The Synod resumed this morning with a series of very fine presentations from many different parts of the world.
Two themes came across very strongly to me today. The first was the theme of small ecclesial communities or base ecclesial communities. These feature strongly in the working document for the Synod. In paragraph 80 we read:
“The younger churches are working to enliven parishes which are oftentimes extensive, animating them internally through a programme called Basic Christian Communities or Small Christian Communities. Their stated purpose is to foster a Christain life which is better capable of sustaining of the faith of their members and illuminating through their witness various areas of society, particularly large, sprawling cities”
At the turn of the millennium, base ecclesial communities were associated especially with the Roman Catholic Church in South America and with a theology of liberation. It seems that over the last twelve years, since Pope John Paul II’s call for a renewal of evangelisation, many, many bishop’s conferences have adopted small ecclesial communities as a major programme for parish renewal, for equipping the laity and for mission and the fruits seem very significant. There no longer seems any specific link with liberation theology.
So we heard a few days ago of these communities rejuvenating parishes in the Philippines and key for the nurture of individuals and families. They offer more intense experiences of the faith and many encounters with the Lord. Today we heard from Thailand in a similar way of B.E.C. as “a new way of being church”. The parish is enabled to become a community of communities. Every Diocese and every parish is encouraged to have a pastoral committee to promote and develop these small communities. They are seen as essential in equipping people for witness and service. In Zimbabwe the Church in encouraging small Christian communties in similar ways. In Ethiopia these small communities have been vital in developing lay ministries and a missionary orientation for the whole church. I
n India since 2000 there has been extensive renewal and transformation in parishes through the same means: “People gather to reflect on the word of God, to pray, to serve together, to experience community and to grow in personal encounter with Jesus. Gifts and charisms of the Spirit are placed in the service of the church. There is a reflection on life’s experience and an equipping in service to the neighbourhood”. These small Christian communities call for a new model of leadership from the priest and the integral formation of the laity who are called to serve the kingdom of God.
It is clear from these numerous testimonies that the small ecclesial community movement is coming of age in the Roman Catholic Church and is bearing significant fruit. The small communities are an integral part of parish life and they are taking on many of the features of the church not in competition with the gathering around the priest for mass but to complement that experience. They are vital for lay formation, equipping people for discipleship in the world and for mission. I have not so far heard of any Church in the post Christian West give testimony to such investment in small communities but it may be that the penny will begin to drop during the course of the Synod. The message really is loud and clear.
The second theme which came across again very powerfully was the sense of suffering and the powerful witness of the martyrs of the 21st Century. This may be actual martyrdom in the sense of dying because you are a Christian and we heard moving testimony from Croatia and Romania. Or it may be the experience of the Church living through common experiences of great suffering as is the case in Cambodia, in Mali and in Japan following last year’s terrible events and bearing witness in acts of love and compassion.
It is very moving for me to reflect on the experience of Christians across the world in all kinds of places bearing a powerful and costly witness through their suffering in the name of Christ. The Synod has given me a fresh and deep experience of the worldwide body of Christ.