ONE THING DRIVEN HOME BY COVID-19 is many of our social structures are not only outdated but also irrelevant, and dangerously fragile. Yes, certainly racism lives under the surface of many of our societal functions recent demonstrations have attempted to reveal that to the masses. But recent actions of the government have also revealed how fragile the postal system is, for instance, or the independence of the Judiciary. If nothing else, we have all come to learn that our government has, hitherto, been a matter of polite agreements rather than either social contract or constitutional law. When one man uses a position of the highest power to be impolite the whole thing goes off the rails. There is no corrective built into our system for a jackass. Given the prevalence of jackasses in humanity, this is a very fragile system.
The church herself is not a fragile system. Humans have been trying to wreck the church from the inside for the last two millennia. As someone has remarked, the fact that the church can survive two millennia of human beings, including her own share of jackasses, is a sure sign of divine favor. Yet the church in her present form has not always existed. Certain temporal structures and ecclesial constructs in the Church are relatively temporary and recent (as compared to 2,000 years). The longer a relatively-temporary construct stays around, the more fragile it becomes. What was a provisional mapping of power sketched out on a Papal cocktail napkin might not stand the test of time even though it meets the needs of a here and now. In may blow away with a fresh wind of the Spirit.
The parochial structure, as we know it today, is one such relatively-recent construct. It arose from a need born in the Reformation: when we suddenly needed to keep track of who is actually Catholic and who’s one of them. From the same need arose our record-keeping. We need to know who was baptized, confirmed, married, and buried Catholic. In the earliest days (as now) the “local church” was the Diocese, gathered around the Bishop. Presbyters and Deacons were delegated certain functions by the Bishop, to be performed as sort of in loco episcopus. The parish system can be imagined to have carved up each local church into manageable slices but, in days of the past, this was generally harmless. The Bishop knew his clergy, the clergy knew the people, and the people of a parish, generally, all knew each other (even though they might have no idea who their Bishop was other than as a name in the prayers, and the Pope was nearly mythical). So the parish became the “local church”.
The system worked really well even in urban cultures since most people were fairly stable. Community could form around a Parish Church. In larger cities in America, ethnic parishes grew up, encouraged by the Bishops, where historically Catholic cultures from other nations were imported and maintained in enclaves in the heart of our Protestant environments. This began falling apart with our modern urban culture of mobility and the decline in active participation in the Church. Church closures and mergers mean that hundreds and hundreds of families can belong to the same parish. There is no unifying ethnic culture or shared history. It’s possible to attend the same Mass week after week without knowing the people one worships with – even in the church with “assigned” pews. Additionally, if one’s job moves or if one moves for another reason, the next urban center will also have a Megaparish where, again, you won’t know anyone. I think this might damage one’s faith and praxis unless one has a core group of Catholic friends. Covid-19 has accelerated this falling apart.
The pandemic has shown us the fragility of the parish system: folks who were only on the fringe seem to have fallen away entirely. Folks who were regular attendees but uninvolved seem to have faded. Even the population of the re-opened Mass, initially quite robust, has slowly dwindled. This is only an acceleration of the same decline that was seen in the latter half of the 20th Century which had nothing to do with Vatican II (as some need to be told over and over) and everything to do with the cultural chaos in which we live. In fact, Covid-19 seems to be the apotheosis of what was started in the 50s: it has given us free rein to proclaim personal privilege over any social good and even to indicate when I feel I can Sacrifice for the Good of Others or not, this is my freedoms. One might feel empowered to stay home, but if one wants to go out and risk the lives of others, that’s my choice too.
Some have realized this – they talk about running off into the woods to set up the same, comforting structures in a hidden world where the Collapse of Society won’t bother them. However, Jesus actually wants us to proclaim the Gospel in the society and not to run away. We have souls to save (including our own) and isolation will not preach the gospel and may damn us. They will hate us – not because we endanger their lives by our brashness, but because of our docility and love. God said if he told us to say something – and we did not – his mercy would take care of the others, but we would have to pay for their blood. That’s not a fun thought.
So, if the structures are destabilized and at risk of collapsing because of their fragility if we still need to be the Church and preach the Gospel, what can be done? Its now time to take steps to replace the collapsing structure with a different one, one that may well last for another 500 years in support of the same Local Church (the Bishop in the Diocese). Yet we don’t need to build something new for one already exists, one that was developed by Catholics living in Catholic cultures where parochial structures had been weakened or even destroyed either by political or military violence.
Enter the Base Community.
This blog post has now gone on long enough. I’m going to quote in full the Wiki article on Base Community. I’ll be back later with another post.
A base community is a relatively autonomous Christian religious group that operates according to a particular model of community, worship, and study of the Bible. The concept of a base community is often associated with liberation theology. The 1968 Medellín, Colombia meeting of Latin American Council of Bishops played a major role in popularizing them.
Present in both rural and urban areas, the base community, organized often illiterate peasants and proletarians into self-reliant worshiping communities through the tutelage of a priest or local lay member. Because established Christian parishes with active priests were often miles away and because high level church officials rarely visited even their own parishes these “base communities” were often the only direct exposure to the church for people in rural areas or those for whom a “local” church may be miles away. Thus, the base community was significant in changing popular interpretations of Roman Catholicism for multiple reasons.
Initially, their very structure encouraged discussion and solidarity within the community over submission to church authority and, as their very name suggests, made power seem to flow from the bottom or base upward. The influence of liberation theology meant that discussions within the church were oriented toward material conditions and issues of class interests. Through this process of consciousness raising, evangelizing turned into class consciousness.
Other Base Communities came into existence in the Eastern Bloc, but with a different theological emphasis. They did not subscribe to Liberation Theology, as they were being persecuted by Marxists themselves. One of the best-known groups was Hungarian priest György Bulányi’s “Bokor” (Bush) movement after World War II, which sought to save the teachings of the Christian Church and resist the increasing persecution by the Communist Party. The movement’s ideals were simple, namely to express Christian love in three ways: giving, service and non-violence. Bulányi was jailed for life by the Communist régime of Mátyás Rákosi, General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, in 1952, and was amnestied in 1960. However, he was not allowed to work as a priest. He continued to start small base communities illegally, and wrote illegal samizdat articles.
They are in some ways similar to Western cell groups (small groups), a notable component of many Pentecostal and some Protestant churches. Base Christian communities believe in helping people whose lives have been destroyed. Over 120,000 new churches have been set up to help the poor. The Base Christian communities follow the word of God and stand by the poor, helping the helpless. The Base Christian communities work to fulfill Christ’s purpose to proclaim good news to the poor, tell them of hope, and to remind all people that there is always someone loving them somewhere, and that they still have a chance in life.
A Base Christian community is a group of people who join together to study the Bible, and then act according to a social justice oriented form of Christianity especially popular among the third world and the poor.