Comunidades Ecclesiales de Base (CEBs)
Thinking outside of the Parish Model for Christian Community
When I meet a Catholic from my hometown, Omaha, Neb., it is common to ask the question, “What parish were you from?” My Catholic identity came from the fact that I was from Holy Name. It was my school, my church, my neighborhood, and my identity. We had a bumper sticker that proclaimed, “Holy Name, A Great Place to Live.” Moving around the country, I observe less parish identification for people in other communities. While the parish is still the primary model for understanding a faith community, what forms a commitment to Christ and the Catholic Church for many are movements within the church, a Bible study, a social-political issue, a recovery program or even a television network.
When I was a junior in a high school seminary, a student entered my class whose father was in the military. He said it was his tenth school because of his father’s military career. It was a great adjustment for him as he spent his next 10 years with the same classmates in his studies for priesthood. He had a different experience in how to make friendships and connections when moving from one school to another. Mobility affects how people relate to the formation of a community. What I recognized in my classmate was that forming a bond in religious community was not easy. There was a struggle to identify what we held in common. Faith and the desire to make a difference through service in ministry were the givens, but real contact as companions in a religious community was difficult.
In much of the programming of sacramental initiation, the basic ecclesial community is the parish. The American experience has primarily identified the parish based on neighborhood or territory. Parishes built churches and schools to foster an environment of a community of faith that supports the growth of the Catholic Church in this country. With changes in American culture, greater mobility and the socio-economic reality, many parishes saw an erosion of attachment to the local ecclesial parish. Religious education programs had to meet the growing needs of children educated outside of parochial school systems. Mobility, changes in education, changes in the work place and various pressures of modern society presented great challenges to traditional patterns of religious formation and education.
What is an Ecclesial Community?
Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am.” The Church cannot be identified with institutions, but with the gathering of people. The Apostles formed communities of faith in local communities as they evangelized the world in which they lived. Clusters of people formed to support the life of faithful people, often in the midst of political and religious forces that saw Christianity as unwelcome. It was more than simply a study group or prayer group, but a community that shared all in common, not just faith.
While parishes in America are identified by territory, they are really a community of communities. Within the parish people are part of a bible study, a prayer group, the Knights of Columbus, Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, youth group, a sport club and a variety of supportive communities. Sunday worship brings these communities into contact with each other. This forms the Catholic parish. Unfortunately national studies indicate that nearly 70 percent of self-identified Catholics do not regularly attend Sunday Mass. Too often this 70 percent community feels outside the concern of the official Church. It is particularly hard for those moving into new communities, new work situations and new relationships. Youth, newly married and those with seasonal and temporary employment particularly are less engaged in parish life.
The church needs to look to forming communities of faith that reflect the lived realities of people striving to have a relationship with Christ and the Church. The National Plan for Hispanic Ministry (1988) set a blueprint for developing faith communities that calls on the Church to analyze the needs of the community before setting in motion a plan of action. As a local church identifies unmet needs, it must be open to creative ways to address the inconvenient community.
Thinking outside of the Parish Model for Christian Community
In Campesino Ministry we have taken religious education and social outreach to people living in farm working camps, centers, dairies and unincorporated communities without benefit of a local church. This works best when the parish identifies the mission of extending an outreach to the farm worker belongs to the parish community. Programs in isolated communities must respond to window of opportunity the workers have for the religious experience. It also must take into consideration the availability of volunteers.
One Campesino ministry volunteer is a Counselor at a University in his regular work. He observed that the same principles of working within the time of the people could be helpful in conducting a preparation of college students for the sacrament of Confirmation. He observed that many Catholic young people on campus, particularly children of Spanish-speaking migrants had not been confirmed. He judged that a program offered for these students needed to be completed within one semester because many students graduate, move to another school or drop out for a semester to work. To establish a community of young people preparing for Confirmation, he proposed to his pastor a model program to be completed in one semester.
He employed the methodology of the National Pastoral Plan for Hispanic ministry of SEE, JUDGE and ACT as he prepared his proposal to the pastor. He SAW a need for welcoming Catholic college students to the sacrament of Confirmation. He observed that the students did not easily fit into the ordinary parish Confirmation program. He JUDGED the appropriate time frame that students could reasonably give to preparation. He planned activities of education, prayer and the witness of adult Catholics in creating a community of students who would journey together as a community of faith for one semester. He ACTED on his plan involving the parish in the journey of the temporary community of students. His parish has used this program of developing an outreach to the students at a state university for three years.
No program serves the needs of all
Programs of religious formation and initiation in the church need to be developed that make the care of the church available to those unable to be present in a community on a regular basis. A variety of approaches may include homeschooling models for religious education of children, peer mentoring in the faith, cultural celebrations of faith as moments of grace and incorporation of lay movements as a means to sacramental initiation. We need to develop an attitude of servant, just as Christ washed the feet of his apostles.
Innovation and imagination are needed within parish structures. Those involved with providing alternatives in sacramental formation need to be obedient to the basic guidelines provided in Canon Law and local church leadership. Yet local church leadership needs humility to examine its openness to those outside the normal ministry of our parishes.
Colleen Peterson | Monday, April 30, 2012
Thank you Fr. Mike - for your wisdom and foresight. God Bless!