Lay members of Christ's faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this same power in accordance with the law.
A little excursion to the genesis of this canon can give us the final piece in the puzzle of how to fit the BECs in the hierarchical structure of the Church. This is one of the few canons that suffered a small but Copernican change in the final revision of the present Code just months before its promulgation in 1983 by John Paul II.
In effect, the final Schema of the Code of Canon Law, c.129, §2 read: Lay members of Christ’s faithful can participate in this same power in accordance with the law. This would have implied that lay faithful could take part in the power of jurisdiction─i.e., be subjects of such power.
With the slight revision, Canon Law confirmed what ecclesiology had long accepted, that such power of governance in the Church can only be possessed by the sacred ministers (priests and bishops, not even deacons); and that the non-ordained faithful (and deacons) can only cooperate in the exercise of such power. The nuance is subtle, but it is there: Only bishops and priests (in union with them) can possess and properly-speaking exercise the power of jurisdiction and thus provide authentic pastoral care; the non-ordained can only collaborate with the bishops and priests in the delivery of such pastoral care.
Applying this to the phenomenon of BECs, the laymen involved in such communities can only collaborate in the pastoral ministry of the priests; they cannot be the source of such ministry altogether. Put another way, the laypersons in such communities must at all times act in accord with the norms laid down by the sacred ministers.
To summarize: For the BECs to really be a way of being Church, it must form part of the pastoral care of souls emanating from the diocesan bishop, but passing through an ordained minister (a priest), who is endowed with the power and faculties of a parish priest (hence, a proper pastor of souls).
How this can be done in practice can be the object of particular legislation by the bishops, by─for example─drawing up a Guidelines for the Constitution and Conduct of Basic Ecclesial Communities. Subject to the recognitio by the Holy See, these Guidelines can constitute a common set of norms for all the dioceses.